Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
A man line-dances his way through a bar, surrounded by smiling friends, colleagues, and strangers. His posture is relaxed—we can tell he’s done this before. He watches the dancers around him, not because he’s uncertain of the steps, but because he takes pleasure in the fun they’re having. He seems relaxed, even content. He’s left his workday behind. He’s enjoying life. His feet move, and he smiles.
The great power of “The Americans” is that this scene is disconcerting, even shocking, and not a little ominous. Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg’s Cold War-era spy series hasn’t shied away from some truly grisly moments in its exceptional, soon-to-conclude run, but remarkably, the line-dancing scene and others like it can sometimes deliver jolts to the system every bit as powerful as a knife fight in a parking lot or a broken neck in a quiet greenhouse. “Clark” removes his wig as Martha trembles, horrified, and it’s shocking. Elizabeth tells an old woman the truth, Paige shoves her boyfriend, Claudia admits a mistake—all sequences that are unsettling for reasons that go beyond a simple plot twist. In the three episodes released to critics, moments like those are more potent than ever, steeped in the rich history of what we know about these people, and tinged with dread, because we know the global history, too.
Three years have passed in the lives of the Jennings family between seasons five and six of “The Americans,” and Fields and Weisberg get everyone up-to-date in one of their familiar but always excellent musical montage sequences: Paige (Holly Taylor) is in college and more involved in the family business; Philip (Matthew Rhys) has expanded the travel agency and seems lighter, if not happier, outside the espionage world; Henry’s (Keidrich Sellati) thriving at his fancy boarding school; the list goes on. But if the line-dancing, somewhat relaxed Philip is a shock, it’s nothing compared to our reintroduction to Elizabeth (Keri Russell), who’s wrestling with a bone-deep tiredness that stems directly from a life she advised Tuan to avoid at all costs: she’s working without a partner, and it is clearly taking its toll.
It’s not a surprise that this final season of one of television’s best and most thoughtful properties gets off to such a solid start. What’s most impressive about these three episodes is how inevitable they feel, while still making turn after unexpected turn. The first, written by Fields and Weisberg and directed by Chris Long, makes exposition active and upsetting, letting the facts of the Jennings’ existence and the outside forces which may alter it speak for themselves. In the tense second episode “Tchaikovsky,” cunningly directed by Rhys, those forces begin to act, creating chaos both external and, in Elizabeth’s case, internal. And in the third, that chaos propels Philip and Elizabeth toward a standoff that feels as inevitable as the end of the Cold War, forcing them to decide which of their loyalties matters most, and how far they’re prepared to go to maintain them.
It’s layered, rich stuff, in keeping with the series’ strengths, but Fields and Weisberg’s intentional callbacks to events of early seasons adds even more complexity. That remarkable square-dancing sequence references a moment in a department store from the pilot; Elizabeth’s frenzied scream at a fellow operative to stick to the plan echoes the first time she barked “the mission comes first” as a dying man bled in the backseat of a car. Paige’s existence begins to reflect both her parents in unexpected ways, as she’s pulled between her love for her family and her own steely resolve, and Taylor’s performance, always good, has never been better.
It’s all that acknowledged history that adds power to her performance, and to those of the always exceptional Rhys and Russell. It’s also a testament to the amount of faith that Fields, Weisberg, and company have in their audience. “The Americans” has always been a series that rewards close attention, but the beginning of this final season assumes that, for example, while viewers may not remember the details of a certain contact or operation from the early days, at least they’ll be able to summon the emotional context to mind. This is a series that knows that a glimpse of the mail robot is all that’s needed to conjure paranoia, anxiety, and regret, and that a walk through an empty parking lot or park is never just a walk.
That’s a credit to the show’s remarkable writing, which is met in terms of skill and thought by the show’s directors and creative teams. Long’s episode, the first of three he’ll direct this season, is particularly impressive, finding several chances to echo the pilot without ever straying into heavy-handedness. He’s particularly adept at illustrating the distance and hesitancy in the Jennings’ marriage through his framing, as Elizabeth slips by Philip in the background, moving not timidly but quietly, unhidden but out of focus. And then there’s the square-dancing, which tells us more about Philip’s new life than any piece of dialogue could; it finds its echo in Elizabeth matter-of-factly showering in a contact’s hotel room shower, her movements efficient but rote, going through the motions to she can get on to the next thing. The writing on “The Americans” has always been top-tier, but Long and his fellow directors have a keen sense of how much they can accomplish without language, particularly when Rhys and Russell are involved.
There’s no reason to assume, or even worry, that Fields, Weisberg, and their invaluable lead actors will stumble as they approach the finish line of “The Americans.” Theirs is an intricately plotted series in which plot has always come second to relationships, even as the two are inextricably linked. Relationships are always made richer and more complicated by long and messy histories, and “The Americans” has history—both personal and political—to spare. The Soviet Union ends. That’s the historical fact toward which this series has always moved, whether inching forward or marching, careening or drawing closer with stealth. Here, at last, it feels as though history is making the approach. The suspense that approach engenders is not what happens, or whether or not the end will be handled with care. The suspense is only about how much it will hurt to witness, and how badly “The Americans” will hurt each other.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.