Don’t Dream It’s Over: Review of Americans Season 6, Episode 1: Dead Hand
The Americans – FX’s brilliant, dark historical exploration of the Cold War, is coming to an end. Its opener finds our anti-heroes, Philip and Elizabeth, careening toward an inevitability that both anticipated but neither is prepared for.
Where We Left Off
Season 5 of the Americans was criticized in some quarters for being too slow and too bogged down in the ramifications of the Soviet agriculture crisis to move the story forward. I didn’t agree with that critique, and after the premiere episode of Season 6, I think it’s fair to say that opinions regarding Season 5 may change.
Season 5 featured some stunning scenes of both darkness and intimacy. Our spy couple married in a secret Russian Orthodox ceremony that is all the more affecting because it deeply touches even Elizabeth, our committed Communist-atheist. Philip’s nihilistic pessimism is at an all-time high, particularly after their mission to force the Morozovs to return to Russia ends on a disturbing note, with Pasha’s suicide attempt and the Center’s plans to blackmail Pasha’s mother. As Philip notes, “We almost killed her son and now we’re sending her back to be blackmailed. Do we have to tear this family apart, too?”
Meanwhile, the couple’s mentorship of Tuan comes to an end, with Tuan reporting that the Jennings jeopardized the mission because of “certain petty, bourgeois goals” – you know, those petty, bourgeois goals of not watching a teenager kill himself. So the is cold-blooded Tuan gets served by Elizabeth, who instructs him ominously on the job prospects for spies: “You’re not going to make it. It’s too hard,” she says, “the work we do, to do alone … You will fail. Something will happen. You’ll get caught. Or you’ll die. One day it will all come crashing down.”
Despite Elizabeth’s recognition of the toll that spy work takes on a couple, she volunteers to go it alone after she sees that a distraught Philip simply can’t go on. She tells him he can quit and she will take it upon herself to do it all. And that’s where the show leaves us, with Elizabeth sacrificing herself because she loves her husband too much to watch him suffer.
Tearing families apart to serve geopolitical goals and the certainty that everyone exits the spy game dead or in prison are fairly big foreshadowing hints that start coming to fruition in Dead Hand.
The show makes a three-year leap into the future and my, how things have changed! No show has ever been better at the montage than The Americans, and the opening sequence here, which takes Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” as its backing track, could be the best one they’ve ever done. This exercise in “show, don’t tell” reveals that Philip is fully out of the spy game and looking fit and rested. Elizabeth looks tired on a granular level, just a heap of hollowed eyes and sagging shoulders and bad wigs.
The attention to detail here is fantastic, as we see Philip wearing a new gold watch, driving a convertible, wearing slick-for-the-1980’s clothing, and carrying a pretty hot car stereo (that’s what we did in the 80’s kids). In short, he’s wearing capitalism well. Elizabeth is on the grind alone and can’t partake in this lifestyle, not even a little bit. She’s seducing more marks, coaching Paige, and scoring intel on the upcoming U.S.-Russia summit.
How to Set Up Conflict 101
The show wastes no time setting up the major conflicts for the season. First, we learn that Elizabeth is working hard on intel related to the summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbechev that took place in 1987. This is the first reference to the reformer and former Prime Minister Gorbachev, who was leading a policy of openness and desperately trying to wind down the arms race. The Soviet Union of 1987 was in dire straits, being badly outspent militarily by the Americans and coming off a disastrous war in Afghanistan. These factors also meant that Gorbechev was under pressure to give up weapons that would be much more consequential to his country.
The Soviet old guard is not too happy with this turn of events. Elizabeth is summoned to a meeting in South America, where General Kovtun asks for her help in setting up Dead Hand. Back in the old days, nuclear deterrence was animated by two important principles: mutually assured destruction and fail-deadly. Fail-deadly is the opposite of fail-safe. Dead Hand was a device that ensured that in the event of an American first strike, everyone would fail deadly. If any strike was detected, the device would automatically trigger the launch of Russian ICBMs guaranteed to completely destroy America. As the general put it to Elizabeth, “that way if we are all dead, the Americans will all die too.” Groovy!
But this meeting gets even more fraught for Elizabeth, when Kovtun gives her a necklace containing a cyanide pill. “You can’t be arrested,” he tells her ominously. And just like that, Elizabeth is facing the ramifications of the words she spoke to Tuan: you’ll get caught, or you’ll die. It’ll all come crashing down.
Philip’s conflict is set up nicely by the return of Oleg, who barely survived his own spy missteps and is now a husband and father far outside of the spy game. But his old friend Arkady, who we haven’t seen since Season 4, shows up in Moscow for a chat. The future of the country is at stake, and all of the progress made by Gorbechev could go up in smoke if Gorbechev’s enemies get their way. The old guard doesn’t want to see an arms reduction, they don’t trust Reagan, and they want Gorbechev out. It is all-hands-on-deck for men who want to save their country, so Arkady gives Oleg a mission: get to America and find out what Elizabeth is up to, and do it before the Summit.
Arkady knows that Philip has frequently had doubts about the Soviet cause, so he sends Oleg to enlist Philip to spy on Elizabeth. They need to know what she and the generals are up to, so they can stop it. So the ultimate macro conflict is Dead Hand vs. Star Wars, while micro conflict is husband v. wife. Diabolically played.
Meanwhile, in Page-land, Claudia is teaching her all about the Workers’ Republic. The older Jennings child is now in college and deep into spy training. We see her almost lose her cover while she’s waiting at her post one night. A young Navy cadet strolls by, takes her college ID and refuses to give it back to her until she shows up for a date next Saturday night. That is some stalkery, assholish male behavior of the sort we’ve been complaining about during the #MeToo movement. So when Elizabeth happens upon the guy a few minutes later, she stabs him in the neck, retrieves the ID and leaves him for dead.
(The male panic trolls who keep comparing MeToo to a “witch hunt” clearly envision this exact scenario, but so far Cosby, Weinstein, Wynn, Spacey, Allen, Trump and all the other ones are still free and wealthy. That’ll all change when we reactivate superspy Elizabeth Jennings. #WatchOut).
- Our FBI agents are no longer a team and Stan is off the counterintelligence beat. He’s now married to Renee, but is she a spy? And if so, for who? We still don’t know.
- Season 5 ended with Philip agreeing to continue one mission: the soul-destroying seduction of teen Kimmy, whose father was appointed head of the CIA’s Soviet Division. What do we suppose happened to that?
- So where does Claudia stand on the START negotiations? Is she with the old guard, as we suspect, or does she have a surprise up her sleeve?
Odds and Ends
- Dennis Aderholt now has a baby boy. So does Oleg. The Americans just loves to twist the knife by reminding everyone that mutually assured destruction means killing these children. Way to up the stakes.
- Elizabeth is working as a nurse so she can spy on one of the START negotiators. His artist wife is played by the always-fantastic Miriam Shor.
- Costa Ronan now has a beard and I am so here for it.
- Both Paige and the general call Elizabeth a hero in this episode. And in the eyes of the Soviet Union, she’s unquestionably one of their greatest patriots and superheroes. One of the reasons I lose patience with the Elizabeth Haters is that they cannot see this situation through the eyes of the other side. Elizabeth is a true believer and acts accordingly.