The Past Trisennight on TV #34

With the series finale of The Americans on UK TV tonight (at 12:05am on ITV4), I thought I’d bring my monthly TV review forward a bit and share my thoughts on the final season of a series that, for those of us who found it, will be sorely missed.

Plus! The latest episodes of Westworld — much more widely discussed than The Americans, but does it deserve the attention? And quick thoughts on the end of Archer Vice and another series finale, that of Peter Kay’s Car Share.

The Americans  Season 6
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

The Americans season 6That song was released in 1987, the same year as the final season of The Americans is set. The show has typically avoided featuring well-known music in favour of cult favourites and obscurities, but R.E.M.’s classic would’ve been an appropriate number to hear during one of the series’ trademark music montages in the finale. (That said, it did contain both Dire Straits and U2, so they weren’t above using big hits.) Maybe it would’ve been a bit on the nose, but it certainly was applicable: it was the end of the world as the characters knew it, and so too for fans, as six incredible seasons came to a final end. But do we feel fine? That depends how you define “fine”. The show will be missed terribly, but goddamn if it didn’t stick the landing to cement itself as one of the greatest TV series ever made.

It all began with a good setup for a concluding season: finally, after years of disagreements about their jobs and their personal lives and how both should be handled, the world conspired to pit the Jennings directly — and secretly — against each other. The Americans isn’t usually so overt in its plotting, so it’s no surprise that the scenario doesn’t play out as a straightforward spy-vs-spy battle. But it certainly tests the lead characters both professionally and personally, and to an extent they haven’t been before, forcing them to question every one of their loyalties: to their employers, to their country, to their friends, to their family, and to each other. To say too much about how it unfolds would be a spoiler, obviously, but it has some clever ways of challenging even the characters’ most deeply-held beliefs.

Most spy-based TV shows ratchet up the scale or stakes season after season — I’m thinking of Spooks, where in season two they spent a whole episode debating the ethics of performing an assassination, but a couple of years later that was just routine first-act stuff; or 24, where season one was just about someone trying to assassinate a presidential candidate, but by season four it was about multiple coordinated attacks including bombing trains, kidnappings, melting nuclear power stations, shooting down Air Force One, a nuclear missile strike… The Americans has, if anything, gone in the opposite direction: there’s still spy stuff there, of course, and it’s as grounded as ever, but it’s increasingly taken a backseat to the characters’ relationships. Maybe this is just a matter of perspective, but I felt that in earlier seasons the spy stuff was the focus, No ordinary marriageegiven texture or sometimes affected by the relationships, whereas by this point the relative importance and impact seems reversed. I guess you could still enjoy it as “just a spy show”, but I don’t think you’d want to — the stuff you’re invested in has shifted. That was always the programme’s genius, of course: it’s not about spies who happen to be married, it’s about marriage through the prism of people who are spies.

For a while it almost doesn’t feel like the end (the season opener even begins with a montage set to Don’t Dream It’s Over), but then comes episode five, The Great Patriotic War, and suddenly years of stuff is brought to a head: the status quo and people’s values are flipped, then re-flipped; there are massive changes and developments — but all managed with The Americans’ usual understated believability. As the fallout begins in episode six, Rififi, you can’t tell where it’s going to go. It keeps the focus squarely on Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship, as if we could ever forget the show is, at heart, all about that, not the big spy stuff. The season isn’t just engrossing on a thriller-ish “will they get caught?” level, but also on an emotional “will they stay together?” one. A big part of this is the performances by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both of whom are so, so good — the subtleties and nuances of their performances, and the way the series trusts them to convey what’s needed with just silence at times, is phenomenal. That they haven’t received more recognition for their work here is a crime against television.

The penultimate episode, Jennings, Elizabeth, is where things really begin to come to a head, and Jesus, the tension! It’s hair-raising. It’s intense. It leaves your nerves shattered, not just during the programme but after it too. I’m glad I saved the season up to watch on consecutive days, because I don’t know how I’d’ve spent a week with that hanging over me. And as for the finale, somewhat ironically titled START… I’ve been worried about how they’d end the show basically since it started. I spent that last hour covered in goosebumps and with my heart in my throat, and it was kinda perfect. It didn’t give me everything I wanted, but perhaps it gave me all that I needed. The garage sceneAs a commenter on the A.V. Club’s review put it, “I have to say it is of greatest compliment that the show both wrapped up the story and left me wanting more. It felt equal measure satisfying and gut wrenching.” That’s exactly how I felt. Also, it contained what I have no qualms about calling one of the greatest scenes in TV history: just a handful of characters talking in a garage, and it was absolutely stunning, the true culmination of the entirety of the show.

