The bond between Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) isn’t the only strong marriage in FX’s The Americans. The show’s sacred matrimony of sound and screen has also been quite enviable, and that’s due to the exceptional work of P.J. Bloom. For six straight seasons, the veteran music supervisor of past hits like The Shield and Nip/Tuck has layered Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ outstanding and underrated cold war drama with some of the greatest pop music of all time.
“The thing about The Americans and what Joe and Joel have managed to create is that it’s this incredible time capsule,” Bloom told The A.V. Club in 2016. “All aspects of the show are so completely rooted in our early 1980s time period. It’s in the music and the sets. It’s in the wardrobe and the props. You could really be watching a television show in 1982 or 1983, or be walking down the street during that time, and be seeing and experiencing the same thing our audience is experiencing.”
Much like Michael Mann’s iconic ’80s cop drama Miami Vice, which this show subtly pays homage to with the inclusion of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” at the end of its stellar pilot, music adds an essential depth to the scenes and embellishes so many of the characters’ motives, conflicts, and feelings. Over the years, this has led to some incredibly vivid and elaborate sequences, many of which are memorable solely for its musical inclusions, from the likes of Fleetwood Mac to Peter Gabriel to Yazoo.
Now that the final season has come and gone, leaving us in tears as we speculate on the future of the now-splintered Jennings family, we’ve decided to reminisce on the show’s greatest musical moments. Because there were so many to choose from, and since there are only 10 slots available, we opted to only include one song per artist, which may disappoint some of you. Also know that not every scene is on YouTube, so you’ll have to use your imagination for a couple entries — or seek out the episodes yourself.
Oh, it also goes without saying: There will be spoilers.
10. Elton John – “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
“The Soviet Division”, Season 5, Episode 13
Some might argue this one’s a tad on the nose, but Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” expertly closed a season that had so much to do with change. As Randall Colburn predicted, the fifth season of The Americans belongs to Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor), whose coming-of-age story became less about cute boys across the street and more about other teenage stuff like learning key self-defense tactics that will aid in future Soviet espionage. But she wasn’t the only one going through the motions, as we learn that Philip is also having a change of heart about his lot in life, and that he’s even entertaining the idea of a future that may find Elizabeth donning wigs by her lonesome. So, yes, John’s piano-fueled poetry parallels the story quite well, covering both Paige’s quest (“Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies/ Beyond the yellow brick road”) and Philip’s tumultuous indecision (“Maybe you’ll get a replacement/ There’s plenty like me to be found”). Goodbye Soviet Brick Road?
09. Golden Earring – “The Twilight Zone”
“Echo”, Season 2, Episode 13
Out of all the moments in The Americans that truly feel akin to Miami Vice, there’s very little competition than the cold open for “Echo”. Given that it’s the second season finale, everything’s rightfully out of control: Russian insider Fred (John Carroll Lynch) has been shot up and is dying with the police on his tail, Philip and Elizabeth have to frantically race to a drop zone amid all the heat, and Paige watches Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) get manhandled by a storm of cops at a riot that’s gone south. In other words, it’s a perfect time to slap on an old stunner like Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”, and while the pseudo sci-fi rocker doesn’t exactly seem like a perfect lyrical fit for the scene in question, the repetition of “when the bullet hits the bone” enhances the stakes at hand. It also mirrors Paige’s point of view and how she witnesses the frightening brutality of a militaristic police force, stuff she’s only seen in the news at home. To be honest, though, it’s also just a really cool track for a really cool scene, and sometimes that’s all you need.
08. Soft Cell – “Tainted Love”
“Pastor Tim”, Season 4, Episode 2
Juxtaposition can be a wonderful thing, and that’s exactly what Tainted Love’s signature hit offers for one of the series’ diciest moments. When Philip meets with a commercial pilot in an airport shuttle midway through “Pastor Tim”, things don’t exactly go as planned. The two are exchanging the world’s scariest chemical weapon and the pilot is (rightfully) terrified at the idea of traveling with it. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, though, if he weren’t so goddamn panicky, but he is, and much to Philip’s chagrin, he draws the attention of a nearby security officer. Despite his attempts to placate the officer, Philip must resort to strangling the poor son of a bitch, all to the sounds of “Tainted Love”, which is what’s playing in an unsuspecting passenger’s pair of headphones. Again, this one’s more about aesthetic over substance and watching Philip tactfully bring this big guy down to the bubbly New Wave sounds is all at once hilarious, tense, and super cool.
