The Americans (Season 5): Bugging Out

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As per usual, the current season of “The Americans” is off to a magnificent start. Of course, with the show having already set its end date, it’s free to wrap things up in due time, with plenty of wiggle room to tell the story how it wants to, which is a good thing- even if it sometimes leads to an occasional self-indulgence, i.e. the seemingly endless digging sequence at the end of the first episode, “Amber Waves.” (One hilarious armchair critics’ review went like this: “Four out of five stars- could have used more digging.” Lol. God love you, internet.)

That said, the show has lost nothing in that knowledge, save more intensity in the inherently knowing that the days are numbered for its characters. Indeed, also in that first show, “The Americans” didn’t hesitate in reminding us of that fact, calmly and brutally taking out one of the show’s mainstays, Hans (Peter Mark Kendall, who appears to have rebounded with a gig on “Chicago Med,” one of NBC’s inexplicably many Chicago-themed shows).

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Of course, there was a point to that lengthy scene, which seems to have been focus-grouped to generate the most discomforting amount of time without going too far with it. Several points, actually. It showed that there were quite a few more allies in the “struggle,” that everyone was potentially expendable if it came down to it- even Liz (Keri Russell) and Phil (Matthew Rhys)- and that, even in death, one could still do a solid to one’s country, as we saw when William (Dylan Baker) was unearthed to provide a sample of the virus that killed him.

The main through-line on the show this season seems to be a plot by the USA to take out the Russian wheat supply by infecting it with nasty little bugs capable of doing so in no time. It’s up to Liz and Phil to foil the plot, with a little help from new recruit, Tuan (Ivan Mok, TV’s “Rush Hour”), a young, former Vietnamese with a chip on his shoulder about everything American, and a love for Communism that trumps all.

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Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the character is how closely it reflects Liz’s own radical demeanor early on in the series, before she’d been both acclimated to the US and slowly-but-surely found herself growing legitimately attached to her “husband” Phil. Of course, I use “husband” in quotes because it was a fully arranged marriage, not meant to be one of love, but to forge a partnership moving forward to bring down the “enemy” from within.

As the show has shown us, however, sometimes spending too much time with the enemy can be a bad thing- just as spending a lot of time in what was meant to be a loveless marriage can lead to real feelings. Phil was the first to fall prey to the charms of America, with Liz defiantly holding out, always on point about what the mission was, and putting it first, above all else. In time, though, Liz has followed suit, mostly due to the whole Paige (Holly Taylor, who is really stepping it up in recent seasons) scenario, in addition to what has become her more genuine feelings for Phil.

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As such, the drafting of Tuan was a calculated one on the part of the show’s writers, meant to illuminate just how far off-track Liz has fallen over the years, which is in stark contrast to those early days of the show. But it’s also a clever one, as the more Liz gets attached to staying put in America, the more there is at stake once that way of life is threatened. With Phil, it’s been that way all along- his memories of Russia have never been stellar- but in many ways, the show has been about Liz’s journey, not his.

Though nothing has yet happened this season to hasten the demise of the Jennings, it’s nonetheless clear that the noose is tightening. As Claudia (Margot Martindale) points out, both Liz and Phil are nearing the breaking point of things, with way too much on their plate this season, in stark contrast to the “break” they were allowed last season for a time. In addition to playing the parts of adoptive parents to Tuan, and all that entails, they were also given a third role: to seduce and recruit and/or use two other people, played by Clea Lewis (“Royal Pains,” “Ellen”) and Brett Tucker (“Mistresses”), in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

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That’s definitely spreading our favorite agents a little too thin, and could be a sign as to how heavily the Russians are leaning on their efforts to get ahead in the battle against the Americans. Alas, though warned by not only Claudia and the Jennings themselves, Gabriel (Frank Langella) nonetheless pushes forward with the mission, pointing out how much is at stake for their country if they fail- literally millions of lives. No pressure, though!

We get a glimpse as to why that might be in the scenes set in Russia, where it’s clear that those in charge don’t care much for how put out people are in getting the job done. Oleg (Costa Ronin), now back in his homeland, attempts to talk his superior into going about landing a potential lead in a “kinder, gentler” way, in a case involving a grocer who seems to be getting ahold of the best supplies for her store- a little too good quality for the Russians’ taste.

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Though his new partner agrees to look into it, it’s clear his superior doesn’t care how the job gets done, as long as it gets done. This disregard for human life and the feelings of those their actions affects is likely a big reason for their eventual demise as a leading world power back then, as many of their agents and people alike probably defected to get away from such brutal and uncompromising living conditions and treatment by their superiors and government.

