Friday, August 17, 2018
TV and Media

Review: 'The Americans' is back for Season 5, and everybody's hungry

Many of the feelings at the start of Season 5 of The Americans, premiering March 7 on FX, can be summed up in the form of a big, fat cheese Danish.

It comes off a cart packed to the brim with the perfect-looking pastries, pushed by a secretary to the desk of a senior Justice Department official who doesn't seem to be particularly hungry. He takes one anyway, bites it and tosses it aside. U-S-A.

That scene comes juxtaposed with real-life historical footage from the Soviet Union. An old lady inspects an open package of meat for sale, one of the only items on the barren shelves of the world's saddest-looking grocery store.

It's the kind of government-run market people waited in line for hours to shop at back in the U.S.S.R., a Russian character who recently defected to the United States later explains to his shocked American friends over a big American meal.

But those American friends, Mr. and Mrs. Eckert, aren't truly unfamiliar with Soviet food shortages because they're actually Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, an all-American couple, who are actually Nadezhda and Mikhail, a pair of ultra-deep-cover KGB officers who grew up in Russia. And they're actually wearing fantastic 1980s wigs and working this guy for information.

"Sorry you had to wait in line to eat," Elizabeth says with hateful sarcasm on the way home from dinner at that Russia-hating defector's house. At that moment, she's trashing a guy for having the audacity to criticize a government that failed its citizens on basic sustenance. Can she really believe what she's saying?

Doesn't she have to, in order to carry out the kind of cold-blooded killing we see her commit in the next episode?

Food is a powerful presence in the first three episodes of this penultimate season of The Americans, and not only because the plot revolves around Phillip and Elizabeth's new mission to find out if the U.S. is somehow tampering with Russia's fragile food supply.

In the form of desserts turned down because of too much pizza, FBI agents' pathetic bachelor meals and giant feasts at Bennigan's, food is a reminder of how murky the Jennings' relationships to their two countries, both the prosperous one and the famished one, have become.

Learning that the Americans, with all their middle-class excess, could potentially starve millions of Russians in an attempt to win the Cold War leads Phillip to say, "I thought there were things they wouldn't do." His genuine surprise seems to confirm what we've long suspected: that despite being a good Communist, he's a bit of a sucker for American virtues as advertised.

FX

Another season, another pair of new identities for Phillip and Elizabeth.

 

He's growing disillusioned with his other country, too. "Why can't we grow enough grain?," he asks of Russia later, looking out on vast Oklahoma farmland that apparently looks like "home."

Through the story of KGB agent Oleg Burov (the fantastic Costa Ronin), who was sent back to Moscow at the end of last season, we see what's going on in Russia — massive food-related corruption and bribes in the form of tangerines.

Season 4 ended with Burov selling out a fellow KGB officer, William, to FBI agent Stan Beeman in order to stop the spread of a nasty, weaponized virus. William died a gruesome death in American hands, and Beeman and Burov seemed satisfied with the outcome. But in this world, there's always another operation, always a secret recording, and always more consequences to deal with. Season 5 has both of them dealing.

Meanwhile we find Phillip and Elizabeth navigating the usual constellation of complications that comes with being American travel agents by day, Russian spies by night and parents all the time, but there are new problems too. Mischka, Phillip's son from a long-ago romance, is busy navigating borders to escape the Soviet bloc and track down the dad he's never met, while Phillip's wildcard American daughter, Paige, is now in a full-blown relationship with the son of the spy-hunting FBI agent next door.

They've tabled those plans from last season, to finally bail on their secret identities and return home to Russia, but for how long? With only this season and an abbreviated sixth and final season next year, it feels like that's the big decision we're moving toward.

FX

Season 5 finds Paige Jennings, played by Holly Taylor, right, in a full-blown relationship with the son of an FBI agent.

 

As always, it's all set to a perfect 1980s soundtrack, and written and directed with the same quiet reflectiveness, punctuated by moments of intense action, that has made the show a critical, if not ratings, success.

With Russia, and specifically covert Russian hacking against U.S. interests, playing such a prominent role in the real-life news right now, you might expect The Americans to take on some new signifcance.

But it's not necessarily the real-life espionage that comes to mind when watching these new episodes. Instead it's the predicament we're currently in when it comes to truth versus what people choose to believe, fake news, alternative facts and actual facts versus blind faith in ideology.

Can anyone trust what they're being told on The Americans? Can they trust what they believe? Deception might be the trade of these spies, but self-deception might be their real talent.

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