I like watching The Americans because I like watching two characters who are, without question, worse parents that I am. As much as I fuck up, I will never have to shield my kids from the fact that I have slaughtered dozens of innocent people, and I will not then attempt to indoctrinate the oldest one into my obscenely stressful and dangerous lifestyle. I will always have that over the Jennings family.
There is also the fact that, while The Americans fits neatly into the ever-growing PRESTIGE TELEVISION genre—that pesky strain of TV where people display their viewership like it’s a Melville novel on the bookshelf—it is, at its heart, a basic soap opera. There is no snappy dialogue. There are no quotable lines, especially now that Arkady Zotov has been phased out of the show. It is a show populated by characters who have zero interest in being clever, preferring instead to maintain an almost impossible focus on containing their own misery. Also, there are lots of funny costumes and people get murdered, and once every four episodes you get to see Keri Russell’s stunt butt.
However, as much as The Americans strains to keep you entertained, forcing Russell and Matthew Rhys (both spectacular) to shuttle between multiple spy operations with enough time manipulation to make Santa Claus jealous, this is a show that can lag at times. There are a LOT of quiet scenes where people don’t say what they really want to say. There’s a dude named Pastor Tim who knows the secret Russell and Rhys keep, and they STILL haven’t killed his sorry ass yet. And Stan Beeman has lived next to the Jennings for YEARS and still doesn’t suspect anything because he is the worst FBI agent in history.
The longer the show goes, the more it strains credulity that these two would not A) Get caught or B) Break down and run. They’re having sex with targets and still managing to keep their wigs on? Come on, man. There has been a strategic slow drip of exposure for Philip and Elizabeth over the course of five seasons, but eventually the dam has to break. This is especially true in the case of Rhys’s Philip Jennings, who clearly despises his work but keeps at it more out of duty to his wife (a true believer) than his government.
The great suspense of watching The Americans comes in wondering what the endgame for the Jennings is, and when it will come. And given that there’s only one season left after this one, I think it’s time for the people in charge to do something drastic. It’s time for Philip to GTFO. He should take the kids and rent a car and leave the spy life forever, and force Keri to decide where her loyalties lie. Or, better yet, he should flip and defect. He could be a double agent for the US! WE’RE TOTALLY THE GOOD GUYS ON THIS SHOW. Then he and Keri could tearfully face off. Goddamn, that would be nuts.
An obvious sense of entitlement shows itself when Prestige TV viewers demand that storylines get wrapped up, or that things “happen,” and sometimes it feels like show runners go out of their way to shame people making those demands. The end of The Sopranos remains the apex of that shaming: Oh, you bloodthirsty simpletons wanted Tony to DIE, huh? You’re just as bad as he is!
However, at a certain point, that demand is justified. Yes, yes, I know that a TV series is a long journey and that only a fool would watch 30 hours of something just to see what happens at the very end. But the walls have been closing in on the Jennings for a very long time now, and my willingness to suspend disbelief only goes so far. I want my soap opera to act like a soap opera. I want Philip to ditch the Russians for good.