A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I need you to send a coded message to the Soviet Union
“Is there anything I should know, as an FBI agent, about the Jennings family?” -Stan
So much of “Jennings, Elizabeth” is so thrilling — particularly once Philip, realizing that Father Andrei has stupidly put him into the FBI’s crosshairs, starts sprinting down the sidewalk like he’s Carl Lewis — that it’s easy to overlook some of the more frustrating aspects of the episode, and by extension, this final season.
It is an episode that ends lives (RIP, Tatiana, taken out by Elizabeth before she in turn could kill Nesterenko), ruins others (Oleg, potentially in prison for decades after the FBI catches him picking up Philip’s dead drop), careers (Claudia and everyone else involved in the failed coup attempt), and relationships (Paige and Elizabeth say a lot of things to each other that probably can’t be taken back). It leaves Stan’s career hanging by a thread (Aderholt thinks he’s being ridiculous with his Philip/Elizabeth theory, but how bad is it going to look when it’s revealed that he was right — after spending years with one of the illegals as his best friend?), and has Elizabeth heading out into the night with a duffel bag filled with passports, cash, weapons, and the wedding rings Father Andrei married them in, likely never to return to that house in Falls Church.
Everyone is in a terrible spot, and it’s likely going to get even worse in the finale(*). Philip’s present circumstance is even more dangerous than the one Harvest was in when the team tried to exfiltrate him from Chicago, and we know how that ended — despite Philip and Elizabeth having backup and the resources of the Centre behind them. Now, thanks to Elizabeth’s decision to kill Nadia, save Nesterenko, and let Philip inform the people back home about the coup attempt(**), they are utterly alone: no support, nowhere to go, no one to lean on but each other. Which seems as fitting an ending as a show about marriage can have: the world keeps turning and turning, but in the end, your partner is always going to be at the center of it, and at times the only thing you can rely on.
(*) Which I have not watched as of this writing, to avoid any of this recap being influenced by what I know about the ending.
(**) One of the things I’ll be most curious to see in the finale is whether Stan actually passes the message along like Oleg asks, or if Claudia and her collaborators just return home to discover that no one is looking into what they’ve done.
It’s incredible to watch all the dominoes start toppling into each other with such force that they shatter, and to see all the choices Philip and Elizabeth have made over the years come back to ruin them. (It’s fitting, for instance, that the man who ultimately turns Philip into a fugitive is the one who married them, and whom they therefore trust more than they should, given that he’s a priest and not a trained spy.) But it also feels as if The Americans, like Philip, has suddenly realized it needs to run at top speed after ignoring a lot of warning signs along the way.
Depending on how much closure Fields and Weisberg opt for in the finale, there’s a lot of ground still to cover, and not a lot of time in which to cover it (even if the finale runs more than an hour before you add in commercials). The ultimate fates of our two protagonists, obviously, but also Stan finding out for sure that he was right (and, ideally, getting a chance to confront one or both of them about it), what happens to Paige and Henry in the aftermath of this, what (if anything) Renee has been up to, whether Oleg is able to cut a deal, etc. Some of this can be resolved fairly quickly (a Peter Gabriel montage where we glimpse Oleg in an American prison jumpsuit), but a lot remains on the agenda that we’ve been waiting the entire run of the show to see, and I worry that some of the big emotional payoffs will be rushed because there’s still a lot of plot to get through, even if certain characters like Claudia got their curtain calls tonight.
It may be that the precarious nature of the Jenningses’ dual identities made it impossible for Fields and Weisberg to push into the endgame any sooner — that once Stan really started to suspect them, and/or once Elizabeth turned against the Centre because she realized they didn’t represent the Party in the way she had always believed, there simply wasn’t a lot of narrative road the show could still travel without a lot of smart people acting dumb. (Though I wouldn’t have minded an Americans version of Breaking Bad‘s “Granite State,” where we get an hour near the end of Philip and Elizabeth locked in a snowy cabin, fighting and blaming each other for all that’s gone wrong.) And as I wrote about last week, the season really did need to take its sweet time in dramatizing how Philip, Erica Haskard, and the situation in general gradually broke down the defenses she’s had in place her whole adult life, or else her actions in “The Summit” and here wouldn’t be believable.
