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‘The Americans’ season 5 review: Cold War drama is TV’s best

FX's Cold War drama, "The Americans," returns for its fifth season on March 7, 2017. (Credit: FX Networks)

THE SERIES “The Americans”

WHEN | WHERE Fifth-season premiere Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX

GRADE A+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT As the fifth and penultimate season of the 1980s-set Cold War drama begins, undercover Soviet spies Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) have grown increasingly worried about their teen daughter Paige’s (Holly Taylor) romantic life. They’re also increasingly wrapped in their next mission — a particularly complicated and potentially deadly one. Neighbor and FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has noticed something amiss across the street, too, but is also spending a little more time at the gym pursuing his own romantic interests.

MY SAY After “Mad Men” wrapped two years ago, television once again needed that ambitious series with high-art intentions and a broad cultural sweep to step into the void. “The Americans” was only too happy to oblige. Both the Golden Globes and Emmys finally awoke from a long, baffling slumber to recognize both show and leads, and while there were no major wins, at least the spell was broken. “The Americans” had arrived, and had to be reckoned with. Depending on how “Homeland” wraps the current season, or “Better Call Saul” its next, this is now TV’s best drama. In fact, some would argue that “The Americans” now stands alone at the top.

The fourth season was great. The fifth at least needs to match it, and the evidence so far establishes that it will. With those eerie echoes of the Cold War now bouncing around today’s Washington, the fifth even comes with the added bonus of relevance. Who would have thought?

Not showrunners Joe Weisberg or Joel Fields, who just wanted to establish that aside from language, the Soviets and the Americans really weren’t so different after all. Both sides wanted life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and both wanted full stomachs, too.

In the telling according to “The Americans,” America was ahead on all fronts during the Cold War, which made the parallel Soviet storyline even more poignant. “The Americans” didn’t want to take sides, and didn’t. Instead, it wanted to understand (and did).

With Stan Beeman pal/KGB officer Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) now back in Moscow this season, the chance to enrich and deepen the Soviet storyline only increases, and Weisberg/Fields have in fact promised to widen the lens on that particular world. With Stan Beeman’s son, Matthew (Danny Flaherty), and Paige getting in deeper, the tragic undertones of this Cold War Romeo and Juliet deepen, too. With Philip and Elizabeth establishing a new cover, and even a new Potemkin family, the potential for a whole new story opens up — an especially dramatic one.

Meanwhile, “The Americans” is doubling down on what worked so well last season, notably the sounds of silence. To imagine what silence on the screen “sounds” like, think back to any Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro movie you ever saw, or at least the scene in “Raging Bull” when Jake LaMotta drops his guard before he is beaten to a pulp. There are seconds of pure, unfiltered silence when the entire movie almost seems to collapse in on itself. The tension and emotional overload are (sorry) deafening. Weisberg/Fields have clearly taken pointers from the master because there is no show — and maybe never has been — that uses silence as well as this one. There’s a 10-minute stretch Tuesday without a word spoken, a similar five-minute stretch next week. They’re remarkable sequences, full of foreboding and meaning. Scorsese would nod approvingly. You’ll be on the edge of your seat.

BOTTOM LINE Great start to a great series.

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