The Americans – The Colonel
A lot of the shows whose premieres I recently reviewed have had finales over the past few weeks, most of which I intended to write something about but never did. Mostly this was due to me succumbing to time pressures and/or laziness, but I was also inhibited a little by a part of me thinking that such posts were simply inessential. Vikings, Broadchurch and Top of the Lake ran and ended much as they began and so for the most part what I said about their starts stood up just as well in relation to how they finished. The Americans though is a show that no longer resembles itself and so I feel that I now need say a few more words about just what it has become.
Set on the American East Coast, circa nineteen eighty-one and thus arguably deep in the midst of the Cold War (where exactly the middle of an incorporeal entity stands is beyond me) the show told a ‘What if?’ story based on the US Government’s ‘Reds Under the Beds’ propaganda message, which warned that communists could be anywhere, even in that nice suburban house next door. The pilot not only established a believable vision of the era it managed to match the tone of the movies and shows being made back then: full of bad clothes, car chases and contrived narrative concepts. It was a lot of fun but failed at ever being much more.
The first few episodes moved away from this direction slightly, becoming more serious, but they still maintained some strong tenets of that style; namely the spy of the week stories. Every week the pair was given a new mission, a new target to seduce, a new package to pick-up, house to bug or burnt agent to exfiltrate and this was fine. Somewhere along the way though these single-hour, self contained stories began to be built on what had come before; the shows serialization now structured like a set of steps, each objective leading naturally to the next, to the point where this week’s finale consisted solely of consequences from past actions.
Action is the one area in which my premise of progression falters somewhat, since the finale featured about as much fast driving and gun shooting as the pilot ( in fact that sequence plays sort of like a mirror image of the opening one). For the most part though the show has become very slow since then, in a literal sense. Like the Cold War itself The Americans is suspenseful, but on a very small scale. Over the course of the season my heart-rate has altered more by shots of people slowly walking than of them shooting; there is a steadiness and pacing to the tension that is both brave and precariously balanced but suits the setting so well. Back then what you didn’t know was scarier than anything you did; this is the premise that the show itself is built from.
The other reason why Michael Bay’s gun fans might have stopped watching by now is the fact that the spy stuff has sort of started coming second to the social drama; because the show started keeping its characters they and all of their relationships continued to grow more and more complex with each passing episode. The two turned women, for example, would have been loved and left dead by most other shows in the name of a quick shock but here they have survived and thus their situations are stretching off into new territory. Martha in particular presents a fascinating case that I loved to follow each and every week because there is no easy exit strategy.
Although it is perhaps the most promising aspect of the show the personal life material was also the most problematic. There are a whole host of very interesting questions implied by the content ( What is the real us? Which of the couples identities are the real ones? If the marriage isn’t then are the kids real? Why are they still doing this?) and though they are not always addressed with the clarity or comprehension that I would like that they are posed even in passing is a positive. The one relationship that should matter most, the marriage, is also the one that I find myself least intrigued by as the show goes on; thanks primarily to the constantly shifting sides within it.
The show then hasn’t quite come into itself, hasn’t hit its highest point ( and this finale, while good wasn’t even the seasons peak) but based on what I have seen its potential is to be as powerful at that point as any other show on air. Certain episodes, like this one and the Reagan Assassination, have dealt with the hysteria inherent in history, the chaos and confusion that is not conveyed by historians who have all the facts and these moments are tragic highlights, but I fear that this same uncertainty is what plagues the shows producers, is what’s holding the show back from total greatness. If it comes back with a vision, with a clear direction in mind The Americans will win this blind and murky war, otherwise history will simply repeat itself and the whole thing will be yet another waste.