But the slow burn has at times felt really slow, particularly in the case of something like Stan’s growing suspicions about Elizabeth. (Which leads to the episode’s title, as he has to enter her last name first in the FBI’s criminal database.) There’s an understandable degree to which Stan has to get some real evidence before he can share this crazy, career-wrecking idea with Aderholt, so of course he would proceed cautiously. But the overall urgency level has been maddening, even if individual scenes tonight — Stan sniffing around at the travel agency, Stan cold-calling an understandably terrified Pastor Tim (who lies in order to protect Paige) — practically had me jumping out of my chair. That Aderholt would dismiss the idea as a sign that Stan has been working too hard felt real, but once you introduce the idea that Stan suspects, at all, it becomes difficult for anything else to matter.
And devoting a decent chunk of time in the penultimate episode to a series of flashbacks about Elizabeth as a young woman in Russia preparing for her Directorate S assignment felt like a distracting choice this late in the story. By comparing the rigid and unimaginative young Elizabeth to the current one who is breaking protocol, defying the Centre, and risking everything in order to do something she personally believes in, it helps underline some points made last week, and continue to interrogate the matter of exactly who Elizabeth Jennings is separate from her mission. (Her handler tells her the most important part of her training is, “We do not want you to lose who you are,” when even Elizabeth doesn’t seem to know who she is.) But the story’s arguably got too much forward momentum at this point to go back that far, that much, especially when shortcuts are being taken elsewhere.
Which would have been more valuable to see in this episode, for instance: young Elizabeth coming on the scene of the accident and declining to help the dying man, or Paige at the party witnessing Jackson’s drunken confession about what her mother did to him? Both scenes are recounted later, but the latter is much more important to the story being told here at the end of things. Paige discovering what Elizabeth’s work is really like is far too big a development to happen off-screen, even if the mother/daughter confrontation itself is electric, with Keri Russell’s forehead veins bulging out so much they begin to spell a W. (Had Paige stayed and argued some more, I’ve no doubt that T and F would have followed.) It’s a payoff we’ve waited years for, and one tangled up not only in Elizabeth’s hypocritical decision to lie to Paige about the true nature of the job (even though she betrayed the Centre upon finding out Claudia had been doing the same to her), but in more universal family/gender dynamics, like the way that Paige calls her mother “whore” without it even occurring to her that Philip might have also used sex as a weapon. In the moment, everyone involved — Russell, Holly Taylor, Fields and Weisberg’s script, Chris Long’s direction — is operating at an incredibly high level, yet the moment isn’t quite as devastating as it could be because Paige’s turn feels more abrupt when it’s justified through exposition, rather than us experiencing this stomach-churning, world-altering moment at the party right along with her.
In many other cases, though, the payoffs of “Jennings, Elizabeth” are just as remarkable and painful as we could have possibly hoped and/or feared.
Margo Martindale gets to burn it all down one more time when Claudia realizes the extent and implications of Elizabeth’s betrayal. She’s not wrong in her overall belief, by the way: Gorbachev’s continued agenda will mean the end of the Soviet Union as Claudia has known and loved it, eventually throwing the country into such chaos and disrepair that it’s ripe for a takeover by a man like Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian without any ideology behind his actions beyond, “Mine.” Everyone believes they’re the heroes of their own story, and Claudia has long thought that she knows better than Elizabeth and Philip when it comes to what’s good for Mother Russia. What’s amazing about that scene is how relatively composed Claudia is, despite her quick and unequivocal understanding that this foolish girl has singlehandedly destroyed it all. She doesn’t panic, doesn’t rage, doesn’t do anything but sit there to absorb the depths of this fiasco, then coldly lectures Elizabeth on how wrong she was about her, and in turn how wrong Elizabeth was about this situation. She even defiantly returns to her lunch, and even after Elizabeth has left, her stoic expression cracks only a fraction of an inch, revealing her fear about the future only to those who have been watching her so long that we can see the difference. Assuming she doesn’t have a finale cameo (whether rounded up by the FBI, or in a montage glimpse back in Moscow), this was a hell of a farewell for a character whom real-life circumstances prevented The Americans from using for the entire run, but who made her presence felt whenever she was thankfully around.
