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The Americans - Amber Waves - Review: "Still great"

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Towards the end of The Americans’ fifth season premiere, there’s an exchange between Elizabeth and Philip upon learning that William is presumed to be dead.

“He’s a hero,” she says.

“Maybe he’ll get a stamp,” he replies.

It’s a frank and cynical view of the honour bestowed upon their fellow countryman and part-time colleague. The man spent 25 years in the United States serving the Soviet Union, sacrificing what little chance he had to be happy to live a life of solitude, deeply paranoid and in difficult health due to his work. Eliza, the wife given to him by the KGB, went home years prior, and he died envious of the relationship he considered Philip and Elizabeth to have, lamenting his ultimately miserable life.

But where Philip’s remark appears sarcastic, and almost chuckle-worthy at its subtle dry humour, we see by the end of “Amber Waves” that a stamp may, in fact, be a top prize. After hours of digging at Fort Detrick, the group of operators including the Jenningses and Hans uncover William’s body, stealing a chunk of his skin to complete the mission he couldn’t. But when Hans has one clumsy moment, falling into the hole and cutting his skin open on top of the infected corpse, Elizabeth swiftly puts a bullet into his brain.

Though Hans wasn’t KGB - Elizabeth recruited him as an informant, yes, but he’s not an agent like they are - it’s difficult to imagine that anyone from the Soviet Union will treat his death any differently to that of William’s: both died serving, but they’re replaceable. And although one might argue that William isn’t thanks to his long undercover stint allowing him to attain a high position in the biological weapons lab, Gabriel noted last season that in 25 years, William had achieved “virtually nothing”. His position may be difficult or impossible to replicate, but his successes will not be. For Hans, it’s a similar matter: he was useful to Elizabeth and helped their operation on multiple occasions, but she and Philip have many other operators who can do just as good a job.

It’s fitting, however, that all this comes not long after (*) the Jenningses were offered a way out. Where William’s suicide came in his supposed last mission, these two are committed to serving their country longer, electing to turn down the chance to return home for the first time in nearly two decades. Yes, their reasons for staying are more complex than that - would Paige and Henry ever forgive them? - but on a basic level, they’re still there for the KGB. This hour’s developments raise a couple of interesting questions: when will they decide enough is enough, and what kind of future is awaiting them? In the case of the latter, it applies both if they choose to end their careers and, perhaps more importantly, if their careers are abruptly ended for them through death. For all the good they’ve done, not just in the few years we’ve known them but in their many years in Virginia, would the KGB really care if they wound up with a bullet to the brain?

(*) Last year’s finale took place on January 22nd, 1984; this hour takes place in early August 1984, since Elizabeth suggests watching the Olympics. In terms of time, it’s been more than six months since Gabriel’s offer, but it’s one of the last things we saw and it hasn’t completely vanished from their minds.

That conundrum links to their latest assignment, posing as pilot and flight attendant couple the Eckharts, with an adopted Vietnamese son named Tuan. Tuan, really an informant for his faux parents, becomes the first and only friend of Pasha, whose family recently moved to the U.S. from Moscow, and whose father, Alexi, pulls no punches in his hatred of his homeland. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition: where the Jenningses love the USSR and would do anything for it, Alexei wouldn’t even spit in the country’s direction. It’s ironic that, after having dinner with Alexei, Philip is not only happy to reminisce about the struggle of life as a child but is the one who notes that they’ll get another chance to go home - his devotion to the cause has, at times, been questioned, and conflict has stemmed in the past due to his apparent over-enjoyment of life in America. While “Amber Waves” doesn’t shed any light on why Alexei is the latest target, the aspect of it that includes the Jenningses loathing him as a person irrespective of his role in their work is fun, and a stark reversal of the relationship “Patty” had with Young Hee last year.

