Matthew Rhys (left), Keri Russell (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)

The slow burn was always going to be a challenge as The Americans entered its end game. When so much time and so much effort has been put toward wringing the suspense out of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ covert operations in these United States, a quick acceleration into an explosive conclusion would ring false. For The Americans to be true to itself, it needed to have this fifth season, a season in which the spy stories seemed small potatoes compared to what’s happening on a quiet street in Falls Church, Virginia. This is a story whose climax arrives not when the protagonists gain an opportunity, but rather when they’ve run out of opportunities. The arc of season five backs the Jennings into a corner. Tonight, Elizabeth reaches out and feels the wall behind her.

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“Dyatkovo” is the type of episode that makes me curse the A.V. Club’s grading system (more loudly than usual). When I watched “IHOP” and “Darkroom,” I really, truly believed that they were The Americans at its best. But I was wrong. “Dyatkovo” is The Americans at its best. This is an episode that applies the slow burn to some of the show’s most potent themes—family, trust, the shittiness of being a spy—themes that are underlined in the performance and direction of “Dyatkovo.” And it ends with a memorable stinger, its meaning deepened by the hour that proceeds it. “I want to get out of here,” Elizabeth tells Philip, as they drive away from the scene of a crime. “We should just go.”

Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Elizabeth’s words agree with Philip’s facial expressions. Matthew Rhys puts his sour puss to the test this week, playing Philip in a manner that suggests every seat he sits in has had its cushion replaced with a wet sponge. Gabriel said Philip was losing “it,” and here “it” could be his instincts, his commitment, or his connection with his children, biological and faux-adopted. Philip’s focus appears to be somewhere in the middle distance, whether he’s eating McDonald’s on the couch with Tuan, receiving instructions from Claudia, or pointing his pistol at a woman who may or may not have been a Nazi collaborator. The impression throughout “Dyatkovo” is that Philip is a man with no fight left in him.

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Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Inevitability is a force The Americans has worked with and against throughout its run, as it tells a story that can only come to one of a few tragic conclusions. “Dyatkovo” lays one of those endings out in stark terms, in a tableau that pairs Elizabeth and Philip with their counterparts in the Granholm marriage. No doubt Natalie Granholm has played out this scenario a million times in her head, and it’s a probability that must haunt the Jennings as well: You can change your name, you can leave the country, all records of your existence can be expunged, and yet the past catches up. And this is a woman who just had the Soviets looking for her; based solely on what we’ve seen on The Americans, representatives of multiple nations (and one mail-robot-repair facility) have cause to one day wreak vengeance upon Philip and Elizabeth. Making the connections between the two couples more explicit, director Steph Green takes Rhys and Russell out of the picture all together, fixing on Irina Dubova and John Procaccino as Natalie tells John the truth. These two strangers briefly command our attention because they have a story to tell, but it’s the story we’ve been watching all along. John and Natalie are Philip and Elizabeth. Philip and Elizabeth are John and Natalie.

With one key difference: The Jennings don’t always tell one another the truth, but they don’t have to hide their true nature. They get to enjoy the kind of trust that, in “Dyatkovo,” Stan describes as missing from his life. Disenchantment rings on both sides of the Iron Curtain this week, though you wouldn’t know it from watching Henry Jennings, whose visit to the FBI is all Mail Robots (hello, old friend), acoustically sealed vaults, and meeting the head of counterintelligence. It’s like something out of a movie (or an original cable drama from 30 years in the future) to Henry, but to Stan it’s just another day at the office. An office that wears you down, strains your marriage, kills your friends, and sends your co-workers to god knows where. Henry pursuing a career track that leads to the FBI would be too pat a conclusion for The Americans, but it’s fun to have Keidrich Sellati playing counterpoint to the show’s perspective on espionage. In the face of spy craft’s grim reality, it’s a reminder of what attracts us to these sorts of stories in the first place.

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Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Because now, more than ever, The Americans is giving us reason to be skeptical about the missions carried out by these characters. Oleg’s storyline is starting to bear fruit (pun intended) in this regard, exposing the broken nature of what Philip and Elizabeth are risking their lives to defend. The closer he gets to the truth about corruption in the food-supply chain, the more it looks like the KGB is protecting a house of cards. Fomina isn’t afraid of the state—she kept her smoking-gun ledger in an unlocked drawer. Oleg’s fellow agents are casually questioning protocol. And why shouldn’t they? They’re working for people whose idea of memorializing a fallen comrade is naming a biological weapon after them. Lassa killed William and had to be smuggled out of the U.S. in a chunk of his flesh. Claudia can put all the pride behind “Variant V” that she wants (and Margo Martindale certainly does), and she can give the most convincing case for Natalie Granholm matching the traitorous Ana’s height and age (which Martindale does), but the only appropriate response at this point is Philip’s scowl.

Watching The Americans from our comfy vantage point in the 21st century (which is now less comfy, and maybe wasn’t all that comfy to begin with), we know who comes out of this thing on top. It’s a dramatic irony that Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have done their best to background, focusing their attention on family dynamics and missions that might only figure into the most detailed of Cold War texts. But as the end of the series nears, and as the Jennings are confronted with visions of their unfortunate fate, the fact that Elizabeth and Philip are fighting a losing battle snaps into place. Elizabeth’s declaration in the car is startling, and it is affecting. It’s The Americans, as the thriller applies the pressure ahead of season five’s last two episodes.

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Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Five, Week 11: C-. On a snowy night in Boston, your improv level-one instructor and his partner who cuts hair in their mudroom pull off a home invasion.

  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Five, Week 11: B+. I had to rely on the fine folks at FX Media Relations for this one: The Russian ballad playing over the cold open is “Журавли,” or “Cranes,” Mark Bernes’ ode to the fallen soldiers of World War II, recorded shortly before the popular crooner himself died. A meaningful thematic choice that really makes you dig to find the meaning.

  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Five, Week 11 (Addendum): For purely completist purposes, I also inquired about the song that Henry’s listening to while doing homework, which is just barely audible in the sound mix. But like “Журавли,” it has a good backstory: The Jetzons were a new wave band from Tempe, Arizona that fell shy of going national in the early ’80s. After the band broke up, keyboardist Brad Buxer worked with several big name recording artists, including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and their former Motown associate, Michael Jackson. Buxer served for a spell as Jackson’s musical director; during that time, they worked on Dangerous—and the soundtrack to Sonic The Hedgehog 3. In the process, the unreleased Jetzons track “Hard Times” was reworked into the music for the first act of the game’s Ice Cap Zone. Sega has never confirmed that Jackson contributed any music to the game, but Buxer has. So there’s a fun bit of trivia for you: Video game enthusiast Henry Jennings is listening to a future Sonic soundtrack cue made possible by the biggest musical artist of the 1980s.
  • Was there any Mail Robot? Mail Robot makes a prominent appearance in “Dyatkovo,” making a deep impression on Henry (as it should). “This is so cool,” Henry says, like any right-thinking person who’s just made contact with an artificial intelligence that carries and delivers correspondence within an inclosed space. “Ah, it’s more trouble than it’s worth,” says Agent Beeman, correctly relaying the device’s treasonous tendencies and possibly articulating the opinions of his creators.

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