Games Without Frontiers: The Tragic Score of ‘The Americans’

FX’s 'The Americans' has garnered acclaim for its use of pop music, but Nathan Barr’s tense, emotional score is equally vital to the show.
The Americans

FX’s ‘The Americans’ has garnered acclaim for its use of pop music, but Nathan Barr’s tense, emotional score is equally vital to the show.

The Americans seems like pure Hollywood make-believe. Loosely inspired by the headline-making bust of a spy ring in 2010, it follows Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, an ostensibly perfect suburban couple with one big secret: they work for the KGB. Reading that logline, you would expect an escapist potboiler, full of sex and violence and classy outfits.

And, to be clear, all three of those elements are present in FX’s series, which launched its sixth and final season on Wednesday. However, escapist it is not. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields exhibit genuine interest in the mechanics and repercussions of espionage, immersing the Jennings and the audience in a world where danger lurks at the end of every street. It strips away the glamour of spy clichés and discovers something real, which is usually something ugly. This harshness extends to the show’s design, from the dowdy fashion and austere décor to the piercing sound effects. (The wind here doesn’t howl; it screams.)

Then, there’s the music. Ever since its 2013 debut, The Americans has been lauded for its smart, eclectic song cues; the season 6 premiere alone featured Crowded House, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, and Fleetwood Mac. Yet, it’s the score that truly defines the show.

Composer Nathan Barr (also responsible for all seven seasons of True Blood) eschews synths in favor of a weirder, more intimate sound. The time period, he said in a phone interview, is “set by the songs”, allowing the score to “explore the emotional aspects without having to tip the hat to the 1980s.” With the end in sight and an official soundtrack finally available on iTunes, it feels appropriate to look at how Barr’s score shapes some of The Americans’ most memorable scenes.

“Pilot” (season 1, episode 1)

From the get-go, The Americans displayed the confidence of a show in its prime. The pilot opens with Elizabeth and Philip capturing a KGB defector, dropping viewers in the middle of a chaotic action set piece with no explanation. (Who needs an explanation when you’ve got “Tusk”?) Over the course of the episode, the stakes become apparent. Most notably, an early flashback reveals that the defector, Nikolai Timoshev, raped Elizabeth when she was training in Gryazi.

On a lesser show, the reveal would come across as tawdry and exploitative. But director Gavin O’Connor imbues it with proper weight, using murky cinematography and a quietly sinister score to create a sense of perspective.

We transition to the past with Elizabeth’s theme. Composed as part of a demo that nabbed Barr his position on the show, the cue uses a hammered dulcimer, its metallic twang evoking a subtle Russian quality. A sped-up version appears during the title credits sequence.

Barr claims he wrote the theme within an hour, though only later did he start to associate it with Elizabeth. “There’s a bit of a marching determination to it – forward motion, which feels like Elizabeth,” he says. “She’s on her mission, and she very rarely wavers… Then, when it’s played softly, it can also have a sadness.”

Once Timoshev takes over, the tone shifts. Low, recurring piano notes hint at a looming menace, growing louder as Elizabeth endures increasingly brutal abuse from her trainer, accentuating the sickening sounds of punches and winded gasps. The scene concludes with the camera closing in on Elizabeth’s face, while the music crescendos to a tremolo. So, although the assault occurs off-screen, its impact is viscerally clear, the agitated score conjuring a kind of psychological horror.   

“The Colonel” (season 1, episode 13)

Late one night, Paige wakes up from a nightmare. After a futile attempt to rouse her brother, she tiptoes down the hallway, toward her parents’ closed bedroom door. On the surface, the sequence is mundane, but in context, it’s as suspenseful as any fist-fight or car chase. Unlike Paige, the audience knows that Elizabeth and Philip are not only Russian spies, but they are also preparing for a particularly risky mission; we know what lies behind the door.

The score teases out this knowledge, overlaying throbbing pizzicato with faint cello notes. Like the scene as a whole, it’s a contradiction, both subdued and adrenaline-charged. In other words, it is The Americans in a nutshell. After all, the show is a spy thriller doubling as a family drama that’s set in the Cold War – an era in which the home front doubled as a battlefield – and about people for whom relationships double as weapons. It has as many contradictions as wigs.

