For me, the sequence that sums up The Americans’ fifth season occurs not in the red light of “Darkroom,” nor around the dining table of “Dyatkovo,” but in the midst of “The Soviet Division,” as Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” urges the Jennings to decide where their future lies. Though it begins with Paige (Holly Taylor) and Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) sharing a smile at the food bank, the montage soon shifts into pinpricks of doubt: Lonesome Philip (Matthew Rhys) watches, despondent, as Stan (Noah Emmerich) replaces him with Renee (Laurie Holden), on the squash court and perhaps in life; Elizabeth surveys the accoutrements of American capitalism, colorful dresses and stacks of shoes she may be more reluctant to give up than she cares to admit. Alongside John’s pungent contrast between “penthouse” and “plough”—so apt, after the season’s interest in the abundant and the scarce—the song’s regretful force, its sense of temps perdu, emerges as The Americans’ perfect accompaniment: As Paige closes the circle on the attempted mugging of “Dinner for Seven,” her parents prepare to move forward by returning home, retreating from tradecraft, reflecting on the past.
In this, “The Soviet Division,” with reference to both Breland’s promotion at the CIA and the discord Philip and Elizabeth’s ultimate decision seems likely to sow, is the emblem of the series’ evolution, its season-by-season transformation into the most remarkable family drama on television. Even the climax of the Morozov operation, that searing image of Pasha (Zack Gafin), wrists slashed, on his blood-soaked bed, hinges on trauma, not tension: Despite the apparent suspicion of the man from Morozovs’ protection detail, Alexei (Alexander Sokovikov) and Evgheniya’s (Irina Dvorovenko) warm welcome dispels our fear that Philip, Elizabeth and Tuan (Ivan Mok) will be “caught”; instead, amplified by a mother’s wails and a father’s shell-shocked expression, the scene shifts its attention to the fractures that open in families when we cannot see, or choose to ignore, “this sign, that sign,” as Evgheniya laments later, of the distress that comes with dislocation. “He say he’s sorry,” Alexei reports of Pasha’s suicide note, before the image cuts, meaningfully, to Philip’s face. “But he cannot live in America.”
The Americans’ attention, over the course of five seasons, has moved inexorably in this direction, changing from the case-of-the-week structure of Season One and the cat-and-mouse games of Season Two to Paige’s coming-of-age in Season Three, Philip’s almost adulterous affection for Martha (Alison Wright) in Season Four, and now Season Five’s multigenerational saga of families both fictive and real. “The Soviet Division,” then, is the culmination of the series’ defining ambition: It renders explicit the double entendre of The Americans, in which the title’s playful allusion to Philip and Elizabeth’s false identities has since come closer in affect to Theodore Dreiser than to John Le Carré. At every turn, the episode reinterprets acts of espionage in the terms of kinship: After Pasha’s near-death, Elizabeth wishes that their “son,” Tuan, could come with them to the Soviet Union; now that he and Elizabeth are planning to flee, Philip reneges on his commitment to Henry (Keidrich Sellati), framing the change of heart as one designed to keep the Jennings together. “We almost killed their son, and now we’re sending her back to be blackmailed,” Philip says to Claudia (Margo Martindale) of the Morozovs. “Do we have to tear this family apart, too?”
Tuan’s criticism of Philip and Elizabeth is heartless, perhaps, but it’s true of both our stricken protagonists and The Americans as a whole: Season Five sees “petit bourgeois concerns”—happiness, comfort, love—clash with the objectives of the wider war, and “The Soviet Division” finds profound depths of emotion in the resulting friction. Witness the single, matching tears that streak down Kimmy’s (Julia Garner) and Martha’s cheeks as connections are severed, or forged; witness the warmth that comes to Stan’s eyes as Renee moves into his house and praises his compassion: The essential tool of the Jennings’ trade, and indeed of the series’, is not the disguise—it’s the desire to slough it off, to reveal oneself, to come once and for all out of hiding. Each relationship in The Americans, between husband and wife, parent and child, handler and handled, agent and mark, grows out of our shared longing to be “wonderful,” as Natalie Granholm put it, in someone else’s eyes, even—no, especially—when we believe ourselves to be irreparably broken. The series’ focus on KGB operatives and FBI officials, on turncoats, targets, sources, spies, is simply the forthright mechanism by which it traces the cracks that appear in the most mundane life. To despise one’s work, to dissolve one’s marriage, to defy one’s parents, to regret one’s choices is not, after all, a function of one’s profession, one’s nation, one’s historical moment: Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy observed, but familial unhappiness is timeless.
The montage of Philip, Elizabeth and Paige that unspools against “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is ingenious, to my mind, because “The Soviet Division” holds out the promise of change only to retract it, as if to remind us that evolution is a halting, incremental process, bound by the laws of inheritance and shaped by the unforeseen circumstance. Breland’s elevation—as with Martha’s flight, Paige’s confession, Stan’s suspicion, the KGB’s own mistrust—is the “something” of which Elizabeth warns Tuan, the outside force that turns one’s fractures into an excuse to fall apart: The season’s final scene, in which Elizabeth and Philip—against his wishes, against her better judgment—decide to remain, is another moment in which The Americans reinterprets an act of espionage as a question of kinship, and the damage done to both parties is immeasurable, even irrevocable. In retrospect, Elizabeth’s premonition of Tuan’s future seems another promise, this one far darker, foreboding. “One day,” she says, “it will all come crashing down,” and as The Americans concludes its most intimate, exacting season to date, the unhappy family at its center is poised on the precipice of an American tragedy: The one they bring on themselves.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.