The American’s sixth and final season begins just as the Soviet Union’s dissolution does, perfectly fitting as both—in their own way—spell the beginning of the end of something. One is the end of a communist state, and the other the end of a TV series—both grandstanding events. The occasion, however, is hardly funereal. The American’s “Dead Man” is among the series’ most active and high-functioning season openers. Balancing several storylines with no clear end in sight, it’s hard to imagine these characters going away in some capacity when their conflicts, dilemmas, and deceptions seem to multiply at an inexorable rate.
Last season we saw Philip and Elizabeth, on the cusp of retirement, get pulled back in by a lead too good to resist. Philip, stretched beyond his breaking point, now takes a backseat while Elizabeth takes the brunt of the undercover spy work. Both, however, play active roles in their children’s lives. Philip does so by attending his son’s hockey games, Elizabeth does it by indoctrinating Paige, now in college, into her spy work. Both provide the two disaffected Russian spies, if nothing else, quality time with their kids.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Oleg, after a debacle involving leaked Soviet information, has narrowly avoided the firing squad and has instead been demoted to an undesirable position in the KGB. No longer the head of the KGB Directorate X, Oleg is now doing the scut work for the new director and is ordered to travel to the US to meet with a Soviet contact.
Looming over The Americans is the “Reykjavík Summit” where Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan will attempt to negotiate the elimination of nuclear arsenals. Gorbachev’s reign, seeking to end the expansion of ballistic missiles and to limit arms control, is met with incredulity by the Soviet radicals—in one scene Elizabeth is mysteriously invited to a meeting with a Russian general in Mexico where she is told of a planned coup against the current Russian President if he is to reject a Soviet-proposed automatic doomsday device.
The point of introducing this historical event is more than showing the once staunch communist state start to fall apart at the seams—Perestroika and Glasnost are now visibly on the horizon—rather we see the fall of the Soviet identity in Philip and Elizabeth’s dwindling drives and motives. Clearly, the spy couple’s Americanization have taken their toll. Philip seems to have been completely Americanized, while Elizabeth—a born atheist—is more than implied to be having a crisis in faith—in God? Perhaps, but her faith to the Soviet Union is the one that’s going to be interrogated more.
“Dead Man” is also replete in heart-rending dramatic portents. Philip and Elizabeth, driven apart by their own personal commitments, find an even bigger wedge between them when they’re given orders by two opposing Soviet sources, implying an eventual conflict of interest between the married couple, a conflict of interest that already seems to be ravaging the Soviet Union.
Despite some presaging things to come, The Americans has already proven to be the more unpredictable bits of storytelling on television. It is not likely to reach (as some have predicted) the Fall of the Wall, or even Mikhail Gorbachev’s deposition, but “Dead Man” transcends history’s big checkpoints by emphasizing the devastating personal moral, philosophical and emotional choices. “Dead Man” itself offers little of the show’s typical cloak-and-dagger suspense but is no less among the most suspenseful things in television. Like a true work of drama, The Americans’ final season seems to emphasize more on the suspense fueled by indecision and no-win scenarios.