Spoiler alert: This review contains numerous details about Wednesday’s final episode of “The Americans.”
In the end, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings were exactly what the showrunners of FX’s quietly unforgettable and meaningfully icy Cold War drama,“The Americans,” always said they were: A married couple thoroughly committed to the mission of staying together — paired on assignment as young adults by their Soviet commanders with orders to move to the United States, have children and pretend to be a normal family in Northern Virginia, all the while stealing intelligence secrets to send back to Moscow.
Take away that mission. Are they still in love? Are they good parents? Those questions drove the show’s central, anxiety-provoking premise. Critically praised but consistently underappreciated by viewers and Hollywood’s award-dispensers, the series came to a satisfying end Wednesday night after six superb seasons. In the last minutes, viewers saw Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) escape back to the U.S.S.R.
Set to Tchaikovsky’s “None but the Lonely Heart” (to the last, “The Americans” made the best mix tapes of music cues), we see Philip and Elizabeth standing by the side of the highway on a snowy December 1987 night in front of Moscow’s state university, looking out over the river toward the city’s center, which twinkles below. They’ve made it home — but what is home? They were Americans for so long.
“It feels strange,” Philip says.
“Privyknem,” Elizabeth tells him in Russian. (“We’ll get used to it.”)
Loyal viewers likely spent the past six years expecting one or the other to die in the final episode, or for one to escape while the other gets caught. They seemed fated to spend their lives apart; now it feels, as Philip put it, strange — yet absolutely fitting — to leave them as a pair.
The real stunner, as viewers saw, was that the couple lost both their children in the process.
With the FBI closing in, Philip tells Elizabeth that they must leave their 16-year-old son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), behind at his boarding school. Henry had never known about his parents’ secret lives. “His future is here,” Philip says. “It’s the best thing for him.”
“To be alone?” Elizabeth counters. “Away from us?”
“He belongs here,” Philip says.
The couple then race to Foggy Bottom to retrieve their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), a George Washington University sophomore who had been training and incrementally joining her parents in their espionage work.
That Paige agrees to leave with them was as much about her fear of getting caught as it was her commitment to their cause.
That she later steps off their train as it crosses the U.S.-Canada border, giving her parents a farewell stare from the platform as the train pulls away (this scene was accompanied by the U2 hit “With or Without You”), was Paige’s brave declaration of independence. Come what may — including the fall of Eastern European communism and the end of the Soviet Union in a matter of years — it seems clear that Philip and Elizabeth will never see Paige or Henry again.
On a flight from Canada to Europe, Elizabeth has a dream of waking up in bed with Gregory Thomas (Derek Luke), the civil rights activist whom Elizabeth once recruited to the KGB and also had an affair with years back. Gregory touches Elizabeth’s stomach. “I never wanted a kid,” she says. Elizabeth looks around the room and notices paintings by Erica (Miriam Shor), the dying, bedridden artist who was married to one of Elizabeth’s targets. There’s a painting on the nightstand of Paige and Henry. Elizabeth wakes up in her airliner seat and we know: She’ll be forever haunted by the choice to leave her children behind.
The finale’s most important scene — and probably fodder for ongoing debate — occurs in the garage beneath Paige’s apartment building, when FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) finally catches up with them. One of the show’s tightest strings finally snaps here, as Stan confronts his friends and across-the-street neighbors about their work as spies.
Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, who as co-showrunners also wrote Wednesday’s episode, smartly kept this scene as tight as possible, without a river of dialogue. Rhys and Emmerich played the scene unerringly; Russell, it seems, had her last, best scenes in the two episodes prior.
“You were my best friend,” Stan tells Philip. (All those beers together! The “est” meetings! The racquetball! The commiserating over how hard their jobs were! It was all a lie.)
“I never wanted to lie to you,” Philip says. “Stan, what else could I do — you moved in next to me. I was terrified. And then we ended up as friends.”
“Friends? You made my life a joke,” Stan says.
“You were my only friend. In my whole s---ty life. For all these years my life was the joke, not yours.”
Philip tries one last appeal to Stan’s emotions, on a personal level as well as a global one: “Stan, I have to abandon my son. He can’t come with us, because I got caught. I finally got caught and here we are. And I don’t even know what happens if we make it home, because . . . after being scared of Americans and recruiting Americans and following Americans, we finally got something and that has nothing to do with you. It’s our own people. It’s a bunch of f---ing Russians. They’re trying to get rid of Gorbachev.”
Yes, there’s that. Philip and Elizabeth helped (sort of) end the Cold War.
I wonder if this might appease all those lost viewers out there who said they couldn’t watch the show because they couldn’t “root for” (as if anyone had asked them to) a couple of protagonists who were commie spies. In this fictional world at least, we are indebted to them for thwarting plans within the KGB to frame Gorbachev and derail a U.S.-Soviet summit.
“You should hate me,” Phil tells Stan. “You should probably shoot me. But we’re getting in that car and we’re driving away.”
“You have to take care of Henry,” Paige says.
“He loves you, Stan,” Philip says. “Tell him the truth.”
And then, just before Philip gets in the car, he remembers something about Stan’s wife, Renee (Laurie Holden): “I don’t know how to say this,” Philip tells Stan. “But I think there’s a chance Renee might be one of us. I’m not sure.” (Fans had hoped all season to learn whether Renee is a spy. Keep wondering, comrades.)
They get in their stolen car, and Stan steps aside and lets them drive away. His mortification at what has happened — and his own response to it — is accompanied by yet another 1980s song: “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits.
Do you buy this? Would Stan really let them go? I watched the finale a week ago and I’m still trying to decide if I accept Stan’s moment of weakness (considered with some of his past weaknesses). I want to accept that he gave in for Henry’s sake.
Stan, after all, has been keeping some secrets all along, about Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), who will now presumably rot for a while in a federal prison cell, and the late, lamented Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru). Stan comes home and ponders his sleeping wife. What now? He goes to New Hampshire to tell Henry.
And Paige? In one of the finale’s more tantalizing moments, we see her come back to the Washington apartment used as a safe house by Claudia (Margo Martindale). No one is there, but there’s a bottle of vodka in the freezer. Paige pours herself a shot, sits at the table and waits for whatever comes next. (It’s a toast to you, “Americans” conspiracy theorists, who are still so eager to somehow link the show to the present-day debacle of Russian interference in American elections. Go wild! Imagine Paige as a Twitterbot. Imagine her hosting “Fox & Friends.”)
All good series finales tend to leave us in a similar state of eternal curiosity, craving more epilogue or some definitive flash-forward. “The Americans” was among my favorite shows, mainly for its linear storytelling and ability to answer just about any question that its intelligent viewers might ask. That it leaves us on a note or two of mournful ambiguity shouldn’t count as points off. Instead, it feels like the surest way out.