The danger of nostalgia: a tough, timely final season of The Americans

The sixth season of the hard-edged drama about Russian agents living in the US is a critical and incisive look at the problem with romanticizing the past

In one of the most interesting scenes in the sixth, and final, season of The Americans, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Claudia (Margo Martindale) teach Paige (Holly Taylor) to cook as part of her immersion into Russian culture.

Its peasant food, Claudia tells Paige, as she slices carrots. They know how to survive. Were always having droughts, famines, wars.

My mother used to make pots of this, Elizabeth laughs, Wed eat it for weeks.

You never got sick of it? Paige asks.

That wasnt an issue, Elizabeth says, still smiling and clearly amused by her daughters question, which indicates the huge cultural gulf between them. As a born-and-raised American girl, Paige first thinks of food in terms of choices, not in terms of hunger. Claudia and Elizabeth can introduce Paige to Soviet TV dramas, play Tchaikovsky records for her, and make bowls of zharkoye all day, but her experience of Russian culture is one of a foreigner dabbling in a new tradition, rather than someone who intuitively understands her ethnic heritage.

For Elizabeth, the Russia she grew up with also lacks a solid foundation in reality. Her memories of the motherland do not reflect any of the harsh realities she has had to endure since becoming a spy. The Russia of her dreams isnt real at all; its an imaginary place.

This seasons focus on Elizabeths insistence on Soviet greatness, despite all evidence to the contrary, is particularly searing right now. When The Americans first aired in 2013, the 80s world of politics was meant to capture a particular historical time period that seemed safely far away. Today, Russian-US relations are again dominating the media, and the rallying cry to make America great illustrates how many in the US are also yearning for a return to an indeterminate past. Despite the giant clunky computers and big hair, in its final season, The Americansclose look at cold war politics seems current, as does its incisive look at the power and pitfalls of nostalgia.

For the past five seasons, weve seen how the Jennings family both adapts to and resists Americas cultural pull. Though Philip and Elizabeth learn about American culture the same way that Paige learns about her familys Russian traditions through formalized instruction that makes them aware of American attitudes and sensibilities, expressions, and points of cultural reference. Over the years, the biggest growing difference between Philip and Elizabeths experience of American culture is that Philip grows a fondness for it, while Elizabeth continues to spurn it.

Its not just the flashy cars and big comfortable houses that Philip is drawn to either; its the gentler sensibility, his quiet acceptance of the American Dream. As the series progresses, he starts to attend Erhard Seminar Trainings (EST) where he learns to get in touch with feelings he was forced to push down when he was training for his work as a spy. When Paige comes home distressed over something shes seen, he tenderly advises her, Its better to feel bad and go through it than to pretend not to feel anything, words of wisdom that are more Mister Rogers than Mr. and Mrs. Smith. When gearing up for work at the newly expanded travel agency, he inspires team spirit by encouraging entrepreneurship. His goal isnt to preserve the motherland any longer; he is happy to make a personal profit.

In contrast, Elizabeth continues to feel no warmth for any aspect of American culture at all, even though she has lived in the United States for twenty years. She disparages the quirks that Philip finds endearing and refuses to see the Russian culture she grew up in as anything other than right and true. In a particularly poignant scene, Elizabeth offers Phillip the zharkoye that she, Claudia, and Paige had spent the day making, even though she knows they arent allowed to keep it in the house. Elizabeth beams at her husband expectantly.

It smells great, he tells her and then sighs, I just ate a whole order of Kung Po Chicken and Lo Mein. He gestures to the disposable containers are all over the table.

Photograph: FC

Elizabeth is clearly disappointed. Even when Phillip takes a bite and tells her it is delicious, his tepid response is not enough for her. She wants Phillip to crave the old country in a way that he clearly doesnt. She flings the food in the sink, washing it all down the garbage disposal.

Elizabeths loyalty to the motherland blinds her to any of its flaws, and also hinders her ability to see things that are right in front of her that many of the Americans she has killed have been good people who didnt deserve to die, that when she insults Americans she is talking about her son and daughter too. When Phillip suggests that things might be opening up, that maybe one day they will be inviting Stan, their neighbor and FBI nemesis, to share in a meal of zharkoye, Elizabeth is insulted, but Phillip persists:

Its not just politics. Its young people. Its music. Its different. he tells Elizabeth, Theyre talking about opening up a Pizza Hut in Moscow.

I dont want to be like them, Elizabeth replies, angrily.

These first few episodes of season six illustrate just how deep the cultural wedge between the two of them has gotten. To Elizabeth, the Americans are still the proverbial other. To Phillip, theyve become a kind of second family.

Photograph: FX

The Americans has always been a hard-eyed and often violent look at people who are willing to betray basic human morality and decency in the name of the country they love. In the world of the show, compassion is often portrayed more as a risk than an asset, a message that Philip and Elizabeth both learned through years of indoctrination. And yet, in this season we see more clearly than ever before how Elizabeths obsession with the Russia of her youth is slowly destroying her. Despite the abusive ways the Soviet government has treated her and her family, the narrative that the old ways are falling out of favor amongst her own people demands that she be willing to rewrite her own story, something she just doesnt seem ready to confront.

The Americans certainly shows that this kind of willful historical revision is both terrible and also a fairly common human response to trauma. Philip has always been the most easily identifiable protagonist. He loves deeply. He dislikes violence. He struggles to come to terms with a terrible childhood. But in its final season, The Americans focus is on the far less likable Elizabeth, deeply cutthroat, occasionally cruel, consistently loyal. Season 6 seems to be offering the chance for Elizabeth to find out who she is outside of the cause she has devoted her life to.

What do you see? a dying woman asks her, as she shows Elizabeth one of her drawings. When Elizabeth cant go beyond the most basic assessment, the woman urges her to try to draw something herself.

Its light and dark. Thats all. the woman tells her, gesturing at an ordinary coffee mug.

At first, Elizabeth resists, but, eventually, after some more prodding, she gives in. She looks confused, frustrated, and maybe even a little amused or even excited, as she is suddenly forced to see the world in front of her exactly as it is.

  • The Americans starts in the US on FX from 28 March and in the UK on ITV4 from 4 April

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