One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
Given the level of uncertainty and ambiguity with which The Americans left off during the last season finale, giving even a cursory update on the whereabouts of the Jennings, Stan, and Oleg feels like a major spoiler. So, before we get into plot specifics and more nuanced thoughts on the fifth season premiere, allow me to say the following for anyone who just dropped by in order to see if the new season is worth their time: In terms of thematic nuance and resonance, plot and sheer formal audacity, The Americans is still the show to beat.
Following the events of last season, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) were standing on the edge of a cliff looking over the edge. Their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) was closer than ever to understanding the full extent of her parents’ mission in America, while also beginning a relationship with FBI agent and neighbor Stan Beeman’s (Noah Emmerich) son. This familial strife was on top of the fact that their cover might have been blown, and their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) believed their best choice was to return to Russia with their children in tow.
The season premiere, cheekily titled “Amber Waves,” kicks off by making the audience ask more questions before even beginning to think about answering those old ones. Twan, a young Vietnamese high school student, befriends a recent Soviet immigrant during lunch. Their conversation is banal and innocuous until Twan brings his new friend home and we see that Philip and Elizabeth are there, posing as Twan’s pilot and stewardess parents.
This cold open is the perfect hook for fans, raising a flurry of questions before the opening credits have even begun their first Russian-tinged chords. It turns out that Twan is another communist operative, and the Jennings are using him as a means of getting close to the family of the Soviet immigrant. The patriarch of that household, it seems, hates his former homeland, and is working with the U.S. government, feeding them information about food shortages and crumbling infrastructure back in Russia.
Elsewhere, Paige’s relationship with Matthew is glimpsed, discussed, and unresolved; Oleg (Costa Ronin), who ended last season by informing on his countrymen and deciding to go back to Moscow, gets a new assignment and spends time with his parents; and Stan learns to cook in order to feed both his son and the ever-more-present Jennings children. For most of the episode, these are the small details that occupy us, giving us a deeper view of the characters we love while doing very little to detail what the full arc of the season will be.
Then we begin to get hints, small glimpses of how the show will progress. There’s an undercurrent of tension between Philip and Elizabeth because they decided not to return to Russia, a decision that sits much better with the former than the latter. Paige can’t sleep anymore, haunted still by the image of her mother driving a knife into the neck of a potential mugger. Thus, Elizabeth begins to teach her daughter self-defense in the garage, using tough love of the physical and philosophical variety.
The height of the episode, both in terms of action and in terms of aesthetic artistry, comes in the final minutes. After being briefed by Gabriel regarding the grim fate of William (who last season infected himself with the Lassa virus to avoid interrogation), Philip and Elizabeth are given a final mission to complete with regards to their fallen comrade. In the dead of night, they and a small team have to enter Fort Detrick to exhume William’s body and retrieve a sample of the virus.
This sequence is nearly wordless, filmed primarily in the dark, and occupies more space narratively than the rote mechanics of the mission would suggest. One of the benefits of airing on FX is that they allows their creators liberties that most other networks would never entertain. This allows for missions like this one to really dwell on the amount of pure, monotonous effort that they entail. It also makes the unfortunate result of the mission – which I won’t divulge here – even more shocking.
Suffice to say that the final minute of this season premiere is a distillation of everything that The Americans has always been underneath whatever trappings the mission or the family drama may provide: an examination of how the strange and the dangerous can become routine, up until the minute that one unexpected development throws every carefully balanced element into chaos. In the midst of that, a choice must be made, action must be taken, and then, crucially and most engrossingly, consequences must be dealt with. So it is with spycraft, so it is with parenting, and so it is with marriage.
The Americans is back. Don’t expect anything to get any easier.