07. Yazoo – “Only You”
“Dimebag”, Season 3, Episode 4
“This is my favorite song,” Kimberly Breland (Julia Garner) tells Philip after she pushes play on her boombox, which just so happens to have Yazoo’s debut album, Upstairs at Eric’s, on deck. The two are alone in a park late at night — Philip’s rolling a joint, Kimmie’s regaling him with stories — and it’s a genuine moment. But that’s a problem for Philip, as it’s the beginning of his unraveling from cold-blooded assassin to warm-hearted human being. You see, he likes Kimmie, and unlike his past associates, he actually cares about her well-being, and Rhys subtly sells that budding realization as he soberly takes a drag from the joint to the sounds of “Only You”. It’s a testament to the song’s power, and perhaps the assured finesse of the writing staff, that none of this registers as ultra creepy, especially since we’re watching a grown man cuddle a young girl in public. Instead, this is a charming slice of life that continues to speak volumes as Philip’s story evolves.
06. Peter Gabriel – “Here Comes the Flood”
“The Walk In”, Season 2, Episode 3
The best montages traditionally offer lucrative portraits that move the narrative without being too ostentatious or unwieldy. (Think about the way Christopher Nolan closes out the majority of his films, especially The Dark Knight.) Weisberg and Fields know this power all too well and they’ve littered their series with outstanding montages pretty much from the get-go. One of the better examples arrived fairly early into the second season with “The Walk In”, which finds the Jennings family on the precipice of some major arcs. Though most of the drama here stems from Elizabeth burning a vital letter from the recently departed Leanne Connors (Natalie Gold), one she’s been carrying for 15 years and one that holds a significance for Leanne’s still-kicking-it bastard son, Jared (Owen Campbell), the scene also captures the rest of the Jennings and reveals how splintered their lives really are when they’re placed side by side. Things are okay, sure, but for how long? Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” rides on that uncertainty and adds a somber wash to the proceedings, while also making a small fire look ridiculously epic.
05. Peter Schilling – “Major Tom (Coming Home)”
“The Day After”, Season 4, Episode 9
Of the two spies, Elizabeth is usually the least likely to shy away from a task, but her iron-clad constitution starts to tear when she’s working the Seongs. Much like the aforementioned relationship Philip forges with Kimmie, Elizabeth appreciates Don (Rob Yang) and Young-hee’s (Ruthie Ann Miles) companionship and sees them for what they truly are: a hard-working American family with zero marks to their name. That makes her assignment all the more difficult when the Center insists she press on and corrupt the warm, comforting homestead the Seongs have built for themselves. Even so, she stays on course, staging a scandalous afternoon delight with Don, a harrowing affair that involves some drugs, some fake lubrication, and some Peter Schilling.
Now, what makes the use of “Major Tom” so affecting is how the song so accurately mirrors both the “what if” and the reality of the situation. On the surface, the song is a sleek and sexy pop song, much like the sleek and sexy tryst that Elizabeth attempts to portray, but when you actually listen to the song — and this might explain why the show opted for the English version — it’s really about an unstable mission that could go awry any second. That this whole scene crosscuts with Paige’s not-so-slick attempt to drive Philip’s very sexy Camaro Z-28 only cements that dichotomy even further.
04. Roberta Flack – “To Love Somebody”
“Only You”, Season 1, Episode 10
This one’s another juxtaposition, but Roberta Flack’s words weigh heavily on Gregory’s fate. After the FBI discover the former civil rights activist has been working with the KGB, the heat gets really, really hot for Gregory, enough that he’s been asked to flee the country and head over to Russia. But he can’t. His heart doesn’t belong to the country, but to Elizabeth, who also has strong feelings for him. Of course, these feelings aren’t nearly enough to sway Elizabeth from her own life’s work, and so Gregory is left with two options: head to Russia or be executed (either by the Russians or the Americans). He chooses neither, opting instead to commit suicide by going mano y mano with the local police, who notice him the minute he sets foot in public. Flack’s “To Love Somebody” delicately plays over the ensuing chaos as she spiritually aligns with Gregory, singing: “I live and I breathe for you/ But what good does it do/ If I ain’t got you, ain’t got?” It’s a beautiful moment that brilliantly captures the ethos of a beautiful character.