If you haven’t been watching The Americans (and viewing figures suggest you probably weren’t) then do yourself a favour and rectify that at some point — a 75-episode masterpiece awaits. Without doubt, one of the greatest TV series ever made.

Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 5-7
Shogun WorldI wrote last time about how Westworld season one took a few episodes to warm up but eventually got me completely hooked. Season two is so far failing to pull the same trick — over half the season has felt like it’s still just getting underway to me. And then, in the blink of an eye, episode seven, Les Écorchés, catapults us from “just getting started” to “endgame” over the course of an hour. I’m not sure how I feel about all that. There’s some exciting and interesting ideas in the mix here, but what also feels like a bit of flailing around. Maybe it’s all in aid of a Big Surprise? Season one certainly had a few of those in its final episodes — they were the most talked-about part of the show in the end, I’d wager — so I assume they’re going to end up shooting for the same.

One thing they’ve definitely copied from that freshman run is the multiple timelines. Back then it was a secret, and it ultimately paid off, but now it’s out in the open, and I’m not sure what it’s for. I mean, there are some very basic uses in play — “how does Character X get from that situation in the past to this situation in the present?”, “where have half the cast gone between the past and now?” — but that seems a bit… facile. As I say, I hope they’ve got some surprise to pull out of their sleeve — something to do with how the hosts struggle to differentiate between memories and current events, perhaps — but it’s a long time coming…

Also watched…
  • Archer Season 5 Episodes 6-13 — While the change-of-setup idea seemed interesting at first, I’m not sure how much I actually liked Archer Vice overall. There were some good episodes, plus sundry character bits and lines, etc, but the cumulative level of enjoyment was less than I remember from previous seasons. Equally, it’s been four years since I last watched the show — maybe I’d just moved on? Well, I’ll continue on to season six anyway, especially as I believe that returns to the original spy-agency setting.
  • Car Share The Finale — A much-needed conclusion after series two’s cliffhanger (did they really think that was ever going to wash as a final ending?) It gave us the happy ending most people wanted (I saw a handful of dissenting voices on Twitter), and, even more impressively, managed to do so without sacrificing the series’ two-people-chatting-in-a-car format. It was pretty darn hilarious, too. If they ever want to do more I won’t complain, but it’s fine to leave it there this time, thanks.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Very English ScandalThis month, I have mostly been missing A Very English Scandal, the Russell T Davies-penned drama about the real-life case of a ’60s politician and his secret homosexual lover. It seems to have gone down exceptionally well, and anything by RTD is always worth watching. Other than that, it feels like there’s a bunch of stuff on streaming I’ve been meaning to get round to and still haven’t. That list would keep us here all day, though.

    Next month… the MCU’s other black superhero returns to Netflix.

  • The Past Trisennight on TV #19

    Although I only post my TV overviews once a month, I’m always looking ahead to what’s going to be included in them. That’s what made me realise edition #19, scheduled for July 20th, was going to be insanely busy: new episodes of Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Preacher, Twin Peaks, and the entire latest season of The Americans — all things I typically review ‘in full’. Whew! So I’ve brought #19 forward a bit, and #20 will be in a fortnight anyway.

    So, here’s what I’ve been watching in the past month three weeks (aka trisennight, a word that Google finds two other uses of ever. Cool.)

    Doctor Who  Series 10 Episodes 10-12
    The Eaters of LightHistory was made left, right and centre in the last three episodes of Doctor Who’s 36th-ever season. For starters, The Eaters of Light marked the first time someone who wrote for the classic series has written for the revived one. Rona Munro penned the last story of old Who, Survival, a personal favourite of mine and one that, stylistically and tonally, connects remarkably well with the first episode of nuWho, Rose, which is quite the coincidence. Anyway, The Eaters of Light was a solid episode with some very likeable parts, but it didn’t seem to quite gel entirely in the final mix. That’s been a recurring theme for the middle of this season, I feel, with every episode since Knock Knock featuring quality ideas and/or characters and/or scenes that aren’t fully developed into a final whole. Nonetheless, I’d certainly welcome Munro returning again in the future, but who knows what Chris Chibnall has planned.

