The emotional Americans finale frustrates more than it satisfies
You felt that the series finale of The Americans could go either way. A low-key ending, maybe? Ambiguous, minor-key, everyone gathered grim around the kitchen island for one final exchange of lying glances? The Jennings family maintained their Lead Character Forcefields through 74 episodes, the whole Reagan era. Our married spies would almost get caught — and then barely get away with it, teleporting back to the unreal world we all live in, the son with his games, the daughter with her latest cause, the boozy pop-by from the divorced sad sack across the street.
And you had to remember the FX drama’s fifth season — a fascinating snooze — which gave the impression that the story was shifting macroeconomic. You felt The Americans was evolving above the simple pleasures of gunshot catharsis. “The real tragedy is the bureaucratic corruption of the Soviet food supply” is a compelling thesis, many TV-drama universes removed from “Walt kills everyone with a machine gun.”
But this final season was a gory overcorrection. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) went on a killing spree, bang-bang, snap-crack, [sound of a mournful paintbrush shoved down a throat]. The ninth episode cliffhanger’d on the promise that this time, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and his wife would not barely get away with it. Stan (Noah Emmerich) was closing in. He hadn’t killed a Russian in a long while: Evidence of personal growth, surely, but you wondered if the old rage would flare up, if he ever found out who really killed Amador.
Recall season 4, which saw the brutal dispatching of three day-one cast members. Nina (Annet Mahendru) was shot in a banal corridor, falling dead next to a couple file cabinets, two suited functionaries finalizing her executional paperwork. Poor Martha (Alison Wright) left everything she knew — but only after she found out that even the lie she thought she living was cover for another lie.
And then retired fed Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas) died on vacation, a surreal killing that was almost a pratfall: a glass door shattering into one gut-poking murder shard, and three never-seen-again KGB agents exchanging Oh, da boss won’t like dis! glances, sincerely apologizing over Frank’s death rattle.
Was season 4’s casual lightning-strike brutality a sign of fatal final acts to come? “It was all for nothing, Elizabeth,” mentor-Judas Claudia (Margo Martindale) told her favorite spy last week. Could that be a premonition? Would death come, suddenly, absurdly? Could a wig slip at the worst moment? Or perhaps Elizabeth would walk through some door and get her head blown off, like DiCaprio in The Departed.
But The Americans always preferred the simmer. It wrapped on Wednesday with an hour-plus finale full of revelation and separation, bloodless after last week’s assassination-blocking assassination. “The violence was all emotional,” you could say, if you felt expansive.
Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are no more, but Nadezhda and Mikhail live on. The Jennings children feel betrayed by their parents, will never see them again — so they are pretty typical Generation Xers, actually, like Henry (Keidrach Sellati) is 13 facial-hair follicles away from Ethan Hawke-in-Reality Bites-dom. Meanwhile, Paige (Holly Taylor) gets to start a new life, a college dropout on the run from society who’s already sampled liberal Christian activism and radical communist subterfuge. The memoir writes itself.
Meanwhile, poor Stan discovered half his existence was a lie, or all of it: His best friend, his best friend’s wife … heck, his wife? This is freaky stuff, no doubt, cusping on Full Kafka. But it’s impossible, I think, to feel too worried for a TV character whose last filmed act is a paternal here for you buddy knee-rub scored to a U2 fadeout.
This finale wasn’t terrible, had a few moments of pure bliss. But it felt limp, unwilling to push its characters too far. There was tremendous tension, which The Americans was always good at, and disappointing follow-through, which The Americans always struggled with. The personal collided, finally, with the political, and the result was emotionally gratifying but narratively unsatisfying. It suffered, unexpectedly, from a climactic Attack of the Cutes. I cried, I groaned.
Top-level most important note: This was one more showcase for Russell, who should win her first (!) Emmy this year. She spent this final season performing weekly open-heart surgery on her mortal soul. When the renegade Jenningses made one final phone call to dorm ping-pong champ Henry, Russell turned Elizabeth’s stealth farewell into a master class of quiet anguish.