03. Queen and David Bowie – “Under Pressure”
“Clark’s Place”, Season 4, Episode 5
According to IMDb, Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” is credited for being used in something like 41 films and TV shows. In reality, that number feels like it should be doubled, seeing how it continues to pop up in various mediums, and used under the guise that nobody has ever heard of the song. As such, the power of the go-to jukebox anthem has waned over time, which is why its inclusion in The Americans deserves such magnanimous praise. Like the very song itself, which lathers hope on a hopeless situation, the series’ greatest montage doubles for a portrait of sorrow and happiness. We watch the all-too-tragic Martha Hanson (Alison Wright) swallow her pills and sleep alone in the dark, while her former would-be husband Philip has incredible sex with his “real” wife Elizabeth. It’s all very wrong, but it’s also all very right, and the sweeping way it’s presented captures both the tragedy and majesty of the situation at hand. It’s as if you feel connected to everyone, all at once, and it’s very overwhelming, which is precisely what Freddie Mercury and Bowie likely had in mind when they penned their iconic duet.
02. Fleetwood Mac – “The Chain”
“Walter Taffet”, Season 3, Episode 7
Fleetwood Mac and The Americans go together like shchi and porridge. When “Tusk” cracked open the pilot, it was as if Weisberg and Fields were attempting to parallel the identities of Philip and Elizabeth with, say, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks — two torrential lovers united by their work. But here’s the thing: While “Tusk” is certainly an iconic moment for the show — and most of you will likely comment on the lack of its inclusion — the song doesn’t hold a candle to the show’s use of “The Chain” late into the third season. In fact, this writer would go so far as to say “The Chain” has never been used to such outstanding effect than it appears in the closing moments of “Walter Taffet”.
For three solid minutes, the climbing rock ‘n’ roll duet turns a complicated standoff at a diner into a modern Western with a touch of Scorsese. Even better, not a single moment of the song is wasted on the scene, from the twangy verses to the stomping bridge to the bass line breakdown to the orgasmic release. Everything’s accounted for and the way Buckingham and Nicks harmonize appear to be right in sync with Philip and Elizabeth’s close-call execution. It’s brilliant filmmaking — yes, filmmaking — and it’s hands down the coolest closing scene this show ever put to the screen. Sorry, Guardians.
01. U2 – “With or Without You”
“START”, Season 6, Episode 10
Every show needs a swan song. The Sopranos had Journey. Breaking Bad had Badfinger. Friday Night Lights had Jónsi (depending on where and when you watched its series finale). And, well, The Americans got U2. It’s a beautiful setup, though: Stan’s stepped aside in a dazed stupor, Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige have said their tragic goodbyes to Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and they’re finally on their way back home to Russia. Except, that’s the thing, there is no home for them anymore; it’s an echo, a lost memory, a tattered note in a forgotten book. Paige realizes this almost immediately, which is why she steps off the train, leaving her mother and father behind, to ostensibly build her own new life.
“And you give yourself away
And you give yourself away
And you give
And you give”
It’s a scene so heartbreaking and unnerving that we’re willing to forgive Weisberg and Fields for using Bono’s iconic wail not once but multiple times in what diehard fans might eventually dub the “Jennings Mix”. Seeing how the Irish rockers never once appeared on the show’s soundtrack for all six seasons, it’s almost as if the two showrunners had The Joshua Tree hit in their back pocket all this time. Then again, these guys aren’t cheap to license, so it makes sense that they’d use those fat stacks of FX money for the final dance. Good on them: Unlike “Brothers in Arms”, which has always been married to The West Wing, “With or Without You” now belongs to this series. That’s so, so crucial.