    And then we come to the two-part finale, written (of course) by departing showrunner Steven Moffat. The duology, which sadly is called neither Genesis of the Cybermen nor The Two Masters, continues his previously-stated aim of creating two-parters where each half is a distinctly different episode. The first part, World Enough and Time, is an immediate contender for an all-time great episode of the show. There’s a superb real-science setup with the time-dilated spaceship, plus a suitably eerie hospital in which we ‘unknowingly’ witness the birth of the Cybermen — my favourite Who monster, so perhaps I am a little biased.

    World Enough and TimeI put “unknowingly” in inverted commas there because that’s the episode’s biggest problem: thanks to the show’s own promotion, we knew the Cybermen were coming back, and we knew John Simm was returning as the Master. In truth, the former isn’t a problem. Sure, the existence of the Cybermen is played as something of a reveal at the end, but it also works as ‘just’ the reveal that Bill has been converted, and there’s dramatic irony in the viewer knowing what those cloth-headed patients are destined to become. The Master spoiler is more of a problem. The prosthetics turning Simm into Razor are impressive, and even fooled some people who knew he was back… for a bit. I’m sure most people must’ve guessed before the episode ended. It therefore becomes a distraction: what’s his plan? When will he reveal himself? And when the big reveal does come, it’s played as a twist, which it isn’t because we were told about Simm three months ago. Moffat has said before that it was entirely his decision to put Simm in the trailer, and it’s clear it was a misstep. Not a fatal one — World Enough and Time is strong enough to withstand it — but a shame. Can you imagine the reaction if we hadn’t known?

    So with the Master finally revealed at episode’s end, he teams up with Missy for the first multi-Master story ever in the extended finale, The Doctor Falls. With a lot of business to attend to, this isn’t quite as striking as its first part. Nonetheless, there’s strong material here. Missy and the Master are a hoot, the pairing of Simm and Michelle Gomez working exactly as well as you’d hope. Their storyline comes to a very fitting conclusion, too. The way Moffat handles Bill being a Cyberman, how she feels inside and how people react to her, was an original use of a well-worn villain. Her possible-departure was fitting too, tying appropriately back to her debut episode. Moffat buried a way for her to return in the dialogue, which hopefully Chibnall will pick up because Bill has been absolutely fab. It would be a real shame if this is the last we see of her. The Doctor FallsAs for the other current Capaldi companion, there was an almost touching exit for Nardole, a character Matt Lucas has managed to imbue with much more likability than was promised in his initial appearance a couple of Christmases back. Finally, Peter Capaldi was in as fine fettle as ever, getting to deliver a few more of his iconic speeches, before going out with a heroic last stand.

    Well, not quite going out, because we have that exciting cliffhanger to lead us into the Christmas special. With such a promising setup, let’s hope Moffat can stick the landing. We’ll find out on December 25th…

    The Americans  Season 5
    The Americans season 5The best show on television” returns for its penultimate run. It’s currently mid-way through here in the UK (where it’s really, really buried on ITV Encore, more’s the pity — it deserves a bigger audience) so I’ll be extra careful to avoid big spoilers. It’s an interesting run of episodes, though: low-key, in their way; slow-paced, even by the standards of current high-quality TV. That’s not to say it’s without merit, but it’s rewarding of long-term investment more than ever. In truth, it may be the show’s weakest run, but that’s very much a relative assertion. There’s a lot of groundwork being laid here, probably the downside of them getting a two-season to-the-finish recommission — these are episodes 1 to 13 of 23, not 1 to 13 of 13.

    Still, as I said, it’s most decidedly not without merit, it’s just that the drama is very much internalised into the characters. A lot of it is about Philip and Elizabeth becoming increasingly tired of their life — the toll that all the killing and lying takes. That’s not exactly something new for Philip, but is he reaching breaking point? And to see Elizabeth beginning to struggle too really rams home how tough it is. Indeed, the detrimental effects of this lifestyle are felt across all the storylines and returning characters, as people on both sides come to doubt the justification of their respective causes. Is someone going to snap and betray their country?

