The Americans has always done montages well.
The one that opens the sixth and final season is akin to the one that opens the sixth (and final) season of The Sopranos. Both serve initially as catch-up, dropping in on our characters after an extended time jump between seasons, looking at who’s changed, who’s the same, a measure of what incremental differences can take place in a person’s life.
But this is more than just catch-up. Where The Sopranos trawled the decaying depths of its characters with the William Burroughs-narrated track Seven Souls, The Americans begs us to look upward and ahead with Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. Montages can easily be written off as cheap ways of uniting storylines (‘Hey they’re all doing the same thing!’) but The Americans has always managed to find well-known songs that both unite their characters, but manage to invite a multitude of interpretations. One song, or one image, can mean so many different things.
The dream of the song is present in all these characters. Most obviously, we’re given extended insights into Elizabeth’s current spy drudgery – still involving honeytraps, despite her request away from that kind of work – and it’s clear she’s being run into the ground. Lack of sleep, multiple operations that she now shoulders the burden for singlehandedly, we’re seeing Elizabeth near the end of something inside of her. Does she still dream of her peaceful Soviet future? Does it still exist?
Later, we see more in depth her difficulties at relating to an artist she is nursing, one of the new operations for the season. For Elizabeth, the prodigy of the collectivist state, the soldier for the socialist dream, she has no concept of anything as egotistical as art. This is petty, individualistic and narrow. For a final season that is undoubtedly going to break open whatever cracks there may be in Elizabeth’s adherence to her mission, this is an apt storyline to introduce. As with everything in The Americans, it’s small and character-driven.
Her meeting in Mexico to acquire further information (and a cyanide pill) on the upcoming summit reinforces the idea that not only is Elizabeth run into the ground, she’s potentially on autopilot. The details matter less and less. She is only there to run the operation out of habit, out of routine, because that’s all she can do.
The contrast is obvious with Philip. Elizabeth can’t break free of their mission because she has no sense of herself outside of it. Philip, however, has been released finally. Given free reign into his American identity, he cruises around with his new Lincoln, toting his car stereo player to and from his newly furnished and expanded offices. Bigger, better, shinier. And he seems at ease. But even a jaunt out to a night of line dancing leaves us wondering. Is this still cover for Philip? Is he playing the part of an American, still? There’s a hollowness to it all that points to his ultimate dream: a happy marriage.
Beyond this, the opening montage – and episode that follows – unites the characters in their division. All of them, but Philip and Elizabeth especially, are in their own silos. Moments of togetherness are brief, and fractured. As the song reinforces, they have all built a wall between them.
Played straight, as a domestic drama, the confrontation between Philip and Elizabeth could read as any portrait of a struggling marriage. Conflicting needs, cross-purposed lifestyles, and the inability for either to sit and listen and understand. But with the added espionage, and historical context, The Americans becomes a tragedy. Everyone around Philip and Elizabeth are discussing the Russian political context, the glasnost and perestroika that is changing the state, ostensibly for the better. As their world moves toward openness and transparency, the two protagonists are walled off from each other, shrouded once more in secrets.
As an absolute extension from this, Philip is invited to spy on Elizabeth. The Cold War is in their home.
This storyline arrives as a result of Oleg’s reintroduction to the US. And for Oleg, he too has to leave his wife and infant child back in Russia, with the possibility of arrest in America, or execution in Russia, should his mission go awry. And Stan’s home life, too, is the further development of this theme.
The time jump possibly complicated suspicions surround Stan’s girlfriend-now-wife Renee. Questions of whether she too is an illegal, Martha-ing Stan to giving up FBI secrets, now look to only be possible if this is an extremely long play (which is not as remote as it might sound). But it relies on Stan returning to counter-espionage, something that may now be possible given his connection to Oleg, and Oleg’s return to the US. Now that Renee feels Stan is finally opening up about his work to her, it’s conceivable that the apex of this season will see Cold War conflict in three different marriages.
The final complicating factor for the Jennings is Paige, now serving as a trainee operative in Elizabeth’s large operations. There are multiple realities occurring here. Beyond Paige and her mother, there are the assumed, unrelated personas they have adopted for the operation, to protect Paige’s relationship with her mother from their other operatives. But then there’s also the grim, brutal realities of the operation that Elizabeth maintains – the murder of a snooping security guard – and keeps secret from Paige. Will she still believe in the dream of a better Russia once she knows the full extent of the family business? Does this dream still exist outside of old films Paige watches with Claudia as education?
Who will Paige side with, now that the wall is built between her parents?