It Took Binge Watching ‘The Americans’ to Understand Why It’s a Classic

The following story discusses the entire series, including details from the series finale. Sorry!

The scene: Two men and a woman prepare for a trip while cooking breakfast. One later carries her bags to a car before driving to the countryside. The only sounds heard; the crackling of some eggs, the sighing of some wind and rumbling of a motor. When she finally breaks her silence to her “husband”—in reality a KGB spy who caused her to run from the country—her goodbye isn’t angry, but reassuring. “Don’t be alone Clark, don’t be alone,” she tells “Clark”—our protagonist.

This is The Americans at its core. Quiet, thoughtful and hard to explain to the uninitiated. But it’s a modern classic (calling it) that should stand beside The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire when people discuss the best shows of the 21st century .

I knew it was good, but in order to understand why people were so psyched for the series finale, I knew I had the live The Americans. So I spent this week binging the entire series—all six seasons—to peel away at what makes this show so memorable. It’s not the Russia vs America thing that draws me to this show (although that is very good). It’s not the sex or graphic violence. It’s not even the incredible 80s soundtrack. It’s the people—the folks wrapped in this showcase of on-screen emotion. The Americans tapped into something personal, and from start to finish, it’s been a beautiful thing to watch.

When you spend a week with a fictional family, rarely taking the time to divorce yourself from anything but, you understand why a family can be so special or terrible. Sure, you’ll hate some characters, and love them all the same, but the key is that they have to be consistent compared to a weekly watch; like listening to a conversation, where the more they speak, the more they can spout a realness or a bunch of bullshit. It becomes less about the threatrics and more about the people.

When I first hit the series at the start of the week, it knew it wasn’t exactly a success story. Just google the receipts; the finale of season five managed a pretty sad 767,000 total viewers. It’s been award snubbed so many damn times I lost count. (Give Keri Russell her Emmy already, come on!) And it hasn’t even earned a personalized Twitter hashtag ffs. Everything about this whole series is an awkward embrace from the jump—unlike trendy dramas like Atlanta or Game of Thrones which have easy sells in the fantastical (dragons and ice zombies) or by being The Most Important Show on TV. A 1980s America vs Russia espionage tale that’s really about marriage is a much harder sell.

Here’s where the show starts. You got Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) running a travel agency in Washington, DC as deep cover for their Russian spy operation. They’ve been posing as Americans for a very long time to help save the Motherland from bad guy America. They also have two kids who were born in the country (Paige and Henry Jenning), that have no idea about their death dealing parents. Across the street lives Stan Beeman, a very competent FBI agent and a very sad man (an impeccably subtle performance by Noah Emmerich on a show filled with subtle performances).

Within the first few minutes, I digested all that, foot chasing, hand-to-hand, death dealing shit until things slowed down. The two spies don’t head to a red, commie-led base before returning home. The home is the base. There’s a kitchen, a stove, family pictures. It’s a time to digest, reflect, and have breakfast with their kids.

It’s this family life that makes these this show morally murky to the 10th degree—the harsh dichotomy between their two lives. Make breakfast/poison someone’s son, take out the trash/become someone’s fake husband, talk to the kids about school/kill an undercover soldier.

Elizabeth, Paige and Philip.

We’ve seen anti-heroism before through the The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but nothing like this. There’s something very fucked up and but also very professional in the way Elizabeth and Philip enrich and then ruin their target’s lives. Yes, some actions come with the personal implications that fit anti-hero molds. When Philip is forced to slit the throat of a young man in season two, it injures him emotionally. You see actor Rhys go from low-browed, straight mouthed kill mode to high-browed, grimacy concern mode. When Elizabeth, the more stoic and ruthless of the pair, kills a husband and wife in the same apartment as their little boy, it visibly adds to her exhaustion and smoking habit. Russell re-tells this experience through her face; tiny veins decorating her eyelids when she holds a breath with her silence.

Both spies, through training and trauma, come to understand the non-physical needs that make people vulnerable. And like addicts to the needle, their targets come for that pointed fix of pleasure and pain. Take next door neighbour Beeman for instance, who happens to be an involved in a failing marriage in the early seasons.

“I don’t have many friends,” he tells Phillip. Their genuine friendship becomes a core tension within the show. The question the viewer has over six seasons is not “Will Stan find out?” it’s “when Stan finds out, how will he feel?”

Elizabeth offers her own brand of friendship to a recovering alcoholic, and a saleswoman who digs her company. She’s always been the more literal-minded of the two. A spy but a woman all the same, she’s had to use her body as much as her fists to get the job done. Over time, we’ve seen her ability for affection harden (including a past rape). This always made the small moments of real friendship/affection way more consequential to her character.

Whether it’s one spy showing a neglected teenager some attention (which the show correctly plays as incredibly creepy), or another who provides a dying artist with a student (Elizabeth),

they still give as much as they take.

Throughout the six seasons, I watched the dance of these two as they became counselor, friend, parent, lover, confidant, and at times, executioner. When “wife” Martha speaks the words “don’t be alone Clark,” to fake husband Phillip, I felt that real hurt. She was stripped of something that she thought was real (love). Having someone of several years cheat you comes with a complex blend of anger, hurt and a hole that said person once filled. It’s a longing you never want to let go of and something that this show consistently understands through its many characters.

There’s no Walter White or Vic Mackey who predictably falls deeper into villainy in this show, if anything it’s the reverse as our ruthless killing machines become more sensitive and caring over the arc of the series. Every bad-ish/good-ish character wears their ugly through the discovery of who they really are. The bad guys—whoever they are—never truly becomes the villians, and the good guys never truly become the heroes, but every character on this show grows.

Fast forward to the series finale, when FBI agent Stan Beeman figures out that his best friend was really a KGB spy. He points a gun at Phillip with clear levels of hurt on his face, forcing the agent to be the most honest he’s ever been to his friend Stan. “We had a job to do.” Stan doesn’t shoot or arrest the Russians on some black and white shit. He lets them go, because Stan, like many in many in this show, like many of us in general, had a “need.” He needed a friend more than he needed to be an FBI agent, and like of the many lies in his life and throughout this series, he would maintain that lie to hold onto that need.

The need for affection, the need for love, the need for friendship, and the need for reflection. This is what the show was about. Even when I thought I didn’t need The Americans, it proved me wrong.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.

Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox daily.