The sixth and final season of The Americans drops on Lightbox today. Alex Braae reflects on the unique, tense brilliance of the series.
The worst part about being deeply invested in the characters at the centre of The Americans is your fear for them. Not a fear that they’ll be killed off – that would almost be a relief for the unbearable tension. It’s more the fear that their lies will finally be exposed.
Throughout the slick montages of spycraft set to period piece music, it never quite seems like either of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings will actually get hurt. The moments where they have to physically fight someone always seem to end quickly and efficiently. But they are vulnerable in ways that are painfully relatable.
Much as Philip and Elizabeth might be characters with masks firmly in place, there are enough glimpses of the person underneath that slip through. It is those humanising moments, where they show something more than the relentless ruthlessness demanded of them by their spymasters, that make their arcs so compelling.
In season 6, arriving today on Lightbox (spoilers up to the end of season five incoming), we pick up with Philip becoming increasingly disgusted by the many lives he has to keep track of. The doubts lead to the increasing sense of dread that the partnership between him and Elizabeth – the glue that holds the show together – is about to be torn apart.
But with Philip increasingly seeing his American personality as his true identity, that partnership is under strain. It’s not a question of liking the characters or wanting them to be happy – it’s more the sure knowledge that a relationship breakdown will be delivered as an emotional gut punch. Will the secrets and lies they tell others become part of their own marriage?
It’s particularly the relationship with the teenage Kimmy (the daughter of a high-ranking agent in the CIA’s Soviet Division) which is wrecking Philip. James, the hip dude who he pretends to be around her has bizarrely become one of the most trusted people in her life, a confidante who is almost like both a surrogate boyfriend and father. In the grand scheme of Philip’s sins, the manipulation of Kimmy isn’t even close to the worst thing he has done to ruin someone’s life – who can forget poor, naive Martha? But she’s also basically a child – basically the same age as Philip’s own child at that – and it is clear that if the lies are exposed Philip will have to confront a deep darkness within himself.
It’s an even more extreme case with Paige, their daughter who is slowly being brought in on the secret. She’s obviously an enormous vulnerability to her parents and their mission, as any accidental or deliberate indiscretion from her could bring everything tumbling down. But by letting her in on it piece by piece, they also suspend the relationship with Paige in a further web of lies.
What would she do if she were to realise that actually, the training with Elizabeth wasn’t just for self-defence? That her parents have killed many people, and fully intend to kill many more? That her parents lied even while convincing her they were revealing the truth of their lives? They are impossibly sharp wedges which the audience can envision being driven in long before the characters do.
Only a tiny number of people know what it’s like to have to live double lives to the extent the Jennings’ do. But similarly, only a tiny number of people would know what it’s like to have lived a life of perfect honesty, without some skeleton rattling around in a closet waiting for the opportune moment to tumble out.
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Who hasn’t felt the sickening stomach plummet that comes with being exposed, or waited for that tap on the shoulder indicating the jig is up?
And there is no better show made this decade that captures the damage to the soul of living lies. That is surely a major reason why so many are hanging on to see what their fate will be. Let them die in the final season, for all I care. Just let their secrets stay safe.
Season six of The Americans drops on Lightbox. You can watch it and the previous five seasons right here.