Thirty-five minutes in, under a thick blanket of darkness, “Amber Waves” offers its most forceful reminder that The Americans is the best show on television. Tasked with recovering a sample from the corpse of William Crandall, the KGB agent felled by Lassa fever in the sterling fourth season’s finale, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) lead a team of operatives to the burial ground and begin, in near-silence, to dig. Seemingly endless—and, for a spell, fruitless—the exhumation becomes a Sisyphean labor, the sound of shovels encountering dirt accompanied by the occasional thrum of the score. Forty-two minutes in, at the bottom of a hole the size of a car, Philip’s implement strikes the metal casket; forty-four minutes in, he cuts a flap of tissue from William’s leg, bagging it for transport. At forty-six minutes, Hans (Peter Mark Kendall), the South African activist brought in by Elizabeth in Season Three, loses his footing and tumbles into the trench, slicing his hand in the process.
“It’s OK,” Elizabeth assures him. “It’s fine.”
“It doesn’t hurt,” he replies, peering up at her as if he’d skinned his knee at the playground.
Forty-seven minutes in, after a glance from Philip and a report from her gun, the team seals a second corpse inside the casket, and “Amber Waves” then cuts to black.
Hans’ death has, I suspect, a logistical purpose—he’d long since outlived his narrative usefulness—but the sequence is as striking for what it doesn’t do as for what it does. It doesn’t, for instance, condense the action to a swift-footed montage; in truth, it doesn’t feature much action at all, merely the interminable start-and-stop of digging and waiting, waiting and digging. Save for that single exchange, ruthless in its brevity, it doesn’t include dialogue: It’s as long a stretch of wordlessness as you’re likely to see on TV all year. It doesn’t even attempt to gin up suspense, to suggest that the guards at Fort Detrick’s Area B are closing in on the trespassers. It is, simply, a portrait of spies’ unglamorous work, and a reminder of The Americans’ remarkable ambition: to redefine the shape of the episode, the season, and so to return our focus once again to its abiding belief, which is that the Cold War’s dangers extend to both body and soul.
This is, to my mind, the thread that ties Hans’ sudden end to the delightfully disorienting opening sequence, in which Philip and Elizabeth appear to have abandoned Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) for an adolescent Vietnamese adoptee named Tuan (Ivan Mok): It is the psychic stress of constant conflict that animates the series, and that bleeds, almost seamlessly, into violence. When we learn that Tuan is another operative, for instance, setting the line to lure Pasha (Zack Gafin), a recent transplant from Moscow, into collaboration with the KGB, his disgust with Pasha’s anti-communist father, Alexei (Alexander Sokovikov), soon assumes a more unnerving complexion. “Hates his homeland. Where he comes from,” Tuan remarks. “Don’t know how you people let a guy like that get out. Should’ve put a bullet in his head a long time ago.”
If “Amber Waves” reserves its bullet for Hans, it nonetheless fills the space between these bookends with intimations of violence; Paige’s admission that she continues to suffer nightmares, after seeing Elizabeth insert a knife into a mugger’s neck near the end of Season Four, segues into an impromptu training session in the garage. “You don’t want to get hurt, you have to be willing to do anything to protect yourself,” Elizabeth says, and of course this is the rub: None of the murders she and Philip have perpetrated to this point in the series has brought the Soviet Union, much less Jennings family, closer to peace. It has only sharpened our protagonists’ edges, made them more suspicious—say, of Paige’s relationship with Matthew Beeman (Danny Flaherty)—and more guarded. The winnowing down of the supporting cast, with Martha’s exile and the deaths of Nina, Frank Gaad and now Hans, reflects this siege mentality, the claustrophobic sense that the other shoe is about to drop. “Nothing scares those two,” Claudia (Margo Martindale) offers at one point, misreading their steeliness for calm. Gabriel knows better. “Everything scares those two,” he replies.
As Philip’s estranged son, Mischa (Alex Ozerov), sets off for the United States, and Oleg (Costa Ronin) returns to Moscow, The Americans—still two seasons from its conclusion—already seems to be arranging itself around a reckoning, one likely to examine what the anything of Elizabeth’s warning might, in fact, entail. At what point does protecting oneself, or one’s family, supersede defending one’s country? At what point does allegiance to one’s homeland wither on the vine? As “Amber Waves” acknowledges, such questions arise in tandem: Despite his son’s unhappiness, and his wife’s ambivalence, Alexei moves his family to the U.S. to escape the hardship of life in the USSR, already “dirty, unhappy, and crashing” in 1984; despite the fear that stems from the secret he shares with his wife and daughter, Philip decides that “the right time” to return “home” remains in the offing.
Much has been made of The Americans’ newfound relevance, at a moment in which relations between Russia and the U.S. are as strained, and strange, as at any point since the Cold War’s end, but it’s the season premiere’s attention to the complications of patriotism that mirrors our own moment most precisely. As with the episode’s brilliant, unorthodox structure, the interlude from which it derives its title squares space for the notion that we cannot always answer for our country—indeed, that loyalty might, at times, demand dissent. The montage in question depicts, in the manner of propaganda, thriving American fields and fallow Soviet ones, prosperity and scarcity, waves of grain and lines for food, which might tempt one into agreeing with Alexei’s point of view. But it’s worth remembering, as we hear a Russian-language rendition of “America the Beautiful,” that certain of the values we Americans are meant to hold dear seem to exist only in the abstract. Consider the high ideals of the song’s third stanza, which, in the context of the Muslim ban, ICE deportations, anti-Semitic threats and the looming healthcare crisis, suggest nothing so much as the distance between the promise of revolution and the bottom of that deep, dark trench:
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!
Consider whether the recitation of patriotic propaganda is merely a cover for a country’s crimes. And then ask yourself, as The Americans asks:
Is this what I want to be fighting for?
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.