How The Americans hasn’t won literally every Emmy is beyond me. Season five’s first episode, Amber Waves, opens in a high school cafeteria with Devo’s “That’s Good” playing, and when Nathan Barr‘s name appeared on the screen under “Music By,” I was already swooning over what promises to be another awe-inspiring season.
So here we are in a high school cafeteria, listening to Devo and appreciating the care with which the early 80s are recreated on this gorgeous, amazing show, while scanning the crowd for Paige or, less likely, Henry. But this isn’t Paige or Henry’s school. Instead we’re following Tuan (Ivan Mok) as he apparently looks for somewhere to sit. Tuan is the new kid, and he finds an empty seat next to another obviously new kid, Pasha (Zack Gafin).
Pasha is Russian, and he’s having a tough time being new to America, having limited English and being lonely. He and Tuan become friends and start hanging out after school, which we know because one day Tuan brings Pasha home to his house, and they meet Tuan’s adoptive parents, the Eckharts (I think)… A.K.A. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings!
Before the opening credits even roll, we get to see Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell sporting their first wigs (plus a mustache for Philip), and we learn right away what identities will be wearing the pilot and stewardess uniforms teased in all the pre-season promotional shots.
After the opening credits, we’re given a montage of historical footage of America’s amber waves of grain contrasted with the food scarcity in the USSR at the same time while a version of “God Bless America” sung in Russian plays. This is definitely setting up the heart of the season’s international intrigue. The montage ends with a Russian government official receiving a tasty looking pastry to enjoy with tea in his office. There might not be food in the grocery stores, but the officials can eat cake.
Back in the USA, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is arriving at work when his new boss, Agent Wolfe (Peter Jacobson), calls him into the super-tercet conference room to let him know that Oleg (Costa Ronin) has apparently made it safely back to Russia without anyone linking him to their successful interception of William Crandall (Dylan Baker).
Still in disguise as Tuan’s folks, Philip and Elizabeth come to their fake home to debrief whoever Tuan really is about what he’s learned from Pasha. Tuan tells them that Pasha’s parents are just happy he has made a friend, and that it will be easy to introduce his “parents” to Pasha’s parents. He characterizes Pasha’s mom as hovering and his father as a traitor who hates his homeland and should have gotten a bullet to the brain. Whatever Tuan’s story is, he’s no innocent high school kid. After they’ve received his report, the camera lingers on Elizabeth’s face so we can see the conflicting emotions play there– on the one hand, she probably agrees wholeheartedly with Tuan’s assessment of the father. On the other, it’s hard to hear a kid speak like that. Spycraft, you know?
Next we jump to Oleg walking the halls of his family’s luxurious apartment back in the USSR. While his mother prepares him some food, he takes in the sights of home, including photos of him with his late brother when they were kids and a portrait of his brother in his military uniform. When Oleg’s mom, Yelena Burova (Snezhana Chernova), comes in with his food, the camera stays on the portrait for a few beats, only showing Oleg and mama blurred in the mirror above it. Yelena is a broken woman, struggling with the grief of losing her younger son, but the presence of Oleg is helping to pull her back from the brink.
Now that we’ve seen what’s going on everywhere else, it’s finally time to pick up Paige (Holly Taylor). The Jennings are miraculously home in their real house when Paige comes in with leftover pizza from Stan’s. She and Henry are spending a lot of time there, and it sounds like Stan isn’t that worried about getting them their vegetables. They try to engage her in conversation, but she blows them off…
And we’re back to Russia. This time, though, we’re following Mischa (Alex Ozerov), Philip’s recently discovered oldest son, as he prepares to sneak to the United States to find his father. It’s tense in the airport while he uses his fake passport to get on the plane, but he makes it. Mischa is on his way.
Back in the land of the free, Tuan and his parents are walking over to the Morozovs’ house to meet Pasha’s parents and have dinner. They establish that Tuan’s account of the father (Alexander Sokovikov) is pretty accurate– he’s vocally critical of Russia. He shares that he works as a consultant to the Department of Agriculture, and he’s told them everything about food production in Russia. Bang. Now we know why this family is in the Jennings’ crosshairs.
