It is the understatement of the year to say The Americans has never been a cheerful series. But as the Cold War-set spy drama enters its fifth season, it’s become harder and harder to imagine it ending in anything but catastrophe for KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and the two children they’ve brought up as unsuspecting U.S. citizens in suburban D.C.
Last season, as their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), slowly began to learn the family trade, Philip and Elizabeth teamed up with another sleeper agent who was developing biochemical weapons; this season, the focus of their espionage, and of the show, is something more fundamental: The Soviet Union’s food supply. Coupled with the season’s emphasis on its adolescent characters, these thematic preoccupations — with nourishment and fresh-faced youth — casts the show’s depiction of intelligence work in a new, harsh light. Who can deny the importance of feeding the people and protecting the young? Who would meddle with such essential ingredients to a healthy society? Not just the Russians; when the U.S. agrees to throw out the rulebook, this season suggests, it degrades us all.
Rather than drop the Jennings family directly into boiling water, The Americans has been steadily simmering them for the past four seasons, keeping the flame low but persistent as the threats mount and the family’s situation becomes more and more perilous. A new character, a teenage, Vietnam-born spy, Tuan (Ivan Mok), is posing as the adopted son of Philip and Elizabeth; his mission is to befriend a new student, Pasha (Zack Gafin), whose parents recently defected from the Soviet Union. Philip and Elizabeth pass themselves off as a pilot and stewardess, respectively, to get close to Pasha’s father, Alexei Morozov (Alexander Sokovikov), who fled the Soviet Union with the help of the CIA and is now advising the United States Department of Agriculture.
As The Americans progresses, the sense of tragedy — real tragedy, a terrible outcome for everyone involved — intensifies. As Paige continues to learn the family trade, this season highlights adolescent characters — not just Paige but Tuan and his new friend/asset, Pasha (Zack Gafin), and Philip’s grown son, Mischa (Alex Ozerov), the love child that Philip learned about back in the first season. His mother dead, Mischa follows her instructions and attempts to flee to the Soviet Union and find his father.
In previous seasons, the show rarely ventured into the Soviet Union, focusing on a group of officials working at the Russian embassy in D.C. This season, The Americans highlights the contrast between American prosperity and Russian poverty in stark terms.Throughout the first three episodes, food is a casual but persistent focus; when “Philip and Elizabeth” go out for dinner with Tuan and the Morozovs, the camera lingers on a woman helping herself to the salad bar before following a waiter carrying a tray with plates piled high with food. A montage early in the season premiere features footage from what appear to be old Soviet propaganda films, showing robust workers harvesting vast, shimmering fields of wheat. Suddenly the fields are withered and grey, and we see people lining up to buy rotten food; then, we cut to a woman wheeling a cart loaded with tea and pastries into the well-appointed office of a KGB official.
We see a lot more of Russia in Season 5, mostly because KGB officer Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) is back home in Moscow, after requesting a transfer to be with his distraught mother, still grieving the death of Oleg’s brother. When FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) finds out, he immediately worries for his safety — it was Oleg who tipped him off to the Soviets’ biochemical weapons program. The terrible irony is that Oleg is now working for the one Soviet organization that hasn’t been corrupted, but instead is actively working to root out corruption — the Department of Agriculture. Stan is aghast that the agents would go after a man who gave them “the tip of the century, and then went home to live his life.” The United States, he insists, has to “play by the rules.” “The Soviets don’t play by the rules,” a CIA official replies. “You know that.”
Like Stan, Elizabeth and Philip are shocked to discover that the U.S. is playing dirty. Their latest mission is to inspect a government program to develop pests that will contaminate the Soviet Union’s grain supply — half of which comes from the U.S. and its allies. But when Elizabeth tells Paige about the program, emphasizing that the U.S. government will stop at nothing to punish the Soviets, she leaves out the corruption among Russian officials that’s led to the food shortages in the first place. It’s a point that Philip, always more vulnerable to skepticism about his homeland than Elizabeth, finally voices during an intelligence-gathering trip. “Why can’t we grow enough grain ourselves?” he asks his wife. She doesn’t have an answer.
There’s not a lot of room for hope on The Americans, one of the many obvious reasons the show feels so relevant right now. (If there’s a glimmer of hope to be found, it’s in the realization that this show takes place over 30 years ago and hey look, the earth is still spinning.) This season, the so-called good guys — at this point, mainly Stan and Oleg, would-be adversaries who are really allies, brought together by the woman, Nina, they both loved — are up against an impossible mission: To convince their own people to do the right thing. As Oleg implores a grocery store owner whom he suspects of accepting bribes, “How do you think it will ever end if you don’t speak up?”
Like Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), the warden from Orange is the New Black, Oleg and Stan — and, increasingly, Philip — are good guys stuck in a corrupting system. “I thought there were things they wouldn’t do,” Philip says in shock when he finds out about the pest program. If the season’s early episodes are any indication, things on The Americans are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better. But surely we knew that already.
The Americans Season 5 premieres Tuesday, March 7 at 10 p.m. on FX.