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At its best, “The Americans” manages to interrogate issues of childhood, citizenship, assimilation, marriage, and the parents’ responsibilities to their children. However, even a quick thematic scan of “The Americans” would be a reductive exercise. Throughout its first five seasons, what made the FX product richly compelling was the ease with which it was able to deal with a plurality of thematic problems—problems that inherently resist neat categorization—through the marriage of two Russian spies posted in America.
The premiere of Season Six displays a similar intellectual nuance. However, here our married Russian spies are placed in opposition to each other—with Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) aligned with the pro-Gorbachev liberals and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) allied with the KGB hawks—placing into sharp focus alternative visions of the responsibilities of the self to state. The stakes of the action are raised dramatically; the specter of mariticide—in the backdrop of mutually assured destruction—looms over the narrative.
I would be remiss not to note that “The Americans” remains one of the best shows on television. Its thematic complexity renders more intelligent thought per episode than many shows can convey in a season. Despite aspects of its unmitigated success, some of the premiere’s smaller moments lack the nuanced craft that previous seasons consistently maintained. “The Americans” is on the cusp of getting stale.
Russell is stellar; Rhys is not as sharp. Perhaps it is a product of his more narratively limited role in the premiere—a retired spy, Philip is contently confined to a typical bourgeoise American life (complete with a crumbling marriage). However, Rhys doesn’t fully convey the internal complexity that must be wrought from shifting careers from assassin to full time travel agent. He is at his best while playing off Russell’s Elizabeth and Costa Ronin’s Oleg Igorevich Burov. The understated aspects of his performance are rendered in sharper focus through an oppositional character. When dancing alone or giving pep talks to his travel office drones, Rhys lacks a refractory lens to illuminate his interiority.
That is not simply to place the blame for the premiere’s smaller problems on Rhys. Holly Taylor has lost some of the youthful curiosity that made her earlier representation of Paige Jennings, Elizabeth and Philip’s daughter, deeply compelling. She seems less comfortable, awkward even, as a college student. Ronin seems a bit complacent in his depiction of the complexly patriotic Burov. Intriguingly, it’s the episodes smallest characters—including a stunningly excellent Lyanka Gryu as Burov’s wife—that seem to be navigating the most interesting and novel artistic terrain.
Some of these problems may simply be a product of a show running for as long as “The Americans” has. After six seasons, it is understandable that various actors seem overly comfortable in their characters. Nevertheless, embedded in that comfort is an inherent complacency and lack of artistic innovation. Ronin’s acting, for example, isn’t terrible, but his performance is monotonous and stagnant. It lacks the intellectual artistry of the formulation and reformulation of a character that Gryu’s representation embodies.
Other than the actors’ often underwhelming representation of their respective characters, some aspects of the show’s depiction of certain scenes and general stylistic valence feel well worn. The show knows its narrative voice—which can be both a blessing and a curse. Its representation of spying feels so much like second nature that it often fails to add anything new to the cannon. Even the camera’s framing of scenes feels self-plagiaristic. As Elizabeth carries out a violent assassination, the visual setup of the scene feels uncannily similar to depictions of barbaric brutality in previous seasons.
This premiere in no way indicates that this season will veer from its history of crafting compelling television—to the contrary, its narrative framework of Philip and Elizabeth working against each other yields promise of future brilliance. Yet it must be noted that the episode lacks the innovation that is truly characteristic of uncomplacent art. Perhaps, after six seasons, this marks the best time for “The Americans” to end.
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