How The Americans Mastered the Structure of TV Storytelling

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How The Americans Mastered the Structure of TV Storytelling

How do you structure a TV show?

It’s a deceptively simple question, with multitudinous answers. All we can do is take the series that seem to understand the process and work backward from there. There is no better example of expertly heightening viewer anxiety and engaging in emotional heartbreak on an episode-by-episode basis than FX’s The Americans, which concludes its remarkable fifth season Tuesday night.

Quietly growing over the last five seasons in viewership and confidence, The Americans at its core has always been a series about two Russian spies living undercover in the United States during the waning years of the Cold War, while simultaneously raising their children and struggling with their own complicated marriage. This is still true. But like few other shows, The Americans has been able to expertly exploit the medium of TV to reach the fullest potential of its ongoing, evolutionary nature.

Jason Mittell’s book Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, published in 2015 and already greatly debated and cited in academic and critical circles, explores how television storytelling profoundly changed in the aughts, but he does so in a medium-specific way, avoiding allusions to how TV has become more “cinematic,” for example. This is a mistake that too much of TV criticism makes, attempting to make sense of television through the lens of another medium altogether. As he explains, “Television’s narrative complexity is predicated on specific facets of storytelling that seem uniquely suited to the series structure that sets television apart from film and literature, and distinguish it from conventional modes of episodic and serial forms.” In other words, there is clearly something specific about TV’s seriality and its episodic structure, and it seems that the medium’s power is most acutely found in the fraught space in between.

The X-Files, Mittell notes, is perhaps the quintessential example of this careful balance, and also its worst offender. Many factors played into the show’s eventual decline in audience and acclaim, but surely its primary struggle was keeping up with the “demands and pleasures of episodic and serial norms,” as Mittell puts it. The X-Files consistently oscillated between its long-term deep mythology and “monster-of-the-week” storylines, a balance which became unsustainable when the disjuncture between them grew too great. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, was able to build compelling season-long story arcs (versus The X-Files’s series-long conspiracy) “while still offering episodic coherence and mini-resolutions.”

In either case, though, we must recognize that part of our pleasure comes from understanding the operations of narrative mechanics—in attempting to answer, “How did they do that?” A key example from the fifth season of The Americans is the lengthy scene that ends the premiere, as Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) dig up William’s body to retrieve a sample of Lassa virus. The sequence is excruciatingly long and tense, and certainly part of its pleasure is putting together how this scene matters in narrative context, past, present and future. When Elizabeth is forced to kill Hans (Peter Mark Kendall), who has been accidentally exposed to the virus, we are viscerally confronted with the pair’s previous relationship (did this action have an emotional impact on Elizabeth?), how this changes their current situation, and what the possible implications will be.

It’s an intensely cathartic release from the building tension, a heartbreaking catharsis that recurs in the season’s eleventh episode, “Dyatkovo,” when Elizabeth murders Anna/Natalie (Irina Dobova, devastating) and her husband, John (John Procaccino). Natalie, it turns out, was a broken, reluctant Nazi collaborator, forced to kill many Soviet prisoners after the Nazis murdered her family. The Jennings are tasked by their handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale), with killing her for her treasonous actions, but it’s not clear during the entire sequence, paced to perfection, whether they’ll ultimately go through with it. Certainly Philip is hesitant, particularly after hearing Natalie tell her story, and the gut-wrenching conversation between her and John. But Elizabeth, presumably ever loyal to the cause, finally does the horrible deed.

My response was absolute anguish. A knee-jerk emotional reaction, but one that I realized was also intrinsically and unavoidably tied up in my intimate relationship with Elizabeth and Philip as characters, in my ongoing understanding of who they are as people and who they’ve become over the last five seasons. More specifically, in how Elizabeth has changed throughout this season-long arc, from her seemingly emotionless response to killing Hans in the premiere, to what she says to Philip in the car after murdering Natalie and John: “I want to get out of here. We should just go,” an unthinkable statement from her at any other point in the series’ history other than right now.

Ongoing TV narratives and their characters develop along with their writers and their audiences in an interrelated dance of emotional complexity and evolution. It is precisely due to the steady architecture of The Americans as orchestrated by the show’s writers (headed by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg), that the series can capitalize on and harness the tension between serial and episodic modes. The searingly cataclysmic sequence that ends “Dyatkovo” is a pure distillation of how the series captures moments that satisfy and challenge on both levels of televisual storytelling simultaneously. In a vigorous, intuitive way, the episode is a blistering succession of events, comprising a wide range of both short- and long-term purposes, that happen to arise at the only point in the ongoing narrative they possibly could have. Mittell talks about the redefining of the boundary between these storytelling mechanics, and in a potently dramatic way, The Americans makes this boundary nonexistent. Its mastery lies in that beautiful, uneasy, uncomfortable expanse.

The season finale of The Americans airs Tuesday, May 31 at 10 p.m. on FX.

Jake Pitre is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in Polygon, Dazed & Confused, Hazlitt, and The Outline, among other publications. He is a graduate student in Film Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, and tweets @jake_pitre.

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