A review of tonight's The Americans season finale coming up just as soon as I watch the Super Bowl without you…
“I think it's time.” -Gabriel
As Gabriel notes to Philip and Elizabeth in a scene that threatens to upend all of our expectations for the series' final two seasons, their assignment to America was never intended to be a permanent one. Plans were already underway to have William come home after delivering the Lassa virus to the Centre, and once he gets captured by the FBI, the risk to the Jennings family becomes so great that it makes more sense to send them all home – even if that “home” would be a foreign concept in every way to Paige and Henry – than to keep them in the field and risk their capture.
With two seasons to go – and with Philip's son Mischa on his way to America to search for his father – It doesn't make sense for the series to reboot itself to a degree where Paige will finally learn if her parents can still be Russian spies if they're living in Russia. But the fact that things have gotten so dire that Gabriel would even suggest such a thing, coupled with most of the show's other Russian characters on the verge of permanent exit from America (or, in William's place, from life itself), casts a sense of apocalyptic doom over Philip and Elizabeth's entire fake existence. To us, it seems unlikely that they'll soon be huddled into a cold flat in Smolensk, but to them, it's entirely reasonable to feel like their world is coming to an end.
For now, the only person truly gone is William, who dies in the kind of ugly, painful fashion he always feared, choosing to inject himself with Lassa when cornered by the FBI agents. He goes out terribly, and technically sealed off from the rest of humanity, but there's a sense that, physical horribleness of the virus aside, he's okay with his fate. The sample doesn't get out into the world to play a role in killing many more than just him, he dies before revealing too much to the Americans, but he still has Stan and Aderholt to talk to as his body falls apart. The writers and Dylan Baker did an excellent job of establishing the ways in which this job had metaphorically liquified William's insides and hollowed him out: he had nothing left to give, and great difficulty even relating to other humans after so many years alone. Gabriel promised him a hero's welcome in Moscow, but that transition would in many ways have been even more difficult for him than it likely is for Martha. This isn't the specific way he would have liked to go out, but he seemed pretty used up by life and the Centre even before we met him.
And with everyone else's fate up in the air – Arkady banished by Wolfe as retribution for Gaad, Oleg planning to return to his family(*), Stan and Aderholt getting another piece to the puzzle of the illegals when William broadly describes Philip and Elizabeth (an “American dream” of a couple, where the wife is pretty) – now might indeed be a very good time for House Jennings to relocate 5000 miles away from their current predicament. The spy work has gotten so rough that even Elizabeth can't fully deal with the impact of the awful things they do, and Philip tells the group at est that he wakes up every morning with an awful feeling in the pit of his stomach from doing a job that he believes he can't quit. Gabriel is offering them a way out of this life, where they would get to return to Russia, be greeted as heroes, and likely spend their remaining years doing boring, safe analysis somewhere in the home office.
(*) If Oleg is actually gone for good, the series nicely developed him from a smug villain type in his early appearances into someone much more complicated and sympathetic by the end. Having both Arkady and Tatiana – who may be the only familiar face at the rezidentura when season 5 begins – call him “a good son” was pretty powerful.
But, of course, there's the matter of Paige and Henry, as devastatingly illustrated by the sequence – scored to “Who By Fire” by Leonard Cohen – cutting back and forth between Philip and Elizabeth contemplating the enormity of what Gabriel has told them, and a happy Paige visiting Pastor Tim, Alice, and their new baby in the hospital, with no idea that she might be forcibly removed from the world she knows. Even if Elizabeth has never fallen in love with America in the way Philip has, she loves her kids and knows how hard that transition would be for them; between the Young-Hee incident and the thought of doing this to Paige and Henry, it's the first time we've seen genuine doubt in the mission cross her face.
It doesn't work as a great cliffhanger, because it would be so dramatically unsatisfying if the show burned Philip and Elizabeth's cover life down to the ground now, before Stan gets a chance to find out, before Paige and Matthew get even closer and cause more problems, before Mischa makes it to America, etc. Most likely, Philip's friendship with Stan will allow him to realize that William didn't give them up, and thus that it's safe to stay. But it doesn't matter that I don't believe Phil and Liz are going to pack up the Camaro and point it towards Moscow, because the thing is, they should do it. This arrangement has become untenable, between Philip and Elizabeth's increasing levels of guilt over all the monstrous things they do for Mother Russia, Pastor Tim and Alice being in on the secret, Stan's suspicions, and now Philip's discovery that Paige and Matthew are becoming more than just friends.
