“The Americans” just concluded its second season in spectacular fashion. I interviewed producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about season 2, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I want to punch you in the face if you say one more thing about nonviolent resistance…
“Paige is your daughter, but she's not just yours. She belongs to the cause. And to the world. We all do.” -Claudia
A great season of television doesn't require a great finish. I had an issue or two with the conclusion of “Breaking Bad,” but taken as a whole, those last eight episodes make up a unit for the time capsule. Similarly, the “True Detective” finale wasn't my favorite episode of that series, but I'm going to be parked at the front of the line to watch season 2.
But when you have a great season of television that also ends great? Well, that's pretty damn special, too. The early episodes of “The Americans” season 2 convinced me that the show had taken a big leap forward in quality, and it only got better as things went along. “Martial Eagle” could be the peak of many a season, but here the story kept going and getting more intense and damaging to all involved. With so many moving parts – the tension between Paige and her parents, the mystery of who killed Emmett and Leanne, the lurking danger presented by Larrick, Stan's dilemma and Nina's possible return to Russia for trial, and, of course, Henry's hopes and fears about “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” – Fields and Weisberg seemingly set themselves an impossible task to resolve them all in satisfying fashion within a roughly standard-sized episode. And though we'll have to wait until next year to find out whether Henry cried when Spock said, “I have been, and always shall be, your friend,” they managed to successfully bring down every other plate they'd been spinning – often smacking us in the face with them on their way down.
It's rare to find an hour of television with one gut-wrenching moment that fills my notes on the scene with nothing but profanity. “Echo”? “Echo” had three of those: first with Jared's confession that he murdered his parents and sister, then with Arkady reading Stan's note and realizing what this meant for Nina, and finally with Claudia explaining the full details of the second generation project to Philip and Elizabeth – including the fact that they will now be expected to recruit Paige to work for Mother Russia.
Let's take those one at a time, and start with Stan. Throughout the season, as Oleg and Arkady and Nina were arranging this elaborate trap for Agent Beeman, I was torn between a few conflicting impulses. On the one hand, Annet Mahendru has been so spectacular as Nina, that I didn't want anything to risk her presence on the show (even though it's entirely possible that we'll get a good amount of her and Anton and Vasilli next season), and it sure seemed like Oleg and Arkady had wrapped the snare very tightly around Stan without him even realizing it. On the other, Stan is a true believer every bit as much as they are, and though he has his moments of weakness and emotional volatility, it ultimately felt like he would betray Nina or hurt himself before he chose to actively betray the United States of America. Many shows would try to finesse that in order to avoid losing (or, at least, sidelining) a great character like Nina; “The Americans” recognized what Stan would do in this situation and didn't waver from that. (Fields and Weisberg say they never even seriously considered the idea of Stan turning double agent.) But even as it felt right and true, it stung; earlier, Stan's arrival at the FBI office was filmed like the walk of the condemned man, but instead Nina is the one who does that as she exits the Rezidentura, gets in the car and looks wistfully back at Agent Beeman, who wanted to be there for this moment even as he knew it was all his fault.
As for the swirling Jared/Larrick/Kate mess, and the murder mystery that provided the season with its narrative spine, they brought that home in wonderful, horrible fashion. If it had actually been Larrick who killed Emmett and Leanne, then that's a rudimentary mystery that gave a good character actor some good material for a few episodes, but ultimately amounted to nothing(*).
(*) And I like that before he died, Larrick was given some shading and redemption; you understand why he would want revenge for his fallen comrades, and you also find out that his plan was to turn himself and everyone else in and accept whatever consequences may fall on him as a result.
But making Jared into the killer? That was everything Philip and Elizabeth have feared deep down, even if they didn't know it. The premiere introduced Emmett and Leanne as mirror images of our leads, and their murder was designed to fill Philip and Elizabeth with dread over what the job could do to them, and to Paige and Henry. But never could they have consciously imagined the spy game fracturing the psyche of one of their children so utterly(**) that they would do something like this – nor that the Centre would ever try to bring their children into the family business. A week ago, I wondered if it might be revealed that the KGB was responsible for the murders, and in a way, they were. They give this information to a boy who wasn't emotionally ready to receive it, and though he seemed to be going along with the program, he was instead twisting into this monster capable of annihilating the rest of his family and feeling justified in doing so out of a juvenile, lovestruck belief in the same cause that Elizabeth is always going on about.
(**) How good was Owen Campbell in playing Jared's final confession? It reminded me a bit of Edward Norton in “Primal Fear” – this timid-seeming kid revealing his true face, and his entire physical being (or, in this case, his voice) transforming. From the person the world sees to the person he actually is.
And in having Claudia tell Philip and Elizabeth that the Centre intends to keep the second-gen experiment going with Paige, Weisberg and Fields not only paid off all of this season's parent/child conflict, and the schism in parenting philosophies between mom and dad, but paved the way for what could be an even better season 3 arc. Philip long ago decided that he cared more about his family than he did about the Centre – if forced to choose between country and a loved one the way Stan did, I do not doubt for a moment that Philip would choose the kids or Elizabeth – and has come to enjoy life in America in a way that Elizabeth hasn't. (The conflict ironically plays like two people who belong to different branches of the same religion; Elizabeth is the one who would keep kosher, while Philip would love bacon too much to bother.)
They've gotten along very well this season, even with all the stress and murder and botched, misguided role-playing experiments. But the one thing that was always real about their marriage, long before we began watching it on this TV show, was their role as parents to these kids. And if they now disagree on something this big, and this potentially dangerous, for one of those kids? Well, no matter what direction they choose to go in with Paige next year, I expect an awful lot of tension.
Fantastic conclusion to a fantastic season. It paid off everything in a way that felt true to what had come before, and in a way that left me feeling like a big frayed nerve by the end of it. It'll be a long wait for season 3, but I can applaud 13 episodes as great as this. And, frankly, I could probably use a break. Another week or two like this, and I'd be a complete wreck.
Some other thoughts:
* The snow on the ground puts the episode in late winter of '82, and the Rolling Stone issue at the newsstand where Philip confronts Arkady was cover dated April 1, 1982. On the other hand, the song playing as a dying Fred flees the cops is “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring, off an album that wasn't released until August of that year. I call musical shenanigans, “Americans”! Or not, given that a few weeks ago we got a Pete Townshend song written in this century.
* As someone who experienced many different disasters involving floppy discs over the years (including one of my favorite games literally melting because I left it in a hot car while attending a friend's bar mitzvah), I couldn't help but laugh at the idea of this all-important code being kept on such a flimsy storage device.
* Martha gets the gun she first told Clark she wanted way back in episode 2 of this season – mainly because Emmett and Leanne's murder made her feel unsafe – and it is a Ladysmith (which makes me think of this). Chekhov's Ladysmith does not go off in this episode, but as Fields and Weisberg note in the interview, Martha having a gun will almost certainly be bad news for Clark/Philip at some point.
* Speaking of Martha, note that even in Stan's dream, she is stealing files off the mail robot. He's too busy focusing on Vlad, Sandra, etc., to notice, but the producers say this was not an accident, which means Martha may also be in some trouble next season, especially now that Agent Beeman has firmly committed himself to Team America.
* This week in Alan Wants A Web Series: I am torn between the idea of a “Three's Company”-style sitcom where Nina and Vasilli awkwardly become roommates now that both are back in Russia, and an Arkady-hosted spin on “Love Lines,” where he can offer more bits of wisdom like, “And don't tell her 'I love you' so much. A Russian woman doesn't like that. She won't respect you.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org