Warning: This article contains spoilers.
The sixth and final season of FX’s acclaimed Cold War espionage drama, “The Americans,” premieres Wednesday. This is the last go for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), elite KGB spies posing as a married couple in suburban D.C. circa the Reagan era, and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), their neighbor across the street who happens to be an FBI counterintelligence agent.
All the drama and tension that’s been building over the first five seasons will finally reach a boiling point. Identities will (probably) be revealed. Lives will (probably) be turned upside down. This is it. The much-anticipated payoff is coming. Here are three big questions to consider as Season 6 kicks off.
What will be the fate of the Jennings family?
It’s a broad and obvious question, but there are any number of compelling sub-questions to consider. Will they be caught? Will they defect? Will they return “home”? Will everyone live? When all the dust settles, will they stand as a united front?
That’s the one that interests me most, because the divide between Philip and Elizabeth has been one of the primary engines of drama on the show. The two have significant differences in personality, disposition, and ideological fervor. Elizabeth is the True Believer: headstrong, passionate, always on a war footing, and willing it seems to sacrifice everything for the cause of defending the homeland and advancing communism. Philip doesn’t burn nearly as hot ideologically. He’s a patriot, but he’s flexible and seemingly at ease with the comforts of American life and far more susceptible to doubts about the rightness of their work. There’s been a regular push-pull to his character. One moment, he kills an innocent bystander, which throws him into emotional turmoil. Or he makes a comment like “America’s not so bad.” The next, Ronald Reagan comes on TV and says something that reaffirms his sense of duty to Mother Russia. How far will the pendulum swing in either direction this season?
Philip’s main concern, as he’s stated time and again, is protecting his wife and kids. Among other things, that’s meant forcefully and repeatedly pushing back against the KGB’s desire to have their daughter, Paige, join the family trade. Well, as the previews for Season 6 indicate, that’s exactly where Paige is heading, surely to the gratification of her mother. What will the fallout be? Will Philip go code red at the first hint of danger to Paige? He was moments away from defecting in the pilot episode because he merely thought the FBI was on to them. Now the stakes could be even higher. And what are the limits of Elizabeth’s commitment to The Cause, especially if it’s pressed up against the wellbeing of her daughter? Will she finally crack? (That’s another way of asking, “Will she finally wax Claudia?”)
The whole season might very well turn on Paige. For most of the series, she’s served as a wedge between her parents. Now that she’s active in the fight, and no longer under the sway of Christianity, as part of her quest for purpose and identity, it seems she’s really and truly her mother’s daughter. As she says in this clip, “I don’t think I’m the same as you, Dad.” It’s not out of the question that this dynamic could permanently fracture the family. That would be a staggering but dramatically coherent way to end the show.
To be sure, it’s not what I expect to happen. It might just be too much of a gut punch. Then again, let’s not forget who Philip and Elizabeth are (as the show constantly tempts you to do). Heavy consciences aside, they’re extremely effective spies who’ve racked up a substantial body count. They have tons of innocent blood on their hands. Over and over, they’ve destroyed families and ruined lives. They may not personally believe that life is cheap, but their actions matter far more and tell a much different story. Will the creators of the show finally drop the boom on them for their sins? Will all the pain and despair they’ve inflicted on others ricochet back to them? Or is that too tidy, too black and white for the self-styled “morally ambiguous” world of “The Americans?” Maybe there isn’t room for true justice.
How bad will things end for Stan?
It’s not a question of if but to what degree things will end badly for Stan. He is all of these things: a compromised agent, a murderer, and a professional failure. Because of his feelings for Nina, he fell prey to the machinations of Oleg Burov and was forced to illicitly hand over sensitive information to him. He killed a young, inexperienced KGB officer in cold blood, someone who had no connection to the event that prompted Stan to action. And he keeps whiffing on his attempts to nab “the Illegals,” his prime targets who, ya know, live across the street and keep very strange hours and regularly invite him over for dinner and even had him watch their kids once after their narrow escape from, ya know, STAN AND A BUNCH OF OTHER FBI AGENTS. To put into perspective the magnitude of his failings (and just how surreal the show can be), within the space of that one day, Stan went from shooting Elizabeth to babysitting her kids.
The shock of realizing this would be devastating for anyone, but especially so for Stan, whose identity is entirely rooted in his work. He failed at marriage, he’s a bumbling if well-intentioned father, and there don’t seem to be any other sources of meaning in his life. He is his job. There’s no way around the fact that, when the truth descends on him, he’ll be left an utterly broken man. His twitch is going to flare up like never before. It’ll be sad — despite how clueless and reckless he often is, Stan’s a very likable guy — but still richly warranted.
