In celebration of “The Americans” fifth season premiere, The Michigan Daily’s TV editors found yet another excuse to rave about the series. Fair warning: Spoilers lie ahead.

Is “The Americans” timely now?

The last time we checked in with our favorite couple, we were safely ensconced in a markedly different political climate, to say the least. Sure, Trump was a thing back then (and I guess he is now, too?), but when season four of “The Americans” premiered, the political landscape at large wasn’t nearly as concerned with The Russian FederationTM as it is at present. It’s fascinating to consider the contemporary relevance of a show that initially — to summarize generously — casually functioned as an exercise in humanization, as a fairly pointed critique of decades of American hostility to that cold country up north.

OK, relevance might be too extreme; this is a spy thriller show about KGB operatives posing as an all-American family, after all. But perhaps it’ll change the way we watch it. Normally, it’s the metaphor and character work that hits uncomfortably close to home; now, the foreign policy that once seemed laughably outdated has been showered with a liberal dose of “just kidding.” This renewed context, which has repurposed the show as, on a surface-level, more current than it originally seemed, is more than a little eerie — nonetheless, hopefully it’s a jolt of ratings vigor for a series that is criminally underseen yet massively, maddeningly brilliant.

— Nabeel Chollampat, Senior Arts Editor

Another kind of love story

Let’s talk about love. Apparently, it’s not that simple when you’re an undercover KGB officer living in ’80s America. Who would have thought? In fact, love, or rather the illusion of it, is just an arrangement for Elizabeth and Philip when we first meet them in season one. Their white-picket-fence marriage is a spectacle solidified by two children and a travel agency, completing an anything-but-suspicious picture of American suburbia. But, like any good love story, this is just the beginning. 

The generic, heart-shaped box of Dove chocolates brand of love isn’t what you’ll find in “The Americans.” In fact, by definition, happily ever after is practically impossible. When emotionally (and sexually) manipulating others is part of your job description, those unwritten rules that govern a successful partnership are pretty much obliterated. But that’s exactly why I keep coming back for more of Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship: Its complications are totally unprecedented which, in turn, examine what it really means to know someone at their core. After four seasons, I believe that they really do love each, although what that means for them is (hopefully) different than what it means for most people. Amidst all the lies, secrets and general twistiness, the duo play on such a dynamic range of emotion, colored in nuances and metaphors, that their love is still somehow relatable.

On a tangent, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are together in real life, and I’m a little too excited about it.

— Danielle Yacobson, TV Beat Editor

Subversion of gender roles

There’s little else we can do here at The Michigan Daily to evangelize for Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys than to keep telling you how amazing they are at what they do. So, for posterity: They’re amazing at what they do. What is consistently mind-boggling, however, is the ease with which their two characters can play with, subvert, undercut, obliterate any assumptions about presupposed gender roles — especially for a show set in the ’80s.

At first glance, there’s an easy categorization to make: Elizabeth is the cold, calculating murderer while Philip is the soft, reluctant father. The problem is, that’s just a bad take. The two principals are so complex and dynamic that pinning them down on either sides of a binary is an exercise in futility. Both are capable of unspeakable cruelty, and both are capable of tender, understated warmth. What binds them is an unwavering loyalty to their family. Elizabeth is not the standard ’80s-era housewife, nor is she that cliched overcorrection of a heartless female killer; Philip is the affable dad with a nagging reluctance to keep committing crimes in the name of the Soviet Union, but he’s also a man who is forced into morally questionable scenarios and, despite his misgivings, carries them to completion. Take, for instance, the unsettling sex scene between Elizabeth and “Clark” in season three. It’s disturbing, challenging, a splash of cold water for anyone who assumes to know how to classify these two protagonists. Philip turns horrifyingly violent, and the scene ends with Elizabeth crying on the bed. We know the sexual history between these two, and we know, specifically, Elizabeth’s own traumatic experiences. And so, Clark asks: “Is this what you want?”

— Nabeel Chollampat, Senior Arts Editor

Not just another teenager

Coming of age — a horribly vague expression flung around far too frequently — is nevertheless what makes teenagedom so universally cinematic. We hear “high school,” and we expect to witness a variety of awkward “firsts” and an inevitable social commentary on what it means to grow up. “The Americans,” however, doesn’t bother so smother teeange Paige Jennings with the typical, melodromatic angst. Even before Paige was let in on the whopper of a family secret, she was no ordinary sneak-out-of-the-house, smoke-a-joint-behind-the-bleachers kind of kid. A genuine curiosity, instead, is what catalyzed her gut-wrenching discovery of her parents’ true identities, and has continued to challenge the narrative’s explorations of ideology, morality and truth. But curiosity killed the cat, right?

Paige has always stirred the pot in the Jennings household. Remember when she told Elizabeth and Phillip, both sworn atheists discretely attempting to subvert their children to Soviet communism, that she wanted to be baptized in the church? Yeah, that didn’t go over well. But it was the first true depiction of her outstanding grit that continues to surprise and subvert expectations of the community-action driven, doe-eyed girl who snooped around the garage when nobody was looking in the first season. Now, on the other side of the façade, Paige’s previously steadfast morality begins to blur: She emotionally manipulates Pastor Tim (who is somehow still alive) to keep the family’s secret and uses her sexuality to wriggle out information from FBI Agent Stan’s son. These tricks of the trade, all-too-familiar in Elizabeth’s work, are a melancholy reminder of how twisted the whole thing really is. Yet, with a poignant maturity and relentless questioning, Paige also captures a brand of “growing up” that is, well, normal: The inevitable disillusionment children experience when their parents are revealed to be something less than absolutely perfect.

— Danielle Yacobson, TV Beat Editor

Who’s “good” on “The Americans”?

Four seasons in, and I still don’t know if we’re supposed to empathize with Philip and Elizabeth. They’re our protagonists, yes, and we’re intrinsically rooting for them not to die — but are they “good people”? Whatever moral calculus one has to compute to come down on either side, our central couple has, objectively, done some truly messed up shit. Philip’s deeply uncomfortable seduction of a teenager in season three is a squirm-inducing run of ethical complications, for both Philip and the audience; Stan and Nina’s illicit romance was a no-win situation for both of them (one more than the other, I guess); and Elizabeth’s heartbreaking betrayal of Young Hee and her family is horrifying in its perversity.

But none are more emotionally wrenching than what was done to our poor, sweet, lovable idiot Martha. It was funny at first, watching a blatantly oblivious woman get strung along to the point of literally getting married to a Philip in a bad wig. But as the vultures’ circles grew smaller and the stakes grew higher, Martha’s predicament became something to cry for instead. We (and Philip) were forced to reckon with the profound and fundamental loneliness a person must feel to endure what she did. We grappled with the continued and consistent devaluation of her person, until everything came to a head and, fittingly, this woman who had nothing else in her life was shipped off to her unknown fate in Cuba. Were we implicit in Philip’s / Clark’s moral bankruptcy? In cheering for their survival, are we culpable for turning a blind eye to the horrible things Elizabeth and Philip are forced to do to ensure it? “The Americans” asks uneasy questions of its viewers, but it’s impossible to look away.

— Nabeel Chollampat, Senior Arts Editor

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