“[Here] is a couple that has to balance the illusion of a happy, healthy American family life with the super dark reality of why they’re there and what they’re doing,” Barr says. “So, Philip and Elizabeth may spend the night killing someone and then come home and sit down for dinner with their two children. The nature of the story is such that if I follow that thread, it’s going to be pretty dark, yet, at times, ambiguous.”

“Martial Eagle” (season 2, episode 9)

When Paige donates her savings to missionaries, Elizabeth and Philip voice their disapproval of their daughter’s religious activities. Elizabeth wakes her up in the middle of the night and forces her to clean the refrigerator, explaining that adulthood “means doing things you don’t want to do.” Philip takes more extreme measures: he marches to the church and warns Pastor Tim to stay away from Paige.

Throughout the episode, Philip finds his fortitude continually tested, and here, he finally reaches a breaking point. However, the music conveys neither anger nor distress. Instead, Philip’s theme, a deep, solemn cello melody, forms the score’s backbone. When he enters the church, a second melody intrudes, also played on the cello but more fluidly and on a higher register. The melodies dovetail briefly, but as Philip approaches the altar, the latter starts to take over.

First of all, I should mention that Philip’s theme is pitch-perfect. A stark contrast from the steely percussion of Elizabeth’s theme, its melodramatic strains cut to the core of a character that has been dubbed the Saddest Man on TV. On a more serious note, the music in this scene, along with the cinematography, illustrates Philip’s vulnerability. The farther he ventures into the church, the more it appears to engulf him and the more prominent the higher melody becomes, ultimately subsuming his theme. Despite Philip’s efforts to assert control, he is still a pawn, at the mercy of greater forces.

“Yousaf”(season 2, episode 10)

Elizabeth and Philip’s newest mission involves the titular Yousaf, a Pakistani intelligence agent visiting the U.S. for a meeting with CIA officials. They need information about the meeting, but Yousaf doesn’t have access to it, since he is a subordinate. So, following orders from the Centre, they murder his superior, Javid, assuming Yousaf will replace him at the top.

“It Must Be Done” accompanies a sequence that crosscuts Elizabeth killing Javid in a swimming pool with Annalise, one of Philip’s recruits, seducing Yousaf. A collaboration between Barr and the Who lead guitarist Pete Townshend, it’s the only song written expressly for the show. Music supervisors Amanda Krieg Thomas and P.J. Bloom orchestrated the partnership, reaching out to several artists before landing Townshend, who was a fan of both The Americans and Barr’s work on True Blood.

Barr sent two potential track ideas to Townshend. “I didn’t really know what I was going to get back from him,” he says. “He took about two weeks and sent back singing, lyrics, guitar parts. It was really amazing.”

Like all the best Americans song cues, from “Tusk” to “We Do What We’re Told”, “It Must Be Done” simultaneously feels at home on the show and stands out from it. It eases us in with a bit of Philip’s theme, before the guitar kicks in, alerting viewers that something is different. From there, more layers pile on: wordless backing vocals, various percussive instruments, and, finally, Townshend’s acerbic singing. The result is an off-kilter hodgepodge of sounds that underlines the strangeness of the events unfolding onscreen.

“March 8, 1983” (season 3, episode 13)

News that her mother is dying prompts Elizabeth to visit West Berlin – with Paige in tow. After some wrangling, the Centre agrees to facilitate the reunion by bringing Elizabeth’s mother across the Wall. In a drab hotel room, Elizabeth bids a tearful farewell (without explicitly saying it, of course) to the woman who raised her and introduces Paige. All the women hold hands in a circle – three generations together, ever so briefly.

The scene is dominated by a cue called “Pierced Ears”, which originally appeared in the show’s second episode when Elizabeth spontaneously performs the procedure on Paige. While not tied to a specific character (it also emerges during Martha’s wedding to “Clark”), the leitmotif serves to connect this scene to the ear piercing, as well as a later scene in which Elizabeth finds Paige praying – a trio of Elizabeth/Paige bonding moments. Swelling and tender, it departs drastically from the rest of the score, offering a rare shred of honest emotion.

