When The Americans premiered back in January 2013, it had all the makings of a fun throwback. ’80s fashion! ’80s politics! Felicity gracing our screens again! It quickly revealed itself to be a much more serious exploration of the crisscrossing allegiances to family and country than its sexy logline implied, albeit with plenty of time for bone-breaking and tooth-extracting, and with some of the most complex (and perplexingly under-awarded) performances on television. And in hindsight its granular exploration of the old Cold War was remarkably prescient of our current quagmires, constantly forcing the audience to question just how much it should be sympathizing with characters that want to undermine our very way of life, antiheroes whose destructive reach extends beyond even Heisenberg. What the show’s ultimate legacy will be after its May 30th finale remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: it had some of the most artful era-appropriate music cues this side of Mad Men. In honor of its six masterful seasons, here are the 10 best cuts from the entirety of the series (up until the eighth episode of season six, that is), presented in the order they first appeared. Also, though The Americans has its favorites like everyone, I limited this to one soundtrack cut per artist out of fairness. Otherwise this list might be mostly Fleetwood Mac. Speaking of…
“Tusk” – Fleetwood Mac
“Pilot” / Season 1, Episode 1
What is a sign of supreme confidence in this prestige-TV soaked time? Starting your pilot episode off with the iconic, ominous rumblings of this classic Fleetwood Mac song, underscoring the first of many dangerous missions we will see the Jennings undertake together. Thrown headlong into this world, viewers aren’t immediately sure what they’re seeing (literally, it’s quite dark) or who these characters are to one another, and the menacing vocals, which toggle between breathy and growly before erupting in that marching band-backed chorus, only heighten that confusion. The Americans would make great use of Fleetwood Mac again (“The Chain” in particular) and the band has already made an appearance in season six. Are Weisberg & co. cheeky enough to bookend the entire series with its now signature song? Considering how bleak things have gotten for our protagonists it could provide viewers one last reprieve or be the cruelest cut to black since Tony put Journey on the jukebox.
“Games Without Frontiers” – Peter Gabriel
“The Colonel” / Season 1, Episode 13
There will be several season-closing soundtrack choices on this list to come but the OG is still one of the best. Having spent twelve episodes getting to know the Jennings, and their many many wigs, the final moments here are focused on a threat that they haven’t seen coming, because it’s inside the house: their curious teenage daughter Paige. While for most shows going down to the family laundry room would be a perfectly routine activity, viewers know that Paige is coming perilously close to finding out her parents’ most deeply guarded secrets, which would alter what she knows about her own life irrevocably. The eventual reckoning stretched over the next several seasons to come, but that long game is perfectly set up here with this eerie Gabriel number, which would put you on edge even if you weren’t paying attention to the caustic lyrics, which satirically turn the phrase “war games” into literal child’s play. Nobody is innocent forever in this world, and soon the collision of the domestic and international will move far beyond the Jennings’ control.
“Don’t Go” – Yaz
“Dimebag” / Season 3, Episode 4
Most viewers would probably cite the other Yaz cut from this episode, which plays during a crucial moment in one of Philip’s creepier missions, but I associate “Only You” with the UK Office finale so deeply in my heart that I can’t award The Americans ownership. Also the scene in “Dimebag” where CIA agent Stan Beeman kicks down a diner bathroom door to search for evidence Conversation-style is one of the few moments when he’s truly allowed to look badass rather than just foolish, so I’m choosing it instead. It’s an immediately arresting cut, with its hopscotching synths and Alison Moyet’s pleas, at once seductive and sinister, and a perfect choice to background Stan’s desperate, ultimately fruitless search for answers. So much of this show is about observing the more mundane necessities of spy work, the hours spent in cars tailing targets or decrypting messages, that it’s fun to watch it cut loose every once in awhile, especially when it involves the destruction of some property rather than, you know, another human being.
“Under Pressure” – Queen & David Bowie
“Clark’s Place” / Season 4, Episode 5
The Americans has never shied away from toying with cliché in its soundtrack choices, particularly when it comes to its sex scenes; the first time we see Philip and Elizabeth get down in the pilot it’s scored to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” But sometimes the unrelenting seriousness of the show’s intricate plotting requires a comforting sonic release. In the case of “Under Pressure”, that’s quite literal. While the intimacy of the Jennings’ relationship had deepened over the previous seasons, many of their missions kept them separate, particularly Philip’s extended ruse as the titular Clark. As Philip ties himself up into emotional knots over his “relationship” with Martha, Elizabeth initiates some marital relations to relieve the pressure. The terror of knowing what this world is about indeed! It’s a gambit, for sure, as their ecstasy and anxiety is matched by Freddie Mercury’s euphoric wailing. It’s also a potent reminder that at the end of the day, this is a show about a marriage, and the rewards and aggravations that come with having a partner, whether you’re deciding to spirit an asset over Communist borders or just what to have for dinner.
“Major Tom” – Peter Schilling
“The Day After” / Season 4, Episode 9
Another high risk song choice on the show’s part, not just because it’s primo ’80s cheese, but because it’s already indelibly tied to another doomed prestige TV character. Still, it works, mostly because of the counterweight it brings to a scene that might otherwise be unbearably sad. Elizabeth had spent most of the season befriending sweet cosmetics rep Young-hee in order to dig up dirt on her husband Don. But when Liz is unable to find anything incriminating enough she decides to do the unthinkable (though, given how often she does the unthinkable, we should have seen this coming) and stages a seduction instead, drugging Don so that he wakes up in bed with her. We’ve seen honey pot set-ups many times in the series by now, but this betrayal feels particularly acute, since Elizabeth seemed to have a genuine connection with Young-hee. Still, once the choice is made, she can’t go back on it, and the goofy countdown of the song’s bridge matches Elizabeth’s own careful preparations note for depressing note.