Elizabeth and Pasha’s mother (Irina Dvorovenko) have a moment alone in the kitchen, where Elizabeth learns that she isn’t as anti-Russia as her husband is, and that their son didn’t want to come to the United States at all.
In the car on their way back to their “real” lives, Elizabeth and Philip indulge in some rare retrospection, sharing how hungry their families were after the war. Philip’s mom would make “soup” out of water and onions, and Elizabeth’s mother would pretend not to be hungry so that Elizabeth could eat. Somehow, this memory of hardship is inspired by their disgust at Mr. Morozov’s attitude towards the current conditions in Russia.
Once home, they find Paige reading the new John Irving, The Hotel New Hampshire, at the dining table. They pry a little too openly to find out what’s happening with her and Matthew Beeman (Danny Flaherty), and Paige rebuffs them by telling them that she has bigger problems than her relationship with Matthew. She can’t sleep because of nightmares in which she relives seeing her mother kill the mugger. She’s too scared to go to the food pantry anymore. Before they can resolve anything with her, Stan shows up with a six pack so he can tell Philip about the new woman he’s met at the gym.
Later, Philip comes up to bed and he and Elizabeth agree that the relationship between paige and Matthew is going to be a problem. Elizabeth says she’ll talk to Paige.
Back in Russia, Oleg is reporting for his new job… which turns out to be criminal investigations for the branch of the KGB dedicated to rooting out corruption in their country’s food production and distribution. His new boss, the official we saw enjoying that pastry earlier, warns him that many of their suspects have likely dined in Oleg’s home with his government father, and he impresses on Oleg the importance of keeping anything they say at work confidential. Looks like things will be tense for Oleg at home.
We get a moment with Claudia (Margo Martindale) and Gabriel (Frank Langella) discussing their charges and the danger they’re always in, and then it’s time for Elizabeth to “talk” to Paige. Instead of sitting her down to talk about the dangers of dating the FBI agent next door’s son, though, she takes her into the garage and begins teaching her how to fight. She says it will help Paige with her nightmares.
At last, Elizabeth and Philip head to the new safe house to check in with Gabriel. He tells them what we already know about William– he infected himself with the virus, and he was captured by the FBI and has likely died. They all agree that William died a hero, and Gabriel tells them that William has one job left to do for his country and shows the Jennings an aerial photo of the grounds behind the fort where William was taken. (Did you guess right away that it’s time for some grave digging? I did!)
Sure enough, the last 10 minutes of the episode are nearly silent as we watch Elizabeth, Philip, Hans (Peter Mark Kendall) and some faceless others sneak onto the fort’s grounds and dig dig dig dig dig. Hours are passing, evinced by the growing mounds of dirt adjacent to the deepening hole. The tension in this dark, quiet, long scene is amazing. You know what they’re digging for, but it seems inconceivable that William’s virus-riddled corpse would just be buried somewhere and that this group of people would risk exposure to it in order to retrieve a sample. However, that’s exactly what’s going on.
Once they hit the steel coffin, one of the crew gets in the grave with a blowtorch to cut it open. When finished, he climbs out, and Philip and Elizabeth climb in. They’re just wearing flimsy surgical masks and latex gloves as they open the coffin and find William inside, encased in a full-body biohazard bag, complete with a “do not burn” warning. Despite the obvious danger, they pierce the bag and Philip uses a scalpel to cut a chunk of William’s arm off. Elizabeth places it in a biohazard baggie and hands it up out of the hole to Hans… who falls into the grave!
Hans regains his composure, only to find that his glove has been pierced. He is bleeding, and he has had direct contact with the exposed part of William’s corpse. Elizabeth reassures him that everything is fine and sends him up the ladder out of the grave. (AS IF!) Then, of course, she shoots him in the head.
She and Philip tuck him into the coffin with William and close the lid.
And that’s where we stop.
One more thing- Henry (Keidrich Sellati) was in this episode, but I guess it isn’t time for his being neglected to blow up in anyone’s face yet.
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