In the end, Elizabeth’s theme returns, gently shocking us back to reality and informing us whose narrative this really is.

“Chloramphenicol” (season 4, episode 4)

In retrospect, Nina was always doomed. Coerced by Stan into giving information to the FBI, the KGB officer predicts her own death way back in the season one episode “Trust Me”. Yet, she somehow manages to maneuver out of every quandary thrown in her direction, and four seasons in, she remains alive. It’s just long enough that, for an instant, the letter she receives authorizing her release from Lefortovo Prison seems credible. Crying, without speaking, she reunites with her husband Boris, and they walk outside into the snowy unknown.

Then, she wakes up.

Director Stefan Schwartz exposes the sequence’s true nature early on. As Nina reads the letter, a beam of golden light forms around her, and when she reunites with Boris, an angelic white glow bathes the prison. Unambiguously titled “Nina’s Dream”, the musical accompaniment consists of delicate piano notes that sound more fitting for Black Swan than The Americans. It culminates in five ascending runs, a technique that Barr previously used for Netflix’s Hemlock Grove. “It has a really lovely musical effect that brings a dreaminess to any scene,” he says.

On a show so preoccupied with restraint, the blatant sentimentality of “Nina’s Dream” is jarring. But that’s precisely the reason it works. If nothing else, the upsettingly ruthless manner of Nina’s actual death is more than enough to compensate for a flirtation with schmaltz.

“Amber Waves” (season 5, episode 1)

After a season of uncertainty, Dylan Baker’s William Crandall stayed true to the KGB, injecting himself with Lassa to prevent the FBI from getting hold of the deadly virus. He receives closure, but for Elizabeth and Philip, things just get messier. Tasked with acquiring a sample to send back to Russia, they have to sneak into the guarded fort behind which William is buried, exhume the coffin, and extract the virus from the body.

For roughly 10 uninterrupted minutes, we watch them perform the tedious work of digging. It is excruciatingly slow – and one of the show’s most brilliant sequences, thanks in large part to the music. Melding seamlessly with the sounds of crickets and shovels hitting the dirt, the cello’s drone accentuates the monotony, creating an impression of time passing. Every so often, it’s disrupted by a heavy beat that, amid the ambient noise, has the effect of a grandfather clock ticking – a constant, ominous reminder of one’s mortality. Indeed, the sequence ends in death, as Hans joins William in the grave.

According to Barr, it’s primarily a feat of editing, using preexisting cues as well as some new music. “The picture editors on this show are generally very good at cutting music,” he says. “There have been times where… the editors cut together two of my cues, one over the top of the other, and I never in a million years would have thought to do that. Yet, it worked so well, and that’s actually what went to air.”

“Dark Room” (season 5, episode 10)

The Americans has a habit of springing game-changing events on viewers at seemingly random points. Most shows, for example, would’ve used “Stingers” as a season finale; in The Americans, it airs with three episodes to spare. Season 5 pulls a similar trick (again in episode 10), slipping a covert wedding between Philip and Elizabeth into the middle of an otherwise uneventful hour.

Needless to say, it’s not the sort of wedding shippers fantasize about. The venue is a tunnel under an overpass, the shadows kept at bay only by a few candles. There are no guests, no food, and no dancing, just a priest grimly reciting words. For the Jennings, however, it feels right – simple and utterly free of artifice. Only under the cover of darkness can they be themselves.

And only through the score do we get to see their real selves. “It’s just kind of Elizabeth’s theme and Philip’s theme interwoven, playing off each other,” Barr explains. This time, the melodies work in concert, creating harmony rather than dissonance, until the priest performs the traditional blessings at the end, and they become inseparable. Right now, there are no contradictions within or between Elizabeth and Philip, or, at least, the contradictions cease to matter. They look at each other and trust what they see.

In The Americans, that’s the closest you can get to a victory.

Amy Woolsey: Writer based in northern Virginia who wishes every movie were a little more like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Bylines include The Week, Bright Wall/Dark Room and Culturess.