Any concerns that viewers had about The Americans treading water in its penultimate season have been answered swiftly and decisively at the start of its final season. The Americans — not only one of TV’s best shows, but one of its tensest and most anxiety-inducing — kicks off Season 6 in the middle of turmoil. After a three-year time jump (starting in October of 1987), the emotional intensity has built to a fever pitch, proving that this final run of episodes may be the best the show has ever offered.
It’s almost hard to process what has changed in the three years since we last spent time with the Jennings (in their world, at least). Philip (Matthew Rhys) has left the KGB as was discussed in the Season 5 finale, and is running the travel business, for real, full-time (and using some of his EST self-help to motivate his sales team). That’s left Elizabeth (Keri Russell) doing the spy work of two people, which has taken an enormous toll. She’s smoking constantly, exhausted, and curt with Philip as well as Paige (Holly Taylor), who is in college and who is still training as a KGB operative. It’s an incredible contrast to Philip, who does things now like drive up to see Henry’s (Keidrich Sellati) hockey games at his prep school, and seems pleased with his new, more peaceful (and very American) life.
The relationship between Philip and Elizabeth has always been the core of the series, somehow managing to be one of the most realistic portraits of a relationship despite its wholly unconventional components. In the first five seasons of The Americans, we saw them really come together as a couple rather than just partners, eventually falling in love — something that wasn’t necessary for their work in the KGB, but was a wonderful thing to witness. There were complications along the way, but Season 5 saw the two engaging in a real, secret Russian Orthodox wedding, choosing to be together in a life they otherwise have very little control over. It’s also what makes the first episodes of the new season so devastating, though, as the two are farther apart than they ever have been thanks to the complicated and emotionally draining job Elizabeth has been tasked with. The show makes us feel that.
That divide is played out on a macro level as well, as an arms summit looms between the United States and the USSR. In the Soviet Union, there’s a split between those who are pro-Gorbachev (and progress), and those who want to hold onto the old ways. It’s a divide we’ve long seen in Philip and Elizabeth respectively, and Season 6 explores how both are approached individually to further that cause — even if it means turning on one another, which seems unfathomable. While the two have always been about serving a greater good, the pull of their real family life has often challenged that to a degree. To that end, there are a number of excruciating scenes at the start of the new season that show what happens when those elements come into conflict, and yet, it’s exactly what makes The Americans so great.
There is certainly a sense of the series winding down, thanks to appearances from some old favorites (like Oleg and Arkady, and some inanimate ones, like the Mail Robot), and tying up loose ends. And while Elizabeth is being worn down by her responsibilities, we also get to see her spending time teaching Paige about the old country through songs and recipes and films. It’s one of the few times we see Elizabeth truly happy, and while Philip is also bolstered by some of the nostalgia, he’s more interested in blending the Soviet and American cultures than keeping them separate — something Elizabeth cannot accept.
Ultimately, The Americans continues to explore its central themes and loyalty and identity (including with Stan and his maybe KGB wife, as well as his past connections to Oleg and others). Russell is exceptional in these early episodes as Elizabeth tries to juggle so many jobs that she’s swigging coffee and popping pills to keep herself awake, all while holding onto an incredibly dark secret. But even though their stories aren’t yet as dynamic as that, Rhys, Taylor, and others continue to be emotionally compelling pieces of this grounded (though sometimes a little overly complicated, especially in early episodes) final season. There’s a lot to take in, a lot of choices that have to be made, and not a lot of time to see them all play out. What the show has planned for us at this point is impossible to say, but what is known for sure is that it cannot be missed.
The Americans premieres Wednesday, March 28th on FX.