The Americans Season 5 Premiere: Digging Deep Into the Cold War

The best show on television is back! The Americans returned tonight with a very tense beginning to its penultimate season. There were many developments in this episode, but none more memorable than that brilliant final sequence…

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Warning: Plot details from the season premiere follow.

I never thought watching a group of people dig a hole could be so captivating and nerve-racking. Much of the final scene’s success is due to the “show, don’t tell” approach this series loves to take. Going in we know that Phillip, Elizabeth, Hans, and a few other agents are infiltrating Fort Detrick. We witness them take turns digging a hole in a field. This goes on for almost 15 minutes (!), and includes no dialogue until the very end. Eventually they find a solid object, which turns out to be a casket holding William’s body. Phillip cuts off a piece of skin from the body, which has been infected with a deadly pathogen, and bags it. This alone would’ve been a chilling end to the episode… but we’re not done. As the bag is passed up, Hans loses his balance and falls into the massive hole. He lands on William and gets up to find a cut on his hand. Elizabeth tells him everything will be okay. Hans turns to climb out and Elizabeth shoots him in the head.

The Americans has always loved a good metaphor. In last season’s premiere, Phillip examined a vial of the Glanders pathogen following an altercation in his garage with Stan. Even the slightest fracture of the vial could have spelled disaster. For Elizabeth and Phillip, their lives were in a similarly delicate state at the time. As we now delve deeper into the Cold War, the stakes continue to be raised. The operations are more dangerous than ever. Paige’s knowledge of her parents’ work — and her own involvement in it — continues to grow. Tensions between the US and Soviet Union become greater. Last season ended with Gabriel suggesting that Phillip and Elizabeth should return home to Russia. This hasn’t happened. For now, the Jennings continue to dig a larger hole, one they may not be able to escape from unscathed.

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This episode, titled “Amber Waves”, begins nearly as brilliantly as it ends. The cold open shows a Vietnamese refugee, Tuan, navigating an American high school lunch room. He sits down next to a new student from Moscow and befriends him. The two boys head to Tuan’s home where they find Phillip and Elizabeth donning new wigs and waiting for them in the kitchen. They are posing as Tuan’s parents in order to work a potential new asset. We later see them visit the home of this new Soviet family. The father despises his homeland and is not afraid to talk about it. This frustrates Tuan greatly, which provides us with a hint that he may not be the easiest agent for the Jennings to work with going forward. This operation also opens up new thematic possibilities. It sheds light on the quality of life in the US versus the Soviet Union, and we see firsthand the complexities of an uprooted family. Phillip and Elizabeth were on the verge of packing their bags and running multiple times last season, so this family’s situation may strike a chord with them.

As Phillip and Elizabeth are out on their new operation, Paige spends more time at the Beeman residence. Stan is thrilled about her new relationship with Matthew, which contrasts greatly with the reaction of her own parents. Elizabeth says she wishes Paige could be a normal teenager, with a boyfriend who lives across the street. But as with anything involving Paige and the Jennings family, the complexities run deep. The more time Paige spends with Matthew, the greater the risk. Paige is still shaken from watching her mother kill a man in front of her last season. She is having trouble sleeping, and admits this to her parents. There is still a dissonance between Phillip and Elizabeth when it comes to how they each want to proceed with Paige. Phillip wants her to stop seeing Matthew, and would like to reel her in and shield her from the life he leads. Elizabeth agrees to talk to Paige about this, but instead decides to help her train in self-defense. Elizabeth is more open to telling Paige about her own past — such as her original home in Smolensk — and the things she has learned through her work. As Paige becomes a more capable fighter and continues to mine information from Matthew, it’s only a matter of time before a choice has to be made about her future.

“Amber Waves” also spends a significant amount of time in Russia, as Oleg adjusts to his return home. He has a new boss, a new job as a criminal investigator, and has moved back to live with his parents. His work should provide us with a firsthand look at the troubles in Moscow, which we have not seen much of in the series. Another development overseas involves Phillips son, Mischa. At the end of last season, Mischa was given a passport and set out to find his father. We now see Mischa make his way through airport customs, and appears to be well on his way to America. For a family dynamic as complex as the Jennings’ currently is, adding Mischa to the mix could prove too much for Phillip to handle. I cannot wait to see where this leads.

Overall, The Americans crafted yet another fantastic season premiere. It continued long-running plot threads, while introducing a few more to the mix. We’ll have to wait and see how these developments play out over the course of the season, but for now I’m just thrilled to have the Jennings back on my television screen.

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