Over the course of The Americans, we have watched Elizabeth and Philip Jennings’ relationship evolve out of order. Within the confines of their arranged marriage, they learned to love and trust one another, and as the fifth season opens, they’re not just one caring, compassionate couple—they’re two, in the form of their airline-industry aliases, the Eckerts. And with the stunning opener to season five, “Amber Waves,” we’re now witnessing forward momentum in Philip and Elizabeth’s partnership, as the consequences of being a family are finally sinking in.
Some of this is mission-related: Elizabeth’s being extra-protective of Paige because Paige knows her parents’ secret, and because her budding romance with Matthew places that secret in a vulnerable position. But the Jennings have children beyond their biological ones. There’s Tuan, the Eckerts’ adopted son, who attracts Elizabeth’s silent pride and identification when he disparages a Soviet defector’s lack of patriotism. And then there’s surrogate son Hans, whose mentor-mentee relationship with Elizabeth has been a staple of quieter Americans moments—like when she halts their digging in “Amber Waves” to share a canteen.
The show isn’t spendthrift with flashes of tenderness like this, and a few minutes later, “Amber Waves” really makes it count: After Hans exposes himself to Lassa fever, Elizabeth executes her surrogate son at close range. And it leaves me thinking, “What does it mean to Elizabeth to pull that trigger?” It’s an effective choice of scripting and editing, and the season premiere doesn’t provide us much resolution on the matter. Capping off a lengthy sequence that’s dialogue-free until the point when dialogue really matters, Hans’ death is a triple gasper: First when he falls, next when he reveals his gashed hand, and finally when Elizabeth fires her gun. The Americans has primed us for events like this, but it’s still shocking when they befall characters we—and the Jennings—have spent a lot of time with.
But pay close attention to the episode, and you’ll see how interchangeable and anonymous people with Hans’ specific set of skills are supposed to be. As the camera glides through the streets of D.C. and Moscow, it briefly catches men who could be spying on Philip and Oleg—or they could just be any old passerby. (“Amber Waves” allows us to catch our breath a few times, but director Chris Long cultivates a nerve-jangling “trust no one” atmosphere. Even the vantage point of the cafeteria cold open raises suspicions.) The history of “essential” Americans personnel suddenly proving their expendability stretches all the way back to poor Gregory, and Hans joins their ranks at the end of “Amber Waves.” His final resting place is symbolically potent: The same steel coffin as William, two lives sacrificed so that Philip and Elizabeth could preserve their own.
The ties that bind the Jennings are blurred further by strengthened connections to the Beemans. When Philip fills Elizabeth in on his conversation with Stan—one in a dozen different ways The Americans depicts information changing hands—it caused me to ask another question: Do the Jennings like Agent Beeman? How much playacting is involved in bull sessions like the one in which Stan fills Philip in on the lady in the purple leotard? Judging by the current state of Jennings-Beeman relations, they’re willing to tolerate (and maybe even enjoy!) a certain level of fraternizing with the enemy. That said, the fact that he hasn’t caught on yet suggests that they don’t have much respect for his professional abilities.
But that obliviousness contributes to the rich dramatic irony of Stan’s joking suggestion that the Jennings and the Beemans move in together, becoming one big, happy family sharing dinners of Lipton instant noodles. (Lots of Lipton products in “Amber Waves”—watch for the iced tea commercial during Tuan’s A-Team episode.) While Stan makes dinner from a pouch, Soviet defector Alexei (Alexander Sokovikov) presides over a meal served from many dishes, a display of American abundance that underlines his grousing about the old country. Tuan isn’t exaggerating: Alexei describes the USSR as “dirty, unhappy, and crashing,” before launching into a Yakov Smirnoff routine about food shortages, government bribes, and three families living in the same apartment. It’s a less sunny portrait of communal living than the one in Stan’s mind.
