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The Americans

When the final episode of THE AMERICANS aired on FX on May 5, 2018, it brought to an end one of the great dramas in the history of television. Set in the 1980’s, the story of an undercover KGB couple (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) living in the suburbs of Washington D.C. was a complex, thrilling, thought-provoking, and searing drama that explored a number difficult issues including  patriotism, familial bonds and loyalty. 

Phillip (Rhys) and Elizabeth (Russell) Jennings seemed to have it all. Living with their teenage children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) they owned a travel agency, and hosted dinner parties. They became particularly close to their new neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich,) who just so happened to be an counter-intelligence FBI agent. In their private lives, however, they were working with Russian government to help win the cold war. Unbeknownst to their children and friends, they would don disguises, build relationships with people of value, and murder anyone who stood in their way. Ruthless and cunning, they used sex, threats, and violence to enhance their agenda, and aid the Motherland.

In the beginning, there were many parallels between THE AMERICANS and another classic modern series, BREAKING BAD, which was just reaching the end of its run. Like Walter White, Phillip and Elizabeth are seeming pillars of their community, hiding a dark secret that would destroy their family. They were also closely connected to a member of law enforcement who could unknowingly provide insider information, or bring them down. And, like Walt, we should hate the couple for what they’ve done to virtually everyone around them, and yet, like any great anti-hero, we yearn for them to succeed and to get away with their crimes. It was impossible not to make the connection between the shows at the time, but as THE AMERICANS progressed, it found its own unique voice.

The first 3 seasons or so, while undeniably exhilarating and entertaining, had large doses of gratuitous sex and violence that were distracting. Like previous FX dramas, THE AMERICANS pushed the envelope and tested the boundaries of decency, much like THE SHIELD and SONS OF ANARCHY did during their runs. Many of these sequences enhanced the story and character development, and the savage brutality of these moments were meant to illicit strong reactions from the viewer. Admittedly, however, some of them (a man burning alive while trapped within the confines of a tire, for example) were a bit too over the top. They teetered on the edge of horror and comedy, and deterred, rather than advanced, the quality of the program. From season 4 on, however, these moments grew far less frequent, so when they did arrive, they were far more impactful. They were no longer an expected inevitability, but instead became sudden surprises that would take your breath away. It was at this point that THE AMERICANS went from really good, to absolutely brilliant. Focusing heavily on storytelling and character development, it allowed its outstanding cast, deep dialogue, and haunting direction to paint a portrait of a family teetering on the ledge of deadly disaster.

The chemistry between leads Rhys and Russell was electric from their very earliest scenes together. The two became a couple in the real world during the filming of the series, and this attraction shines brightly throughout the duration of the 6 seasons. What makes the dynamic between the Jennings’ so intriguing is that we, as an audience are constantly trying to discern whether their union was grounded in love, or merely a result of their political ideology and employment necessities. As the series progresses, the connection between becomes more palpable, even as Phillip begins to question the limit of their loyalty to the Mother Russia, whereas Elizabeth remains unflinching in her steadfast dedication to the cause.

Rhys and Russell are not the only standouts in the phenomenal ensemble cast. Emmerich, as the lovable and fallible Stan, isn’t quite as flawed as his best friends, but has demons of his own that he struggles with. Frank Langella and Margot Martindale, as the main point of contacts for the Jennings’, serve as stable, yet cold-hearted entities that keep the couple in line. As Paige, Taylor shows the most noticeable amount of growth as the seasons progress. As she grows older, she becomes more suspicious of her parents actions, and begins to question their clandestine late-night trips. When she begins to learn the truth, she is faced with a number of impossible decisions that will have a major impact on the rest of her life. As a character, and a performer, her confidence grows exponentially with each passing season, and towards the end of THE AMERICANS run, she proves to be one of the most important characters in the entire series.

Far too often, there are great series’ that produce subpar finales that can’t measure up to the exceptional content that lead up to the farewell. Thankfully, like BREAKING BAD, THE AMERICANS avoided this hollow and unceremonious fate. While I’m sure that there are those who would have liked to have seen more fireworks in the waning minutes, I think the dramatic, understated climax was a justifiable and appropriate ending. It perfectly encapsulated the tone of the last few seasons, and supplied the audience with closure on a number important plotlines and character arcs, while leaving others opened to interpretation and mystery. Like the series as a whole, it was complex and multi-faceted, providing subtle thrills while increasingly ratcheting up the underlying tension. While it was sad to see their saga come to a close, it certainly seemed the right time to go, and the finale certainly helped solidify THE AMERICANS standing amongst the all-time greats.

The Americans

GRADE: A+

RUN TIME: 39–59 minutes

GENRE: Period drama, Serial drama, Spy thriller

STARRING: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Maximiliano Hernández, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati, Noah Emmerich, Annet Mahendru, Susan Misner, Alison Wright, Lev Gorn, Costa Ronin, Richard Thomas, Dylan Baker, Brandon J. Dirden, Margo Martindale

DIRECTORs: Chris Long

Writers: Joe Weisberg, Joel Fields

(Seasons 1-5 now streaming through Amazon Prime.  Season 6 available for purchase through Amazon, and streaming on FXNetworks.com)

Brian Miller
Film Critic
Based out of Central New York, Brian Miller is a film critic who works in television, radio, and print. Providing passionate and energetic takes on every movie he sees, he looks for the best in a movie, not the worst.