    Although the season starts (and, in some cases, resolves) plot lines of its own, ultimately the big underlying thread is (picking up from last season) the debate about how, when, and if they can go home to Russia. The kids are a big factor: Paige is still being initiated into the realities of their cause, but Henry is off building a life of his own, now more than ever. At the same time, we’re shown how difficult it is for other people to adjust in similar circumstances, including Russians who’ve defected to America with their kid. These kind of storylines could be heavy-handed parallels on other shows, but The Americans unfurls them gradually and carefully and subtly enough that you come to see it for yourself rather than the show screaming at you to notice the mirroring.

    Not the most dramatic run, then, but this deep in I think it’s earnt our trust that they’re going somewhere with it all. It’s also earnt our investment in the characters to the extent that it can base storylines about their internal struggles rather than just exciting espionage stuff. It’s clearly been a not-for-everyone season (reviews are largely positive still, but there are more dissenting voices) but there’s still quality in spades. And it’s still completely unpredictable how it’s all going to wind up next season.

    Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 7-8
    In its 7th episode, the new Twin Peaks suddenly delivered a surfeit of story, forging ahead with actual plot developments in several of its disparate storylines. It was almost bizarre. It was good. Heck, some of the scenes were incredible. Laura Dern is perfect here. So did this mark a turning point? Was the series finally getting stuck into the meat of the story? Well, as it turned out, no. Not at all. Indeed, perhaps David Lynch was just pre-trolling us, in his own way, because Part 8…

    Twin Peaks Part 8I don’t know if it was the reaction across the board, but on Twitter the reception the 8th episode received was adulatory to the nth degree. Having given us massive developments and beloved characters just one episode before, suddenly we were in a different era, in black and white, with mostly unknown characters, and a narrative conveyed through Lynchian visions rather than traditional storytelling. It made some kind of sense… some of it… in the end… but you certainly had to stick with it. Some of it was incredible — the tracking shot into the mushroom cloud is, somehow, almost inexplicably, one of the greatest shots of all time; an instant classic. But other bits… they did go on rather. I’m not one of those people who wishes the new Twin Peaks was a pure nostalgia fest, all repetition of famous lines and quirky goings on in the Double R over cherry pie and coffee, but I also think Lynch’s indulgence has run a little too rampant. Much of his surrealist imagery works if you’re prepared to engage with it, but I also think much of it doesn’t need to go on for as long as it does. There’s a difference between a slow pace and no pace.

    So, I don’t really think Part 8 is a total revolution in television and one of the greatest episodes of all time, as some people do. For one thing, the opening stuff with Evil Cooper and the Nine Inch Nails performance felt like it belonged at the end of the previous episode but had to be moved for time. It was certainly an experience, though, I’ll give it that. I just hope it’s one that all makes sense in the end…

    Preacher  Season 2 Episodes 1-2
    Preacher season 2After a sometimes uncertain but ultimately promising first season that was, really, all prologue to the main story, Preacher returns with a confident bang, filled with unstoppable cowboys, exploding SUVs, Maced testicles, intestinal fuel syphons, baby foreskins, and Come On Eileen — and that was just the opening ten minutes. Shows like Legion, American Gods, and, especially, Twin Peaks may have been duking it out for the title of craziest series on television these past few months, but there’s nothing quite like Preacher.

    With our trio of heroes — a Texan preacher with the power to make anyone do what he says, his badass girlfriend with a criminal past, and a rough but charming Irish vampire — now on the road, the series itself also feels free of the shackles of the first season’s small-town setting. We’re let loose into a world that can equal the barminess of the leads. A world where we meet a friend who keeps a girl locked in a cage in his garage (for good reason); where you can see a man cheat death nightly at the Mumbai Sky Tower Resort and Casino; where a drug-fuelled binge of pillow-fighting and reading Archie comics can solve your woes; where God goes to a strip joint for the jazz…

    Sadly, you can’t really jump in here — too much was established in season one — but the ongoing unpredictable zaniness makes it worth the investment to reach this point, in my view. And with some fan-favourite characters just around the corner, hopefully it’s gonna be a helluva season.

    Also watched…
  • The Persuaders! Series 1 Episodes 6-13 — it’s funny watching this in production order (as it is on the DVDs), because it seems pretty clear they blew the budget sending the cast around Europe for the first few episodes — all the exotic locations are being done with back projection by this point.

    Next fortnight… winter is here.