In the fifth season finale of The Americans — one of the best shows in the history of television — Elizabeth gives Tuan, a young Vietnamese agent who works a mission with her and her husband (and fellow spy) Phillip, a dire warning: "You're not going to make it," she tells him.
It's a bizarre and solemn scene, but I didn't know what to make of it at the time. In fact, the Tuan subplot, which involved Elizabeth and Phillip pretending to be Tuan's doting suburban parents, puzzled me all season. It certainly bore some worrying parallels to their total disregard for Henry (their actual son), but I thought the storyline was building to a crisis that never came. We got a crisis, certainly: Tuan persuades the target's son to attempt suicide, and this turns out to be the incident that finally breaks Phillip. But an attempted suicide isn't that bad for a show that boasts a significant body count. I expected more. After all, historically, those who work with the Jenningses don't fare too well. Neither do sons. So I spent the season worrying that some terrible harm would come to Tuan, or that — in an alienating and irreversible turn — either Elizabeth or Phillip would kill him.
But that wasn't the point at all. The point, and I can't believe I missed it, was that Elizabeth — invincible, steely, no-nonsense Elizabeth — was really talking about herself. "Make them send you someone," she tells Tuan, repeating that it's the only way he'll survive. Of course this show has her advising a spy to seek companionship immediately before she decides to work alone herself. By the end of the finale, she's suggested to Phillip — as an act of love, because she sees him dying a thousand deaths — that he retire.
The sixth season opens by making clear just how much this decision has cost her. Elizabeth is exhausted. She's running multiple missions. She's working as a nurse. She's seducing targets. She's training Paige. She's chain-smoking. And she's getting sloppy, even falling asleep in front of an artist who's sketching her. (That she hasn't yet decided to paint her face is pure luck.) Under these dire circumstances, she's assigned an extremely sensitive mission based on the kind of intelligence that earns you a free cyanide capsule. She's totally cut off from everyone — even Claudia. Even Phillip. She has no one with whom she can process. At this rate, she's not going to make it.
The Americans has always been more interested in moods and relationships than spycraft or action or the missions themselves. That's what makes it great: It refuses to only see the cool side of espionage. The show wasn't always quite this drab in its depictions — Elizabeth's first sex scene on the show was pretty erotically filmed, as I recall, partly because it needed to demonstrate the power of the spells she cast — but she's so tired now that it's all in her POV, and it's all drudgery.
While Elizabeth stares dully into a mirror, fiddling with her cyanide locket, Phillip is enjoying life as a proud capitalist business owner. The show has been signaling the distance between these characters for awhile, but they have never, ever, been this far apart. Philip is enjoying his new life. He's trying to make the travel agency a real, going concern, with some success: All those EST classes, paired with the manipulative psychology he learned as a spy, make him an effective salesman.
It's weird. It's weird to see Phillip happy instead of cataclysmically depressed. It's weird to see Elizabeth exhausted rather than firm and steady. It's weird, above all, to see Paige totally unconflicted about her new life. The show's structuring tensions are so wildly transformed that the new arrangement feels fascinating but unstable. As it should: This is the last season, after all. It's time for the slow burn to finally ignite.
This is a show about extreme pragmatists — people with no time for nonsense like "art" — that happens to be a work of art itself. The cinematography has always been top-notch. So has the acting. But there are hints here that all these characters, whose stubborn myopias we've come to know, are being forced to see differently. In fact, in a later episode, one character instructs Elizabeth in how to do exactly that: "Just draw the dark parts, don't draw the light parts," she says, ordering Elizabeth to draw.
Elizabeth objects — she has, as we have established, no time for art. Or leisure. Or anything so decadent that it doesn't "make a difference." "Shut up," the character says. "Just draw what's dark."
Viewers are being forced to see differently too. For the first time, I feel like I understand what the Tuan storyline was doing. And I have an inkling of how last season was preparing us for this one. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see what Elizabeth draws.