For those who claim that television shows can no longer surprise us, I thought The Americans did a fairly great job of surprising in their finale by doing very little surprising. It’s not as though absolutely nothing happened in the season finale, it’s more that there were no shockers, no bombshells, no traumatic deaths. The Americans seems insistent upon doing things different than most dramas, and in that respect, it’s succeeding: Fewer twists, fewer deaths, more mood. If that’s your bag, then the season finale to The Americans must have felt satisfying in its unsatisfyingness. But I’ve been conditioned by the Television Gods at HBO, AMC, and FX to expect more, and maybe that’s to my own detriment, because I felt cheated. I felt like we got The Killing’d by the season finale.
It’s not like a disliked the finale, I just wanted more. I did like that Claudia redeemed herself, arguing to abort the meet-up on the Jennings behalf with Arkady, fearing it was a set up and protecting her people. That she figured out which meet was the set up also saved Elizabeth’s life. Claudia proved herself to be loyal not only to Russia, but to the Jennings, despite her and Elizabeth’s differences. In killing Zhukov’s killer, we also know that Claudia probably does have a heart underneath all of that strident loyalty. Maybe she really does know Elizabeth better than Elizabeth knows herself.
But if television drama has taught us anything, the perfect time to kill a character is right after you’ve redeemed her. So, why didn’t they kill off Claudia, instead of re-assigning her? From a practical standpoint, I’m assuming, it’s because Margo Martindale is a popular character on the show and should her CBS pilot fall through, she can return to season two of The Americans. But that does deprive us of a satisfying death, which Graham Yost didn’t rob us with after the second season of Justified with the same actress, although God knows no one would’ve complained if we’d gotten another season of Mags Bennet.
Certainly, while the plot may have run into a brick wall in these last two episodes, enough cannot be said about the brilliant acting on the show. Consider that they’re not just playing characters, but characters within characters and often — as when they don disguises and additional fake identities — characters within characters within characters. That’s a lot of heavy lifting, but credit Mathew Ryhs for his ability, for instance, to tap the loving father beneath all of those facades and reach out to Stan Beeman to look after his children while he helps nurse his wife back to health after a gunshot wound. Keri Russell has also does an admirable job of vacillating between cold, detached mother and wife, and crazy bitch who will stop at nothing to protect that family, or her country.
And what of his relationship with Elizabeth? There was something striking in the way that Phillip and Martha’s sham marriage ceremony last week highlighted the actual strength of Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage. They have history, and so often, history trumps everything else. It may have taken a gunshot wound for Elizabeth to realize that, but Phillip also reminded Elizabeth of how much he loved her by rescuing her from the Feds. He also provided Elizabeth with a vouch of confidence in her mothering skills by not just insisting that she take the kids, but by duping her into it. He was willing to sacrifice himself for what he considered a better life for his children with Elizabeth, and even if it’s not true (Phillip is a better father than Elizabeth is a mother), it’s what Elizabeth needs to believe.
Meanwhile, Annet Mahendru — who plays Nina — turned in an impeccable performance in the finale, and it says a lot about her acting that the tension was more palpable in the scene where we were wondering whether she would make the call to Arkady after Stan left her apartment than the tension in the car chase sequence the led to Elizabeth’s gut shot. I’m glad that Nina will be around in a second season, torn between her love of country and her desire for American freedom. I’m glad, too, that Nina recognized that she could not turn Stan, and the more Arkady pushes her to do so next year, the more likely he is to drive her back in the arms of Stan, who was not, by the by, able to magically heal his marriage by presenting his wife with a vacation.
The finale definitely helped to further define the characters, but I can’t help but to feel a little cheated that it felt more like a middle episode than a season finale. The lack of resolution will certainly make the second season more compelling and easier to write, but there wasn’t a BIG MOMENT to make us hungry for the return of The Americans next January, especially if Margo Martindale doesn’t return. While I can live with that, what I did dislike was the absurdly ambiguous ending with Paige in the laundry room. She had not discovered anything yet, and the writers left it in such a way that they didn’t even have to commit to her finding her mother’s tape recordings.
Indeed, narratively, it kind of felt like The Americans hit a point after the death of Gregory where they didn’t have enough time to develop a longer, more developed, and more compelling storyline, so they spun their wheels for a few episodes to buy themselves some time to better develop the second season. By leaving so many questions unresolved, and most of the characters alive, they didn’t rob themselves of any potential opportunities next year. While I appreciate that they didn’t back themselves into a corner and deus ex machina themselves out of it, like Kurt Sutter so often does, the lack of closure still feels unsatisfying.
That said, I did appreciate the Genesis book-end: The pilot episode ended with a Phil Collins’ song, while the finale ended with a song from Collins’ Genesis’ bandmate, Peter Gabriel. I guess that means that next year, The Americans has to open with the band of Genesis’ basist, Mike and the Mechanics (although, we’re still a few years away from their formation).