Review: The Americans 6×01, “Dead Hand”

Aaron Neuwirth reviews The Americans, Season 6, Episode 1, "Dead Hand," the beginning of the end, as this is the first episode of the final season, which sets the stage.

During the season five premiere of FX’s The Americans, I was curious if people that suddenly tuned into this show, following the insane amount of goodwill that led to significant Emmy nominations, were keen to go along with the slow burn intensity of the series. While showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have always maintained a careful balance of drama and espionage-based action, the previous season stuck to its quiet, contemplative mood. Now, with “Dead Hand” serving as the first of the final ten episodes of this series, I can only imagine it’s time for the series to act. Given how this season six premiere sets the stage for what’s to come, I’d say it’s not only going to add more of a jolt but possibly dig deep into one of the more terrifying conclusions.

One of the most significant aspects of The Americans is its focus on the family. By not hammering the nature of the high concept of the series over viewer’s heads, it has been easier to take a show focused on fully-formed adult characters that happen to be secret KGB spies living as Americans during the 1980s. There have been ups and downs in the spy world, but things matter more when focused on what’s going on in the relationship. With “Dead Hand,” at a time when one can already question how Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are getting along, the finality of this season means there may be a concern for whether or not both spies will make it out alive.

Serving as both a reset of the status quo and a clever excuse to let the kids appear as their own age, things pick up in the fall of 1987. A montage set to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” provides us with a good look at the lives of Philip and Elizabeth. Having gotten out of the business, Philip looks happy. He’s enjoying American luxuries, dressed nicely, and smiling. Elizabeth is burnt out. She’s smoking, going through different assignments, and looking like she’s in need of a lot of sleep.

The two are barely together this week, save for an episode-ending argument and dinner at Stan Beeman’s, where the two play nice, only to have Elizabeth overhear the thoughts of Stan’s girlfriend, Renee. The concern Renee has for Stan being around others at work gives Elizabeth a moment of reflection on what it is to bring so much to the profession, without letting emotions be involved.

It’s good to see Elizabeth be the one to overhear this, as Keri Russell has always had the more challenging role between her and Matthew Rhys (who is still continually tremendous in this series). The work done to convey internal and external emotions is quite the challenge. Seeing as how Elizabeth has always been the colder of the Jennings regarding outward expression, watching her slowly unravel due to added stress in the absence of Philip’s involvement makes Elizabeth all the more compelling. Consideration of where her family is at allows for self-reflection, which comes into play at the end of this episode when considering how she handles protecting her own and what it’s doing to her psyche.

I would say I was surprised not seeing Philip at another EST meeting at the start of this season, except for the fact that he’s probably got so much less affecting him on the inside at this point. This is the man that’s gone from hating himself for the horrible actions he’s been forced to commit (because he’s a damn good spy) to square dancing for the sake of joy. While I have no doubt Philip is not going to love being dragged back into the spy world, him being the more emotional Jennings means seeing him happily taking advantage of the pleasures American living throws his way.

The meat of this episode concerns where the Soviets are as a country and how this will affect the Jennings, as well as Oleg Burov. Mikhail Gorbachev is creating a new Soviet Union with his policies, and the old guard does not like this. Elizabeth is sent to Mexico City to learn about Dead Hand (a doomsday device) and the possible military plot to overthrow Gorbachev if push comes to shove. Oleg becomes involved after the surprise arrival of Arkady Ivanovich in Russia leads to Oleg being pulled back into an American mission, ditching his family for a time in the process. Being a part of the government that goes along with the changes occurring, Oleg reaches out to Philip to go after his wife, assuming she’s going along with a plot to take on Gorbachev.

I mentioned the importance of family in this series and the dire place this season is starting us off with. Beyond whatever political action takes place, multiple families are now heavily involved in the events that will transpire. Oleg had found success and is now directly in harm’s way again. That’s nothing compared to the Jennings, who are actually in a place that could lead to them taking each other on. I do not want to see the results of some final blowout between them, and yet The Americans is seemingly going to take the viewers to task, as far as what it will ask of them. And don’t forget Stan, a man who may have a chance to finally put two and two together, after all these years.

Thanks to numerous musical moments, The Americans found plenty of ways to deliver so much information concerning the setup of this season via montage, and it is quite exciting. I’ll touch on some other principal characters in the notes below, but the two final moments involving Elizabeth certainly have critical levels of importance. Her brutal murder of a US Naval security officer provides a strong reminder of how cutthroat this series will be to make its point. The final argument between her and Philip also emphasizes what’s at risk if neither party finds a way to cool things down and approach a middle ground for the sake of the relationship. Without that connection, things may be doomed after all.

Other Things Behind The Red Curtain:

  • Hello! I’ll be covering The Americans as much as I can for this final season. I’ve been writing about this series for a few years elsewhere, and I look forward to analyzing its final run both here and through a separate podcast as well.
  • While I was happy to dig into the main relationship, plenty of other stuff happened in this premiere as well, so let’s get into that:
  • Paige is in college now and doing her best as a novice spy.
  • Henry’s a high-school hockey star at St. Edwards and wearing No. 9, which has a variety of different connections to hockey history.
  • Oleg has a one-year-old child and a beard!
  • Margo Martindale is now officially in the cast!
  • We get to see some Aderholt family time!
  • What an unfortunate situation for that security officer, even if he went a bit far by keeping Paige’s college ID. Also, that was an intense scene, for such a simple situation involving Paige’s attempt to get out of parking in the wrong spot.
  • This week had some great needle drops for the series. Crowded House was joined by Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, and Fleetwood Mac. Not bad at all.
  • The Reagan-Gorbachev summit will be held nine weeks from this episode. Episode eight seems to be delivering that event. I’m curious if we’ll stay relatively close to that event for those final three episodes.

 

Written by
Aaron is a movie fanatic and loves talking about such things…a lot. He is from Orange County, California, but earned a degree or two at UC Santa Barbara. He describes himself as a film reviewer, writer, podcaster, video game player, comic book reader, disc golfer, and a lefty. His mind is full of film knowledge and random trivia, but he is always open to learning more, whether it’s through box office stats, reviewing Blu-rays from The Criterion Collection or simply hearing first hand from filmmakers and others about various productions and behind-the-scenes tidbits.

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