Philip had just gotten done rambling in his inimitable Philip Jennings style: proud of you, be yourself, you’re great. He handed the phone to Elizabeth. “What your father said,” she spoke into the phone, “I feel the same.”
She couldn’t say why they were calling — we’re on the road to Canada, son, such a trendy refugee destination lately thanks to Logan and Handmaid’s! — but Russell let you see, vividly, how there was so much else she couldn’t say. There was a wellspring of emotion bottled inside a very tough, very bruised, very strong woman. “I love you, Henry,” she said, that’s it, I’m demolished, calling Mom now.
Indulge me: Could you imagine another version of this finale that was just a 50-minute close-up of Russell’s face? Calm, then resolute, flirty, maternal, a steel-eyed killer, a mournful abandoned warrior, that dark smile like she’s laughing over the apocalypse, that vein popping in her forehead like she’s crushing your skull with mind-bullets. Such a finale could’ve been one long interrogation, Elizabeth finally caught, her captors off screen, American or Russian or both, dream or reality or both. At some point, Elizabeth might’ve imitated the other characters — her husband, her kids, her neighbor, herself in disguise.
I’m picturing a mash-up of the second-to-last episode of The Prisoner with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Which, you could argue, sounds boring. But at least in that version, nobody would’ve tried convincing you the fate of the world rests on the Power of Friendship.
Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg wrote this finale, and longtime executive producer Chris Long directed it. Long developed a clever motif, filming the characters within atmospheric rectangular frames. Philip in a doorway, Stan in the entrance to the underground garage, Paige last seen through the pane of a glass door, Oleg (Costa Ronin) left purgatoried in some windowless federal room. Everyone in a box, alone, entrapped.
The Americans had a let’s-call-it-subdued color palette — the big chromatic idea was, “What if gray could be more gray?” — but that enhanced the electric shock of Philip’s taunting trip to McDonald’s, those arches surely more yellow than anything has ever been on this show. The renegade father caught sight of a happy family having a fast-food dinner. They were in their own private square, a booth in a franchise of a company that is Capitalism — but they were in the box together, at least.
These images reflected the aspirations of the final act crafted by Fields and Weisberg. Nobody died, but relationships ended decisively. There were Berlin Walls erected between parent and child, between neighbor and neighbor, between our titular “Americans” and their adopted-despised America.
I admire the intention, question the execution. One of the best things about The Americans was how dexterously the story could shift your allegiances, until it seemed impossible to pledge allegiance to any flag. We’re used to dark dramas starring people who kill people — at least one generation of TV viewers, raised on Walking Dead but more importantly on Talking Dead, must assume that’s normal. We’re even specifically used to dark dramas about regular suburban types with murder-y secret lives.
Still, forbears like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad were steeped in recognizable tragic traditions, carried in their DNA certain codes suggesting spiritual damnation, Catholic guilt, cancerous conscience. The Americans was rooted in certain realities of the late Cold War, but that just meant it could scramble your obvious loyalties, like any great work of historical revisionism. People like Oleg or former Resident Arkady Zotov (wonderful Lev Gorn) were dedicated to their own higher ideals, painfully aware of their own country’s corruption. Whereas FBI agent Stan was a lovable fellow who cheated on his wife, killed his mistress’ friend on a rampage, and fully ingested Reagan’s orthodoxy about the Evil Empire.
Elizabeth and Philip did awful things. (I might have the numbers wrong, but I’m half-positive Elizabeth killed more people this year than Tony Soprano killed in his entire series.) But they were never as obviously despicable as other morally ambiguous protagonists, were always acting on behalf of their country, their cause. Even when Philip betrayed his wife’s confidence this season, it was only because he really loved her, was worried about her. Not quite what the what you learn in Pre-Cana class, but Husband of the Year material compared to the other prestige-TV murder-husbands.