Paige, meanwhile, continues to struggle with her parents’ secret and the way in which they want her to conduct her life. Despite being warned off by Philip, her relationship with Matthew seems to have flourished - though not to the extent that one might expect given where they were six months ago - and she spends a considerable amount of time at Stan’s house. That isn’t particularly new or surprising, and Stan’s joke about how they should move in together and be one big happy family arguably could have been applied at any point since early season three, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Now that she knows some of the more gruesome details of her parents’ work, is she spending more time in the Beeman household just to do with Matthew, or is there another, protective, motive there? It’s almost certainly the former, but it is worth at least some contemplation.

For nearly seven months, Paige has been having nightmares about the man Elizabeth killed in front of her, only now admitting to them - though only to deflect away from discussing Matthew. Again, it’s an unsurprising development - the idea that a teenager could watch her mother murder someone that easily and be completely fine about it is ludicrous - but an important one that led to a short but effective scene in which Elizabeth teaches her about fighting. If season three was the lead-up to, and reveal of, the Jenningses true allegiance to Paige, and season four dealt with the fallout from that, this season looks to be more centred on developing her more as the daughter of two Soviet spies. And while it’s unlikely that the series will go too far in the way of making Paige a KGB operator, the snippets of progress in that department will be immensely compelling.

But Paige’s forbidden relationship isn’t the only problem Philip is set to have with one of his children as Mischa went to Yugoslavia on his journey to find his father. Irina left him documents to leave Russia and instructions on how to find his estranged, travel agent father and, now that he’s out of the mental hospital, is determined to do so. The Americans is at its best when its characters are under pressure from all sides, and although he doesn’t know it yet (*), Mischa’s impending presence will be Philip’s most difficult problem yet.

(*) Claudia and Gabriel know that Mischa may be on his way, but the latter doesn’t mention it when he meets Philip later in the episode. Philip has had issues with Gabriel in the past, but unless he’s careful, this may be what breaks the camel’s back.

“Nothing scares those two,” Claudia says to Gabriel upon learning of their decision to stay in the face of exposure.

“Everything scares those two,” he replies.

In actuality, both statements are simultaneously true: they do their work fearlessly but live their fake lives on edge with the knowledge that everything could crumble at any given moment. Right now, their position is far less precarious than it was six months ago, but it could soon be much, much worse than it has ever been. And the deft approach The Americans takes in that regard is why it is one of the - and arguably the outright - best shows on television.


The opening credits are back to the shortened version of the score featured in the opening two seasons, thanks to a whole host of cast departures. That includes Lev Gorn, who I’m sad to see missing since he is such an asset to the show, even if his role was never prominent. Here’s hoping he comes back.

Oleg, now living at home, has a new job for the KGB: a criminal investigator into corrupt individuals. He’s also being watched. Like Gorn, Costa Ronin is great, and I’m glad Weisberg and Fields found a way to keep him involved.

Either I’m over/under-thinking it, or the KGB colonel needs to improve his jokes.

Stan gives Paige vegetables on pizza. That’s the perfect way to consume them, no? In the immortal words of The Simpsons, you don’t win friends with salad.

Stan’s role in the series is deep and crucial, but I get so much enjoyment out of the more trivial scenes he’s in. His interruption of Paige’s nightmare confession before asking “Bad timing?”, and his positivity over “meeting” a woman at the gym - including his proud admittance of handing her a cup of water - was simply wonderful. Also great: Philip being taken aback at the idea of Stan meeting a woman.

The grave digging scene was quintessential The Americans in its commitment to prolonging a mission as much as possible to ramp up the tension. It helped here that it was mysterious, and although one of my notes was simply “Are they digging to Russia?”, it remained suspenseful.

Who was the kid that entered Stan’s house soon after Paige and what did he do with Henry? There isn’t a whole lot the producers can do about Keidrich Sellati ageing/growing so quickly, but it’s still amusing. Just look at this image of him from the fourth episode of the series.

What did everyone think of “Amber Waves”? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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