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An Ode to The Americans: One of the Best Shows You Likely Didn’t Watch

The first thing you should know about The Americans is that all the best Russian stories are tragedies. The Russians have made an art of the genre. And, while The Americans is many things over the course of its six seasons, you know, instinctively, it is going to be a tragedy. Chekhov's proverbial gun is on the wall from the opening moments of the series (Will the FBI agent neighbor find out that he's living across the street from Russian spies?), and you know it will go off by the end of act three (or, season six). Knowing all that isn't spoiling the series for the many people who didn't watch it (but please do- the first five seasons are streaming on Amazon), but it's getting you in the right headspace for this show. This isn't something that is going to end with smiles around a campfire. The Americans is, on the surface, the story of two Russian illegals (a term referring to Russian spies that fully embed themselves into American life) who came to the country to impersonate actual American citizens and spy for the KGB. They were expected to present themselves as a married couple, have kids, and live out the stereotypical American life in the suburbs, despite only knowing each other a brief time before beginning their mission. And, while perpetrating this fraud, they were also supposed to gather crucial intel, turn valuable assets to their cause, seduce unsuspecting Americans, and win the Cold War. Which is hard enough without an FBI agent moving in across the street with his family. [caption id="attachment_103244" align="aligncenter" width="780"] THE AMERICANS -- "The Midges" -- Season 5, Episode 3 -- Pictured: (l-r) Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbron/FX[/caption] But that description doesn't come close to explaining why The Americans was one of the finest dramas of the past decade. Over the course of six seasons, we saw plenty of wigs, mustaches, murders, and seductions. But what the series was really about was relationships. The relationship between a husband and wife. Between parents and children. Between friends. Between coworkers. Relationships all built on lies and deception at their core, but based on real feelings. The flash and spy games were fun, but strip away disguises and the beating heart of the show always was the marriage between Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (the exceptional Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys). Everything that happened from day one to the show's incredible finale (yes, the show absolutely sticks the landing and delivers one of the best finales in the modern era of television) radiated from that relationship as it ebbed and flowed over the course of so many difficult and incredible moments. It's strange to say that a series about Russian spies trying to avoid detection was really about the idiosyncrasies of a marriage, but it's true. Everything came back to the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth. [caption id="attachment_103243" align="aligncenter" width="780"] THE AMERICANS -- "Tchaikovsky" -- Pictured: (l-r) Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbron/FX[/caption] And what a relationship it was. Don't worry, this won't spoil the plot, but it's so rare to have a show that seeks to explore a marriage without sugar coating things. Marriage isn't easy (even when you aren't Russian spies). It's difficult, and there are moments where neither person wants to compromise or give ground. There are times when it's incredibly hard to parent children, to present a united front, to make sure your kids understand that you would and will do anything and everything for them (and Philip and Elizabeth would certainly would do anything for their kids). All of that is writ large within The Americans, simmering underneath the missions and sometimes breaking through into huge confrontations that seem just as life and death as a dead drop gone wrong. Rhys and Russell's performances allowed for us to see each and every emotion that ran through their characters' minds. We saw the toll the lies and missions took on Philip through Rhys's incredibly expressive face (no one in the business is better at portraying anguish). The steely resolve of Elizabeth was so present in each of Russell's scenes that on the rare occasion her facade cracked, it was a gut punch to the audience. These two actors created characters that felt so lived in, so complete, that their complicated dance was mesmerizing to watch. It was a joy to see two people at the top of their game, buoyed by exceptional writing (from Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, and their incredible staff), given the chance to spar with each other in the ultimate give and take. But Russell and Rhys weren't alone in crafting complex and resonate characters. The show was chock full of them. Noah Emmerich was a revelation as Stan Beeman, the FBI agent neighbor and ticking time bomb, whose deep friendship with the Jennings family made the possibility of their discovery all the more suspenseful. Holly Taylor as Paige, the teenage daughter of the Jennings, who went from surly teen to one of the most complicated young adult characters on television. Costa Ronin as Oleg Burov, a Russian diplomat from a wealthy family who had far more depth than one might think at first glance. And the great character actress Margo Martindale, playing the Jennings's handler Claudia, whose glance can cut a person off at the knees. It was a murderers row of acting talent, gifted with brilliant characters, and an even more brilliant storyline. It's rare that a series can churn out quality for 75 episodes and then deliver a satisfying finale. But The Americans managed to pull it off with only a few small stumbles here and there. The series delivered a rich tapestry of stories over the course of its six seasons, taking characters to the brink before finding ways to bring them back to solid ground. Each week, I watched the series with my heart in my throat, terrified that something horrific would transpire and bring the delicate house of cards crashing down. That's how good The Americans was. I even found myself hoping against hope that a show about Russians deceiving everyone around them might not be the tragedy we all knew it would becomes. I wanted some sliver of hope for Elizabeth and Philip, despite them being the enemy. They were, after all, just doing a job to protect their country. But even where there is hope, there is despair. And The Americans was a tragedy. Not necessarily the one I might have expected when the show premiered six years ago, but it stayed true to its Russian roots until the end. Knowing that doesn't make the journey any less incredible, the performances any less nuanced and brilliant, the writing any less perfect. Dasvidaniya, Americans. It was a hell of a ride. And if you haven't embarked on this particular journey, what are you waiting for?


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About / Bio
TV critic based in Chicago. When not watching and writing about awesome television shows, I can be found lamenting over the latest disappointing performance by any of the various Chicago sports teams or my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Follow me @JeanHenegan on Twitter.

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