In season 5, you felt the drama trying to stretch, testing out new shades of ambiguity and atmospheric pacing, testing out some moods beyond “chilly tension.” Philip and Stan played racquetball. The spy ops trended microscopic, outright satiric: They had to use all their powers of subterfuge to bully a lonely Russian kid toward suicide. Philip got dumped by a mark, the old Don Ivan flirt-magic gone. Elizabeth developed a crunchy crush on a tai chi bro. They killed a man for the wrong reasons. Philip’s son crossed the world, then crossed back. Back in Russia, Oleg learned hard truths about the USSR, backed in maternal remembrance and marketeer inquisition.
Season 6 was more fun, and more obvious. Bloodier, and morally binary. (Notably, Oleg was sidelined into dead-drop pickups. He came out the worst in this finale, I think, and we saw his wife cry, and who was his wife, again?) The problems came to the forefront in the shoulda-been-showstopper scene: Stan’s confrontation with the Jennings trio. And Noah Emmerich was riveting to watch, somehow capturing in a few words the pent-up frustration of everyone on this show ever fooled by this spy couple. “I would’ve done anything for you, Philip, for all of you,” he said. “You made my life a joke.”
And then Philip gave a statement about how sad he’s been for a long time, duh, and how he felt like this job he was doing wasn’t really accomplishing anything. But then there was the hard pivot: Now he really could accomplish something. “These people, if they’re not stopped, that’s our whole country,” he begged. “That’s our whole future. And it’s the world. And whether we get to live in peace or not depends on this.” Save the General Secretary, Save the World!
And won’t someone please think of the children? “You have to take care of Henry,” Paige told Stan, the man holding a gun on her entire ancestry. “He loves you, Stan,” Philip insisted. Here at the end of all things, with the great lie of this show revealed, it came down to an old favorite trope: Talking About Henry When He’s Not Around.
You can read this scene as one final con by the Jenningses: swearing they would never kill anyone, playing Stan like a fiddle. That read requires insidious nihilism nowhere else in this very cryface-emoji’d episode. Perhaps you’d say, “But Stan has learned the Enemy is human,” that in this moment in the parking garage this dedicated American develops a globalist consciousness.
I don’t buy it. Our favorite characters did a nice thing for each other: Hmmm. HBO’s hitcom Barry just staged a similar sequence in its season 1 finale, a law-enforcement type person discovered someone they liked was Not Who They Appeared To Be. The result was shocking. The truth set nobody free, and nobody escaped from themselves.
I know, Barry is a new show that can take those chances, and The Americans has spent six seasons with these characters, had to “honor” their journey, or just didn’t want to kill anymore darlings. Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige made their way to the border, while a montage rolled to U2’s “With or Without You.” This is, of course, a perfect song only heartless maniacs would ever pretend to hate, and the show’s made expert use of the ’80s-est of ’80s music before. But the song was carrying a lot of dramatic weight here, obscuring fascinating conversations the show was weirdly unwilling to dramatize.
Truthfully, I don’t know if there was a way to make a revelation so ridiculous land, at least not in The Americans’ dour autumnscape. My neighbors were secret Communists! Your parents were Russian spies! Stan mentioned the trail of bodies left by Soviet agents around Washington, D.C. — but imagine if he actually found out that, like, half of those people died from Elizabeth-related causes.
These revelations could only be at least a little funny, and I worry this series lost its sense of humor when Philip never left EST. So instead we had an opera of Meaningful Stares: Stan toward sleeping Renee (Laurie Holden), Renee toward the Jennings house. In the one flat-out-awful moment of this episode, Stan revealed Henry’s curious parentage, and Henry looked soooooo bummed.
I guess you could say, “Ah, but the real sad part is that Philip and Elizabeth will never see their kids again.” That was the emotional high point, no question. There was one final scene of pure tension — passport control is no match for the Jennings wig game! — and then the sight of Paige, on the train platform, her unexpected departure announced with the year’s least subtle soundtrack cue. Here’s Bono, speaking as Elizabeth’s thought balloon: “WAAAAAAAAOOOOOOHHHAAAAOOOOOO, HHHAAAAAAOOOOOOAAAAAAAAOOOO.”