It is, however, accurate to what we see in the post-credits montage and Mischa’s trip to the airport. But, perhaps to Alexei’s increased chagrin, there’s no need to hop across the animated globe to find prosperity and ample pastries—they’re in the office of Oleg’s new KGB supervisor, and the apartment of Oleg’s parents. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have said that this season of the show will contain “less espionage whizbang,” and they seem to be following through on that by setting up missions that have something to do with the bread baskets on either side of the Cold War. On the whizbang side: Not so promising. On the thematic end of things: If The Americans is focusing on the family, so to speak, what better emblem of a family’s unity, stability, and loyalty than the dinner table? I mean aside from that scene in which Elizabeth pushes Paige around the garage, the site of so many altercations and close calls in the Jennings house.
“Amber Waves” is a promising start to The Americans’ penultimate season, and I’m not just saying that because the very first soundtrack cue of season five is Devo’s “fascist clown” anthem “That’s Good.” After four years of slow-burning suspense, the show still knows how to pull a fascinating fast one on us—even using some of those slow-burn techniques to accomplish it. The Eckert reveal masterfully handled, and the fact that it’s a good 10 minutes until we see Paige or Henry creates a real edginess about when we are and where we are in the Americans timeline. Everything leading to Paige’s entrance concerns new situations (the Eckerts, Oleg at home) or new surroundings (Pasha and Tuan in the cafeteria)—the mind leaps to some chilling conclusions about new safe houses and extraditions in that amount of time.
And then there’s William’s “final mission” out behind Fort Detrick, which does the Americans thing of deglamorizing Elizabeth and Philip’s line of work by depicting an assignment in the most painstaking, least sexy terms possible. Yet footage of a hole being dug doesn’t get more compelling than this. Because there’s mystery and there’s suspense and there’s no real indication of how far the hole might go down until they throw that ladder rope over the side. As is so often the case with The Americans, you don’t really know what you’re in for until you’re in over your head. Poor Hans. He may have thought he’d found himself a family, but it turns out he’s just a sign of how far Elizabeth Jennings’ definition of “family” extends.
- Welcome to season five of The Americans, comrades! Ironic use of Soviet-era terminology is not as fun as it used to be! Either way, I’m glad to have you back, and I look forward to another 13 weeks of channeling anxiety about our brewing cold war into this taut, excellently acted, beautifully photographed metaphor for marriage channeled through the events of the last Cold War.
- For more information on season five, please read (or re-read, if you’ve already read) Esther Zuckerman’s report from the Americans set. Following that set visit, Esther did some follow-up with Weisberg and Fields about Hans’ death and the “whiplash” of the Eckert’s introduction, and you can read that here. If you were catching some John Hughes vibes from that cold open: Congratulations, you were on the right track.
- For those who like playing Mad Men-type guessing games about when The Americans is taking place: References to the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics place “Amber Waves” somewhere in February of ’84. A specific issue of The Washington Post mentioned in the end credits gives us an exact date: February 16, 1984.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season 5, Week 1: B+. Strong start to the season, particularly from Mrs. Eckert. We’ve seen variations on the golden locks/sandy mustache that Mr. Eckert sports before, but the curly brown bob seems to bring a whole different level of energy out of Elizabeth—Mrs. Eckert has a lot of sass and plenty of jokes around the dinner table. Forget the amber waves—these brunette waves can come around whenever they’d like.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season 5, Week 1: I definitely shouted “Finally!” when I fired up “Amber Waves” for the first time and heard the familiar synthesizer thrum of “That’s Good.” Devo is such a good fit for The Americans, period-wise and thematically, and I’ve been waiting forever for one of the de-evolution band’s tracks to make its way into the show. Unfortunately, in the show’s world, the spud boys are on the wane: Making scooter commercials, falling in love with the Fairlight CMI, and preparing their worst album. 1984’s Shout lost Devo a drummer, a record deal, and a tour—but on the bright side, its failure freed Mark Mothersbaugh up to do the music for Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
- Okay, nerd, but was there any Mail Robot? The FBI scene from “Amber Waves” primarily takes place in the vault, and since Mail Robot’s recent acts of treason probably preclude its tracks from being extended into the vault, there’s no Mail Robot tonight. But here’s footage of Devo playing “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA,” a song that depicts the band as “suburban robots that monitor reality.” So, you know: Sorta like Mail Robot.