The Americans: Philip and Elizabeth are living in very different final seasons
Elizabeth Jennings keeps killing. Halfway through The Americans‘ final season, the Soviet spy played by Keri Russell has shot, strangled, or stabbed six people. That’s 1.2 murders per episode.
Well, “murders.” She could plead self-defense in one case: Attacked by traitorous General Renhull (Victor Slezak), she shot him with his own gun in his own hands. That blast face painted her with chunky blood, boiled skull, and ambient cortex, so she looked like Bill Paxton at the end of Near Dark.
It’s not always so messy. Last week, Elizabeth earned a 100% stealth rating by Solid Snaking her way through a darkened warehouse. She popped the lightbulbs with her silenced pistol, and then she popped three security guards. That scene was thrilling, but death can be funny on The Americans, too. In the third episode, Elizabeth staged the old “Security Audit” ruse, inviting a guy from the warehouse to a hotel room. The rube explained all the ways a savvy operator could sneak past the guards — and then blathered on about his gal pal, who worked in security. With a weary my-day-just-got-longer sigh, Elizabeth thanked him for his service — then grabbed his neck, and pressed Triangle for Skull.
The show’s clever enough to stage scenes like this with prestige-TV class, tones of playful irony or scathing horror or real shock. When Elizabeth stabbed the flirty naval officer in the premiere, the violence was sudden and unexpected; you felt she was aiming towards the old seduction con, right until the guy’s throat stopped throating.
In the hotel room, when Warehouse Willy tried to breathe, the soundtrack turned up “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Way cool. Then, on Wednesday’s episode, Elizabeth broke into the apartment where the feds had stashed turncoat hockey champ Gennadi (Yuri Kolokolnikov) and wound up killing him and his wife Sofia (Darya Ekamasova). She noticed Sofia’s son asleep in the living room, the TV set playing the wooden soldier stop-motion animation scene from Babes in Toyland. Here were variations of pop-dappled death, murder as refracted through Leonard Cohen and then Laurel & Hardy.
Stylish, sure, but also, this is a lot. We shouldn’t reduce everything to statgeekery, and who’s got time to count — but if this fatality list is correct, Elizabeth is aiming toward some kind of record in her final year, blowing past her usual seasonal kill rate by episode 3. We’re meant to think, of course, that this is all wearing on her. She’s smoking too much. She isn’t sleeping. She has a funny new way of looking at people, like she’s already worried the washing machine won’t wipe their brains off her shirt. I almost compared Elizabeth to Wolverine in Logan, the most obvious popular model for blood sick traumatized glorious wreck-hood. But the degree of difficulty is much higher for Russell here than for Hugh Jackman there. The wreckage has to be palpable but internal, masked behind regular confident identity shifts, wig hopping from nurse to spy squad leader to mom.
It’s a great performance by Russell. But I worry Elizabeth’s murder spree is a misstep for the show. I get the intention — ah, the exhaustion of the old warrior! — but it’s starting to feel like an overextended version of that sketch from Mulholland Drive, where the befuddled hitman keeps on killing people. It’s a stark change from last year, a slow-burn season where the great spy apparatus of Cold War-era Russia mobilized all its best agents toward bullying some Russian kid in high school.
Maybe the Americans writers took all your angry notes on season 5, and wanted to come back with a bit of the old ultraviolence. Season 6 has only 10 episodes, down from the usual 13: This could explain the breakneck pace. (P.S. No broken necks yet!) More likely, this was always the plan. A violent serialized drama usually trends extra violent in its final season. Some main characters die — or they all do. If the series has been a good performer, the budget may swell for special effects, bigger guns, more explosions. The examples are numerous, but there’s an easy way to graph this equation. Game of Thrones season 1 had three zombies and no dragons (until the very end, and they were babies). Game of Thrones season 7 has a zombie army and three dragons (and then one dragon is a zombie, and it breathes blue fire. Not ice, blue fire).
The feeling of explicit importance swells, too. On Wednesday’s episode, Elizabeth made the stakes clear to her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys): “Everything that I have been working on, the summit, our security, everything, it all comes down to this.” We know that the summit harkens an end to the Cold War Elizabeth’s been fighting her whole adult life. Everything really does come down to this.
And then there’s Paige (Holly Taylor), Elizabeth’s daughter, now her co-conspirator, and always a symbol of her mom’s best hopes for the future. Everything Elizabeth has ever done is echoing in Paige’s life now. The younger Jennings is learning about Russian history, discovering how personal entanglements may have professional interest for The Center. Is this season building towards Paige’s first kill? Maybe this really is a variation of Logan, with Paige as X-23. That makes Martha (Margo Martindale) Professor X, and who wouldn’t want to see these three generations of spyhood on a road trip northwards, swapping hilarious vodka-soaked horror stories about the whole history of postwar mediocre masculinity?
