Set in the early 1980s Washington D.C., The Americans is part spy thriller and part family drama, with a sprinkling of Pat Benatar thrown in. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Mathew Rhys) are Soviet KGB agents, impersonating a suburban DC couple who just happen to live across the street from an FBI agent (oh, D.C.!). While raising their two kids and running a travel agency, the Jennings have shot, thwarted, and strangled at the bidding of their Soviet handlers, carrying out their orders in a variety of wigs and over-sized Foster Grants.
It’s now 1987, and we last left the Jennings family in a tumultuous place. Philip has had enough of the mayhem. Elizabeth thinks her husband weak, while realizing that going back to the Soviet Union means giving up her American comforts, including her GE dishwasher. Daughter Paige knows her parents’ secret and is training to become an agent herself, while son Henry is being a typical moody teenager whose dreams of headeding off to boarding school are squashed by his father.
We head into the final season wondering, will the Jennings make it out alive? Will their marriage survive this partnership that is ripping their guts out? Will we see Martha again?
Here are a few of the reasons The Americans is so darn good:
The Americans is smart, and the show has real stakes in every episode. It’s brilliant that the writers have made me—an actual American—root for the Ruskies. I know how things turn out for the USSR, but Elizabeth doesn’t. She hates weakness in others, without realizing that her misguided optimism about the good of Soviet communism is its own kind of weakness. Elizabeth’s vulnerability is so compelling yet nuanced. And the writers trust you, the viewer, to figure it out. No voiceovers needed.
The Other Guys
While the story centers on the Jennings family, “The Americans” has a treasure trove of supporting players. Again, this is a hat-tip to the writers who have given us a well rounded cast with their own inner lives and motivations. No character feels like a waste of time. Not even Oleg Igorevich Burov.
I Want (NEED!) These Things to Happen
It’s one thing to watch a show and be entertained. It’s another to watch a show and wish for things to happen. I’m invested in this mess. I want FBI agent Stan Beeman to find out about Philip but let him go free because they have a Natty Lite friendship. I want Elizabeth to tell her handler, Claudia, that she and Philip are leaving the spy game for a life on the beach in Tenerife while Phil Collins “Against All Odds” plays in the background. And finally, I want Elizabeth to kill Pastor Tim.
This show has a very specific feel to it. The set design, costumes, and music choices all combine to give the show an accuracy that I love. I’m old enough to remember the 80s and the Cold War, when we didn’t have active shooter drills but “hide under your desk when the bombs start flying” drills. I’m old enough to remember how romantic the greatest Elton John song of all time made me feel.
When I watch “The Americans,” I never doubt it’s 1983. From the mail robot to the maroon Etienne Aigner boots, this show nails it.
All images courtesy of FX