That last story is another perfect example of how the spying of it all elevates the family drama. Fathers disapproving of their daughters' boyfriends has been done to death (even Friday Night Lights occasionally wheezed when Coach acted unhappy that his daughter was dating QB1), but when the father is a KGB deep cover operating, the boyfriend's father is an FBI counter-espionage agent, and the friendship between the two dads has already created many enormous complications? That doesn't feel like a rehash, or melodrama for its own sake; that is a real, potentially deadly problem, and one I look forward to seeing the show deal with next year. That Paige is simultaneously working Matthew and having feelings for him is a reminder that she's way too young and inexperienced to be involved in espionage, but she's only going to grow more rebellious towards her parents – particularly if they even broach the idea again of going on the lam to the old country.
This is bad business the entire family is caught up in, and one where it's hard to imagine a good ending. Though the Jennings family made it out of this season physically unscathed, the number of supporting characters we've either lost (Nina, Martha, Gaad, William) or are on the verge of losing (Oleg, Arkady) illustrates the danger of this work and all the collateral damage it causes. Even assuming the action is still centered in Falls Church next season, it's going to feel like a very different series because of all the people we've lost. This was a hard season, a heavy one, and easily The Americans' best so far.
And when your default position is as one of the very best shows on television, that's very impressive, indeed.
Some other thoughts:
* I spoke with Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg about the finale, how they decided they needed two years instead of one to finish the story, the real reason Henry spent the entire season sitting at his computer, what Elizabeth's original plan was supposed to be with Young-Hee, and more.
* Since Philip first learned about Mischa back in season 1, there was a lot of speculation about whether he really had a son, and if he did, whether that son was really fighting in Afghanistan, or if some or all of it was a way for the Centre to keep its hooks in him. But the finale reveals that there really is a Mischa (played by Russian-born Canadian actor Alex Ozerov), that he did fight in Afghanistan (and is now disillusioned about his experience there), and that, with the help of his maternal grandfather, he's on his way to find this travel agent father he's heard so much about. This is huge, and not just because Paige and Henry might get to meet their half-brother.
* The one part of the finale that wasn't entirely satisfying (other than the utter lack of Mail Robot) was the opening sequence with William, Philip, and Stan all heading towards the same location, mainly because we never got a clear enough sense of how big the park was, and thus how close Stan ever came to seeing his best friend cosplaying as Mike Ditka. There was still tension because of William's imminent capture, but the added layer of Philip's presence wasn't as effective as intended.
* Stan's delight at the thought of Matthew and Paige becoming a couple was a thing of beauty to behold. Noah Emmerich, like his co-stars, doesn't get much chance to be funny on what's a pretty dour show, so the contrast between the usual Stan and that guy was extra amusing.
* Washington's NFL team did, in fact, get stomped by the Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII, 38-9, a year after they beat the Dolphins. Of more interest from a pop culture perspective: the game featured perhaps the most famous Super Bowl commercial ever, Apple's “1984” spot, and the game was followed by the pilot episode for Airwolf, starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine as pilots of a secret government attack helicopter. The Airwolf opening credits are worth watching, both because the theme song kicks ass (and has been my ringtone from time to time), and because I believe it's the only action show in TV history to introduce its leading man each week with a shot of him playing the cello.
* The show made it through the season without Keri Russell's pregnancy becoming a huge distraction, though there were moments all the way through the finale where her wardrobe or props – like the dry cleaning she brings home at the start of the scene where Paige says that Alice had a baby girl – were very obviously there to get between the camera and her belly.
* It's funny how the show spent so much time last season on Elizabeth training Hans to assist them, and on the question of whether he was too much of a zealot to be relied upon, while this season I can't remember a single line of his dialogue (though apparently he spoke a few times in early episodes), as he was just used repeatedly to establish that Philip and Elizabeth weren't running counter-surveillance by themselves.
So go read the Fields and Weisberg interview, and then tell me: What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com