As a brief side note, one aspect of the show I’ll really miss is Philip and Stan’s friendship (especially Stan’s unannounced pop-ins at the Jennings residence, with a sixer of High Life in tow. It’s a lost art, something our age of hyper-connectivity has totally undermined). Yes, their relationship is complicated and one-sided in a very peculiar kind of way, but there’s still something genuinely affecting about how much Stan leans on Philip for support and how Philip, despite everything else, can’t help but kinda sorta care about Stan. It’s possible that when Philip looks at Stan, he thinks, “If I didn’t have my family, I might be some version of him.” It’s going to be a tough moment when all the cards are down and the two friends/neighbors/racquetball partners/EST buddies are each pointing a gun at the other.
What’s the status of various characters in the Soviet Union?
The dashing Oleg has been full of surprises since his entrance onto the show. He’s the thoroughly Western, Rod Stewart-loving “bro” who turned out to be much more. But his character stalled in Season 5, when he returned to the USSR and joined the KGB unit investigating widespread corruption in the food supply. Where will the show pick up with him? Will his treasonous activities finally catch up with him? Is he on a collision course of some sort with his high-ranking father? I could see a fatalist, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown” kind of anti-resolution to his storyline. There’s also Mischa, the son Philip unknowingly fathered before coming to America, whose character also hit a dead end in Season 5 (it’s a recurring theme).
Will we hear from the wonderful Martha? Gabriel? Or who knows, maybe Pastor Tim will show up in the Soviet Union, having finally realized he’s a communist! I kid. I actually appreciate the show’s largely serious treatment of him and his Christian beliefs. From a moral perspective, he had a crucial role to play. He was the one character in a position to provide an outsider critique of Philip and Elizabeth’s way of life (what he knew of it, anyway) and the corrosive toll it was taking on Paige. If we’ve seen the last of him, he will be missed. Really. At the same time, he also served up a few monumentally vacuous moments that probably triggered near-fatal eye-rolls from many Christians. How about the time he mused, “All that matters is how we treat each other?” He said that to a spy. Or who could forget, “We believe in social justice with a healthy dollop of Jesus in the mix?” Wrong order, Pastor Tim.
Some other (perhaps less important) questions
What disposable sub-sub-sub-subplot will the show throw at the forgotten Jennings, Henry? Remember when he snuck into the neighbors’ house to play video games and was caught and that was a thing for 20 seconds? Or his very brief fixation with Sandra Beeman? At least in Season 5 the show had the honesty to make a plot point out of its general neglect of him by registering everyone’s shock when it turned out he’s a very capable student who wants to attend a prestigious boarding school. Elizabeth summed up the Henry dynamic best: “I thought he spent all his time playing games on the computer.” In truth, there may not be room for any throwaway moments with Henry. Season 6 runs only 10 episodes. As it’s set in late 1987, maybe Henry will have a Nintendo by then. No one on the show, after all, is more American than he is, and maybe that’s the point.
Does Philip have any new memorable disguises in store? The Season 5 finale hinted that he might be entering semi-retirement. If so, he can rest assured that his existing body of work will stand on its own. His looks have been all over the map: goth Joan Jett, Hemingway, Thorin Oakenshield, Mitch Hedberg-meets-Warren Zevon, to name a few. It’s been a feast for the eyes and a regular reminder of the show’s ongoing theme about the lead characters’ lack of a true identity.
What song will provide the last epic music moment? Everyone loves the show’s heavily ‘80s soundtrack, which has been used to frame and color many indelible scenes. Search the Internet and you’ll find no shortage of lists ranking the time-capsule selections that have ranged from Soft Cell and Peter Gabriel to Leonard Cohen and Fleetwood Mac. My personal favorites include The Cure’s “Siamese Twins” (from Season 1, “Mutually Assured Destruction”) and Yazoo’s luminous ballad “Only You” (from Season 3, “Dimebag”). The pressure is on for another knockout sequence of sound and vision.
Here’s the Season 6 trailer:
My only confident prediction is that, as it comes in for a landing, “The Americans” won’t deviate from its strengths. It will continue to be a character-driven, domestic drama set against the backdrop of Cold War intrigue, rarely light on tension and thrills but even more rarely overplotted or going for too much, dipped in real history — the attempted assassination of Reagan, the Soviet-Afghan War, “The Day After” — but not as a crutch or at the expense of character focus. I trust the storytelling instincts of showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, and I can’t wait to see how they bring this riveting creation of theirs to a close.