The first episode of The Americans begins with a stunning cold open that lasts 10 minutes. There’s a seduction in a hotel room, a foot chase, a fight in the alley, a tense car ride, and a rendezvous at the harbour. As this unfolds, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk plays in the background. A strange song that’s equal parts paranoia and hysteria, Tusk is also a perfect encapsulation of how The Americans operates: long stretches of quiet menace, followed by an explosion.
That was 2013. The Americans has since completed four near-perfect seasons; the fifth will start on 7 March in the US on FX. Showrunner and former CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) agent Joe Weisberg likes to end seasons with issues unresolved and the future uncertain, but even with that in mind, the new season has a Jenga tower-like set-up. Russian spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) have been living as a married couple in America for years, covertly carrying out blackmail and assassinations. Their already difficult work is made more complicated by Philip’s friendship with their next-door neighbour, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agent. Stan doesn’t suspect that Philip and Elizabeth are spies, but the inevitability of his finding this out hangs over the series the same way Hank’s cluelessness about Walter did in Breaking Bad.
The period setting of The Americans—it unfolds in the early 1980s, during the Cold War—sometimes obscures how subversive the show is. Neither side is allowed a moral high ground, and the similarities between the Americans and the Soviets is rendered amusingly in the workings of the FBI office and the Russian rezidentura. The three lead characters have all shown a growing distaste for what they do, but we’re also reminded periodically that kindness and mercy often result in loose ends.
It has become something of a badge of honour for fans of The Americans to say that the show isn’t for everyone. Granted, the series is the epitome of the slow burn—story arcs resolve themselves over a season, even two or three—but it’s hardly as cerebral as its supporters sometimes make it out to be. I see it more as a show that respects the nuts and bolts of storytelling: The action choreography is brutal; the direction has a noir stylishness; all the characters, major and minor, are beautifully written and performed.
Season 4 brought back the song sequence in a big way. One particularly inspired choice is in the finale, when Leonard Cohen’s Who By Fire is heard. “And who in her lonely slip/Who by barbiturate/Who in these realms of love/Who by something blunt,” the singer asks. Every one of these options rings true.