Where is the fifth season of The Americans taking us? With just one episode left, this slow-burn season is still largely a mystery.
But let's start with Oleg, whose storyline has done a funny kind of double-work: While Philip and Elizabeth loyally serve the KGB in the States (with Elizabeth, at any rate, closing her eyes to its flaws), Oleg is witnessing the KGB's perfidy as well as its irrelevance back in the Soviet Union.
For an organization that baselessly locked up his mother (who survived by sexually servicing the camp doctor), hints are dropping that the KGB, which once was powerful, is increasingly beside the point. Oleg's relatively humble mission — weeding out corruption in the country's food distribution networks — has him stumbling across forces he's repeatedly told he misunderstands. We learn, from Dmitri's fear and Fomina's equivalent sangfroid, that the KGB is nothing compared to whomever Oleg is really going up against.
That makes it remarkably difficult to interpret the noose tightening around his neck. What's happening to Oleg? Is he being persecuted for his incorruptibility in his new life by these shadow powers? Or is he another Natalie Granholm — the woman Philip and Elizabeth executed in last week's "Dyatkava” — paying the price for betraying Tatiana's secret to Stan Beeman?
It's nerve-wracking to watch, partly because whatever referendum on crime and punishment we're witnessing is inflected by Oleg's own satellite struggle for justice within his department. Despite his troubles and the fact that he wasn't even informed of Ekaterina Rykova's arrest — which suggests he might be getting isolated from his own investigation — Oleg defends her on the grounds that she was just trying to make a bad system work. There's a resonance developing between Oleg and Philip — a sense that the punishments the Centre metes out lack proportion and accuracy, to say nothing of justice.
Oleg knows he's in trouble. He sees that Dmitri will serve 13 to 15 years despite cooperating. But what has sustained the season is the bemused languor of Oleg's crisis. In a conversation with his father, he can discuss the unnameable trouble he's in alongside his aims to go into middle management. There's a tragic tension to these undramatic scenes punctuated only by Oleg's lonely walks, which are getting increasingly desperate.
Oleg's is a claustrophobic storyline, one that shows a minister's comparative wealth — the meals, the drinks — and how little that luxury profits him. It's useful, then, to get some other views of life in Russia — this time through Mischa, Philip's long-lost son — who conveys that Philip's brother is well and thoroughly intimidated by his brother's success. No one is allowed to ask about Philip, who in his homeland appears to be at cosmonaut levels of secret heroism. (I really do hope our Americans make it home because it would be fascinating to see their habits, built on a lifetime of careful anonymity, exploded by whatever quiet forms of celebrity would attend their return. How are ex-agents treated? Would they get invited to the minister's house?)
While Oleg is caught up in a bureaucratic tangle of crimes and punishments, the Jenningses are thinking of leaving America. This, too, is drawn-out and tense. They're asking everyone they can to weigh in — which is funny, since the only people they can talk to about it aren't exactly people they trust. Philip and Elizabeth kind of hate Pastor Tim and Claudia, but they're forced to seek their advice. Claudia tells them that the children of operatives lead "very interesting lives” when they return home. As for Pastor Tim, the man deserves that compass for remaining unruffled when they ask his opinion: "You can't predict what a person's life will be, and you can't deny them the challenges that will shape them,” he says. He also points out what we all know: If they wait long enough, the decision will be made for them.
It's a message that echoes down the hallway of this episode to the moment when Pasha — a child whose life is being shaped not by his parents' choices but by Tuan's machinations — cuts his veins open offscreen. It's supposed to be a bid for help. Tuan insists that he's shown Pasha how to make the cuts so he won't die, and even helped him write the note. But it's easy to imagine that Pasha, like Paige, wants a clean break. These are children in constant search of relief. Instead, they're repeatedly re-exposed: The joy with which Paige throws her cross necklace in the garbage — she has finally slept through the night! — is thwarted by Elizabeth, who fishes it out and grimly tells her to wear it until Pastor Tim leaves. It's not that simple. A spy's work is never done.
If this season has moved remarkably slowly, refusing to sharpen into the crises at which it hints, it has stopped to answer some of the show's giant questions about allegiance and loyalty. In particular: How do Nadhezda and Mischa actually feel about each other? How do they feel about their past selves? We saw them marry, of course, and there's a sweet moment when they wonder what Paige and Henry should be called in Russia. They should take your name, Elizabeth says — a terrible idea, as anyone trying to coerce teenagers into a different identity ought to know — but they're flying high on the fantasy of going home. It's quite sweet when Philip asks whether she'll be taking his name too. Rarely has Elizabeth looked softer.
I don't think there's any way for The Americans not to eventually devolve into internecine warfare. Whether that ends up being the Centre using Henry against them — my initial thought, which is looking less likely — or Paige turning on them, or Philip and Elizabeth turning on each other. But as we gear up for the finale, one thing is for sure: For a show about intelligence, no one knows enough anymore. Not Beeman and Aderholt, whose open-mouthed astonishment at being confronted with Sofia's betrothed leaves us as much in the dark as they are. Not Oleg, who's not sure what his interrogators have on him. Not Philip, who still doesn't know what Renee is after or for whom. Not Henry, who apparently knows nothing at all.
And especially not us.
- Ep. 5.11: The profound despair of The Americans
- Ep. 5.10: The Americans forever hold their peace
- Ep. 5.9: The ghosts that haunt The Americans
- Ep. 5.8: Claudia's plot on The Americans: A theory
- Ep. 5.7: The Americans' dilemma: Spy or die
- Ep. 5.6: The camera is getting sneakier on The Americans
- Ep. 5.5: The Americans is failing its sons
- Ep. 5.4: Regarding Henry and The Americans' other lost threads
- Ep. 5.3: Can The Americans tie up its loose ends?
- Ep. 5.2: The Americans has spent years whispering. Now it's starting to shout. That's a good thing.
- Ep. 5.1: The Americans recap: You are what you eat