A great moment, fiery and ludicrous as this ice-cold serious show ever let itself be. Philip and Elizabeth sat next to each other, wigs and makeup making them look like strangers. Paige looked at them from the train platform, Holly Taylor’s face suggesting a hundred readings: confident, scared, even a touch of pity, like she was worried her parents would never quite find a home.
All the rest was epilogue, sweet and pointless, an unnecessary attempt to heal raw scar tissue. There was a dream sequence, proving decisively that not all shows should do dream sequences. You had a general feeling of amelioration, the show convincing itself everyone would turn out okay. “They’re not kids anymore,” said Philip. “We raised them.” A pretty lie? Could be, but the show took his side. Stan has Henry; Henry has Stan. Paige is alone, but I think you can only read her final act as a positive step — if not redemptive, then at least one giant step toward adulthood, out from under her parents’ expectation (and, like, you know, endless trail of bloody murder).
The resonance of The Americans depended on the metaphor. Married life is crazy, and crazy-difficult. Partners lie. Your parents did things you’ll never understand. You never really know anyone. What is love, really? The spy-verse shenanigans of the Jennings’ double-triple lives felt like megaphoned variations of relatable questions surrounding love and marriage. And the show caught early analog indicators of post-digital paranoia, an all-encompassing feeling that nobody could be trusted. I loved the season-finale detail that the FBI finally got a good sketch of Philip and Elizabeth because their priest saw them, unwigged, at their wedding. Revealing your true self never turned out well for anyone on The Americans.
Until, well, it turned out okay. Not great, but not bad. The metaphor disintegrated, as the Jenningses returned to Russia on their final mission — the first time, I think, that anyone watching would consider their actions unequivocally good. They made it back to Russia, met their old Resident face-to-face, drove toward Moscow on a mission of mercy. That’s the future. And it’s the world. We know they succeed, because Gorbachev did everything Gorbachev did. Fun to imagine what the ’90s will look like for our former spies. It’ll be messy, no doubt, but this finale was too clean for that.
After watching this final episode, I thought a lot about Emily Nussbaum’s wonderful recent New Yorker profile of Ryan Murphy, who spent this decade at FX firing nuclear missiles of glitterball transgression all around The Americans’ moody time slot. At one point, Murphy explains the kind of TV he doesn’t try to make: “the long Sominex hour that ends in gray and a fadeout.”
The steady gradualism of The Americans could reap its own rewards, slow-burning in a way Murphy’s dramas would never try. But except for Russell’s face (and Bono’s voice), that “Sominex” line pretty well sums up this series closer. The onetime Jennings couple stared at Moscow, gray on the horizon. Thus did we fade out.
To be clear: I don’t think Elizabeth and Philip deserved to die, don’t think this ending suffered from a willingness to sidestep old-fashioned comeuppance.But surely there was an angle on their final act that felt more dangerous, alive with the complexity of their life-swapping existence, honoring Philip’s guilt and Elizabeth’s exhaustion. They’ve spent their adulthood assuming fake identities, ruining the lives of their enemies — and now they return home, to their true name, honored by their allies. The story of a couple superheroes, or just two very talented pre-internet trolls.
One thing I’ll treasure: Renee, the best worst idea The Americans ever had. Laurie Holden’s Cheshire cat smile was unreadable until the end. Her presence as a near-background character living through a two-season sub-sub-subplot wrote a tantalizing check the show could never cash. (How many KGB agents can one FBI agent invite to Thanksgiving dinner?) But the mystery lingers, serves as a final expression of all the fascinating complex notions about marriage The Americans mostly threw out the window because Gorbachev must be saved.
Does Stan suspect her? Does he accept her, even if she is a spy? Does he trust his feelings, even knowing he might be wrong? Will he let the mystery be?
Maybe he’s had a bit too much reality, prefers to live inside a fantasy. Nothing more American than that.
Finale Grade: B-
Series Grade: B+