To be sure, no one living there looks to be enjoying themselves. Just ask Martha (Alison Wright). While it was an unexpected jolt to see her still alive and kicking, it’s entirely possible she might wish she weren’t, given how glum she looked shopping in a store where, despite the government’s wariness of how “high quality” the food was, there was barely anything on the shelves to be worried about in the first place. With this sort of micromanaging, it’s no wonder a lot of Russians were dissatisfied with their lives and wanted to flee for America- or near anywhere else.

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It’s not so easy to shake the past, though. The reason Tuan was recruited was to get to the disgruntled son, Pasha (Zack Gafin) of an immigrant, Alexei (Alexander Sokovikov, “House of Cards”), who fled Russia practically overnight, uprooting his family for the beckoning shores of America and the welcoming arms of the local Bennigan’s. Alexei can’t stop singing the praises of America, and bashing his former home, much to Tuan’s, and, to a lesser extent, Liz’s chagrin. But who can blame him, after seeing how they live there?

Indeed, it’s this news of how dire things have gotten back home that have no doubt left Liz leaning ever more towards staying put where they are. While she maintains an undeniable loyalty to the cause and to her country, it’s also obvious that she’s becoming less enamored of the idea of going back- and in particular, the effect that would have on her family. You also can see it in how dubious she is becoming over Paige’s increasing efforts in joining in on the family’s antics, as evidenced by her reaction to finding out that Paige had gone through Father Tim’s stuff in his absence while babysitting there one night.

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There was a time in which she would have welcomed Paige being so okay with things as she is slowly but surely becoming- now, she’s not so sure anymore. Realizing the sorts of things she would have to do, on account of the fact that Liz herself has had to do plenty of it, she’s no longer as keen on her daughter following in her footsteps. Note also how, what would have been no big deal- seducing a potential recruit- has become that much more troubling now that she’s gotten closer to Phil. Is THAT the life she really wants for Paige? Probably not.

Now, how all of this will play out remains to be seen, but it’s clear that a lot has changed since the early days of the show. By ratcheting up what all the Jennings have to lose, as well as the amount of things expected of them by their superiors, it’s obvious the show is preparing for the beginning of the end- though what exactly will happen remains as unpredictable as ever. I, for one, am excited to see how everything goes down, though.

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Lastly, there is the subplot involving Stan (Noah Emmerich) and his efforts to thwart his own government from using nasty tactics to ensnare Oleg that aren’t too far removed from that of the Russians themselves. Despite the fact that, as Stan points out, they got one of the biggest wins ever of the ongoing struggle with the Russians thanks to Oleg’s help, the government wants to blackmail him into further cooperation, which doesn’t sit well with Stan, who ultimately threatens to go public with his killing a Russian agent if they don’t back off.

I was genuinely touched by Stan’s growing frustration with his own government’s unethical tactics, and I love how his actions mirror that of Oleg’s in Russia itself, where he is trying to likewise stand up to his superior and “do the right thing,” which is not going over too well. Though, Oleg’s probably not too enamored of America’s tactics, either, right about now, what with the whole blackmail gambit, which, it’s worth pointing out, he doesn’t know Stan is actively trying to thwart.

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One big problem with all this, though: dollars to doughnuts that Stan’s new girlfriend, Renee (Laurie Holden, of “The Walking Dead”), is a Russian double agent looking to bring Stan down, much like Nina was initially intended to earlier on in the series, before that all went south, big time. I don’t know that she’ll get as attached to good old Stan as Nina did, though, which is bad news for him- but possibly good news for the Jennings’ family, on down the line. We shall see, but I’m guessing this approach will not end well for anyone. Another question: does Phil know about Renee? My guess is that he does, but you never know.

Well, that about catches us up for now. Of course, I’m sure I missed a few things here and there, being as how I’m dealing with four episodes of one of the most densely plotted shows on television, but I did my best to cover things. (Oh, one last shout-out to the show’s soundtrack, which has included some choice tracks from Devo, Roxy Music, and, be still my heart, Alabama, which is where I’m writing from at the moment. Nice going, as always, music supervisors.)

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Be sure to join me next month for another round of reviews every few weeks or so. Thanks for reading, and any comments are welcome down below! What do you like about the season so far? What do you not like? (Besides all the digging on episode one, of course, lol.) Any predictions of what’s to come, aside from my one about Renee? (Though let me know if you disagree with that one and think it’s a fake out.) Will Liz and Phil be exposed before the end of the season? What happens if they are? How will it all end? Let me know in the comments below, and see you next month!