But one of the simplest great things about The Americans has always been that it has two true main characters. The Jennings marriage gives the final season a unique tension, unusual in comparably long-running series. Breaking Bad had a great ensemble, but it began and ended as the story of Walter White. Lost had a massive ensemble, and could feel like the battle between good and evil as witnessed from the fifth dimension — but it started with Jack’s eye and ended there, too. Carmela Soprano’s a great character, but The Sopranos never gave her a two-episode dream journey. Fed enough whiskey, I’ll declare that Don Draper is just Mad Men‘s poetic metaphor for Peggy Olson, but hungover, I’ll admit that only one person ever got to give the world a Coke.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. Maybe by June we’ll realize The Americans always had its heart focused on one particular super spy. (Or maybe the main character is someone who’s been hiding in plain sight all along.) But midway through the final season, it’s fascinating how Philip’s journey feels very separate from Elizabeth’s. Not in plot terms, per se — and current momentum will carry them closer in the next five episodes. But it feels like Philip’s inhabiting a very different final season: Regular, everyday, almost Willy Loman-ish. In the first four episodes, while his wife was baffling half the homicide squads in the D.C. metro area, his most profound action scene was in an Eddie Rabbitt line dance.
Philip’s out of the spy game, mostly. He’s become an American man, a business owner with plans for aggressive expansion. He spent big money on an office refurb, hiring new people, evolving the office style from burnished bicentennial brown to cube chic. He took out a loan from the bank. “In business, there’s always this pressure about growth,” he tells Stan (Noah Emmerich). “If you’re not growing, you’re not succeeding.”
He’s not growing. The numbers aren’t adding up. Philip can’t afford private school tuition anymore. He explains that to his son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), in a phone call that’s as devastating as anything The Americans has cooked up lately in the espionage sector. The confession leaves Philip looking shrunken. Do further debasements await? Elizabeth, briefed on the business troubles, tells him to cut back, make the company smaller again. “I just don’t see how cutting back would fix it,” says Philip. Brutal mathematics: Win big, or lose everything.
Wednesday’s episode feinted toward bringing Philip back into spy territory. She needed him for an op. And what an op! Kimmy (Julia Garner), daughter of an American spy grandee, is heading to Greece for a Thanksgiving getaway. Might Philip go with her, in the guise of moody leather-jacketed wanderer Jim Baxter? Might he convince her to cross the border into Soviet Bulgaria? Might he place some drugs in her pocket, just in time for a sting operation? The prospects sounded delightful, halfway between John le Carré and Bret Easton Ellis, a boozy college trip gone mad.
But the show twisted its knife toward a delicate, internal drama. The stab wounds were merely psychological. Philip finally slept with Kimmy — years after the statutory deadline passed, but given the subterfuge, you wouldn’t quite call this a fun night between two consenting adults. In her initial introduction back in season 3, Kimmy very clearly reminded Philip of his daughter Paige, so we’ll let the Freudians ponder that one.
And then he decided he just couldn’t go through with it. This was a minor betrayal of his wife which became a major betrayal of his country. In a final phone call with Kimmy, he warned her about traveling to Soviet countries, which at least sounds nicer than, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
It would be fascinating if The Americans continues on this parallel track, if the finale crosscuts Elizabeth and Paige bugging the climactic summit while Philip takes trusty sidekick Stavos (Anthony Arkin) to a climactic travel agent conference. I know that’s unlikely. This show has always carefully built seasons toward big unifying climaxes, and we’re promised a real scorcher circus here: KGB against FBI, Russian against Russian, neighbor against neighbor…husband against wife?
But I’m tickled by the duality of this season’s first half. Too many great shows assume finality means bigness, huge stakes, huge action — an understandable instinct that can dangerously betray the show’s best ideas about itself. It’s rarer — and more special — when a show trends more intimate in its final act. It happened on Mad Men, which sent Don on a dark road trip of the soul (complete with a Kerouac-ish journey to Big Sur). It kind of happened with Girls, which admittedly required one gigantic plot thing (pregnancy!) to spur Hannah on a series of melancholy epiphanies. The Wire‘s ensemble expanded ever outwards, but it never really tried to equal the climactic drug-war showdowns of season 3 — and the most disturbing bits of its final year are purposeful anti-climaxes, a street demi-god shot in the back, a crime lord forgotten in his own neighborhood, a transformative mayor becoming just another ambitious electioneer.
So there’s something special in how The Americans began its final run having its cake and eating it, going bigger while it went smaller. Elizabeth went full Rick Grimes (The Walking Dead), while Philip did his best Halt and Catch Fire cosplay. Elizabeth received a mission of global historical importance, and Philip made an embarrassing parent-administrator phone call begging for an extension on his son’s tuition. I suspect no viewer is all the way in on both tracks. I’m weary of Elizabeth’s Killmonger phase; I assume there are hordes of American heads who never want Philip to give an inspiring managerial speech ever again. (More, I say, more!)
But together, the two tones have been electric. Elizabeth’s actions might ruin Paige’s life — a parenting problem you can only really understand abstractly. Whereas Philip’s loss with Henry is pitifully relatable. So Philip struggles within capitalism, while Elizabeth struggles against capitalism. You worry they’re both losing — and everyone else is, too.