“Who By Fire” – Leonard Cohen
“Persona Non Grata” / Season 4, Episode 13
Cohen was the high priest of spiritual anxiety, and the close of the fourth season saw both Elizabeth and Philip shaken in their beliefs, having watched one of their fellow agents be consigned to a horrible death as a consequence of his mission. So it’s only natural that Cohen would make his first appearance here in another epic montage that’s all about chickens coming home to roost. With his trademark sardonic wit, Cohen intones a laundry list of possible ways to shuffle off this mortal coil like a judgmental Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. By fire, by avalanche, high ordeal or common trial, it all flattens out in his relentlessly even delivery. “And who shall I say is calling?” he inquires, but there’s no answer of course. It’s a forlorn song and one that highlights the parting words of William before his gruesome demise: “I was committed to something, and I was invisible.” The Jennings have the former, but they can never be the latter; the family they’ve built as a cover makes it impossible. It’s what keeps them sane, and what could ultimately lead to their downfall.
“More Than This” – Roxy Music
“The Midges” / Season 5, Episode 3
Once a deep Roxy Music cut made an appearance during a masterful time jump in Season 4, it was only a matter of time before one of their bigger hits showed up too. “The Midges” doesn’t waste the opportunity either, featuring “More Than This” twice in the episode, during bookend scenes that ironically contrast what’s become routine for the Jennings: bowling with their kids at the top of the episode, and disposing of a dead body at the end of it. Viewers had long ago become acclimated to the ruthlessness that the Jennings’ job requires, and our own familiarity with the violence they must inflict starts to dovetail here with how much it’s all beginning to wear on them. Bryan Ferry’s detached entreaty that “you know there’s nothing more than this” hovers over our beleaguered pair, who really hadn’t planned to kill the deputy director of the lab they’ve been casing until, of course, they had to. It’s not particularly subtle, but it is a nod to the frustration Elizabeth and Philip were feeling at this point, a feeling many viewers hungry for bigger payoffs were probably also entertaining themselves.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Elton John
“The Soviet Division” / Season 5, Episode 13
The Americans has often saved its most mournful soundtrack choices for its season-closers and the culmination of the fifth, whose slow burn could be a trying one even for the most loyal viewer, is no different, cuing up Elton John’s regretful classic for a montage that’s all about loss. Yes, the narrator of John’s ballad should have stayed on the farm and should have listened to his old man. But he has the luxury of not having the Jennings for family members, and Paige is officially at the point of no return, her dalliance with religion having come to a disastrous (though thankfully bloodshed-free) end, her nightly sparring with her mother officially shifting into indoctrination. There’s no yellow brick road these characters can turn away from, no other path they can take; instead there’s a flurry of farewells as Paige’s mentor Pastor Tim is forced into a position in South America, as Stan commits fully to the increasingly suspicious Renee, and as Philip receives Elizabeth’s blessing to retire, all punctuated by the cascading “oohs” and “aahs” of the chorus. They might sound heavenly but they portend a crash to earth ahead.
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” – Crowded House
“Dead Hand” / Season 6, Episode 1
It’s always a bit of a mystery where viewers will find these characters at the beginning of a new season, but this was especially the case with the sixth. What would Philip be doing now that he’d decided to leave the spy game mostly behind? How would Elizabeth be coping on her own? And what about Paige’s new role in the “family business”? The note-perfect opening montage doesn’t tell us anything outright; instead it’s content to linger on scenes that make the separateness of their current lives clearer than any expository dialogue could, with the added bonus of unfolding over that nostalgia inducing guitar line. Blessed with a network home that allowed the show to unfold as its creators intended, The Americans and its fans have no illusions that what happens at the end of this season is final, and if the “hey now, hey now” chorus didn’t make it clear, the rest of the episode will spend its time throwing all kind of walls up between the couple. The only question now is who will win?
“Slippery People” – Talking Heads
“Tchaikovsky” / Season 6, Episode 2
I have no idea why the music producers of The Americans waited until this final season to drop a song from Talking Heads, whose lyrics are regularly spiked with Reagan-era paranoia, but it was worth it. The spooky, jagged “Listening Wind” made an appearance in the premiere, but I have a soft spot for this jittery jam from Speaking in Tongues (my favorite album of all time) with the shouted back-and-forth of the chorus and Byrne’s repeated exhortations to “turn like a wheel inside a wheel.” It’s almost a bit too on the nose (what are agents but slippery people?) but its deployment over a scene of spy craft taking place in an airport toilet has a wry sense of fun, nodding to how even something as high-stakes as this is just an everyday job for some people, with all the ups and downs of desk work. It’s a lighter tone that would become more and more absent as the noose carefully set over six seasons finally began to tighten around the Jennings, and all the people in their orbit.
So fellow Americans, what immaculately chosen song will play us all out? It probably depends on the final body count, which could be high or absolutely nil; the Russian spies that originally inspired this series lived undetected for decades, after all. Repeaters Fleetwood Mac, Roxy Music, and Peter Gabriel aren’t outside the realm of possibility, but there are tons of ’80s greats yet to be utilized. With so many Bowie-adjacent cuts already featured, perhaps the Great White Duke himself will finally make an appearance. I personally wouldn’t object to a moody montage backed by Joy Division or one of Commie-courting The Clash’s bummer numbers (“Straight to Hell” anyone?). If, as this season has been heavily foreshadowing, Elizabeth bites it, a little “This Woman’s Work” wouldn’t be out of line. Or maybe a Coca-Cola jingle to really drive home a capitalist victory? Whatever it ends up being, it’s a good bet that I’ll be smiling in recognition through my tears.