Stan and Oleg’s conversations at FBI headquarters were even more potent, because his situation is even more tragic. He has left behind a wife, a baby who will grow up not even remembering him, and two parents who have already mourned one son and now will likely die before they ever get to see the other again. But he did it for the same reason Elizabeth and Claudia and Philip opted out of having lives of their own: saving Russia was more important than the fate of any one man, or even of his extended family unit. Costa Ronin plays Oleg’s resigned sadness beautifully(*), making clear that Oleg always understood this was possible, maybe even probable, and fighting to do whatever he can even from behind bars to keep that sacrifice from being in vain. And Noah Emmerich matches him beat for beat, with Stan feeling sorry for his not-quite-friend, and being too blinded by his own patriotism to at first understand the importance of what Oleg is asking him to do. (The disbelief in Stan’s voice when Oleg asks him to get Philip’s coded message back to Russia is a rare moment of humor in a very dark and intense episode.) Their respective countries were always going to keep them apart, but their basic goals were roughly the same, and thanks to Gorbachev’s agenda, the two men are essentially on the same side now. Just too late, apparently, to get Oleg back home anytime soon. Brutal.
(*) I particularly love the little head shake he gives Stan when Stan shows him a Jennings family photo in the hopes he’ll identify them as the illegals, and the way Ronin’s expression makes it not so much Oleg saying, “No, that’s not them” as, “No, I will not tell you, Stan, no matter how many times and ways you ask.”
One of the episode’s other moments of levity really isn’t: Philip meeting with Father Andrei and slowly coming to recognize that this naive imbecile has walked him right into a trap. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic for Philip, and even though his running skills (which we’ve known about going all the way back to the “Tusk” foot chase from the series premiere) and basic spycraft are enough to get him some breathing room, the situation is bad enough for him to send the most extreme coded distress signal to Elizabeth, sending her on the run right along with him.
How does this all end? With both dead? Both locked up? The O. Henry-style ending where Philip sacrifices himself and Elizabeth winds up having to spend the rest of her days playing at being an American for real? Will Stan get to talk with either one before it’s over? Have we seen the last of Paige, of Claudia, of Henry? (And, for that matter, of Mischa?)
I don’t know, and my only qualm is that the series tends to be better at resolving story arcs at unexpected junctures (killing off Nina and sending Martha to Russia at mid-season) than it’s always been at tying up a particular season’s arc at the end. But it was always a show about marriage more than it was a show about spycraft, and we head into the finale with husband and wife having no one left but each other to find their way out of this.
Which is as it should be, no matter what terrible things the finale has in store for them, and us.
Some other thoughts:
* When a woman with long blonde hair started marching towards Nesterenko, my wife gasped, assuming this was the show’s way of dramatically resolving the Spy/Not A Spy question regarding Renee. Instead, it was Tatiana in a blonde wig — if it was Renee, she’d have disguised her very distinctive hair — and the question remains up in the air for the finale. Like I said last week, it feels like too big a question to be answered this late, especially with so much else going on. Hoping Fields and Weisberg prove me wrong.
* Since The Americans doesn’t have the budget of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, they couldn’t just digitally turn Keri Russell back into Felicity Porter, so instead they resorted to a very gauzy filter for all the flashback scenes. Anytime we’ve gotten a glimpse of Elizabeth in training, Russell has played her, and if she couldn’t take 20-plus years off, she did a nice job of capturing the posture and movement style of a much younger and less confident woman.
* Peter Jacobson returns as Agent Wolfe after being absent all season. Wolfe’s not a character the show necessarily needed to bring back, but his presence here — stepping in to directly participate in a case alongside the man who holds the job he was promoted out of — very economically says a lot about how urgently the FBI is taking this case, considering how rarely we ever saw one of Gaad’s superiors step in.
* Sometimes, the choice of what clips to use in the “previously, on…” clips for serialized drama can give away the return of a long-absent character. Other times, an overabundance of clips about a particular character or subplot clearly foreshadows something big happening there. The sheer amount of Oleg in this episode’s previouslies had me sure he was doomed before anything had even started.
One episode to go. Damn. I’ll have a finale recap live after it finishes airing, along with an interview with Fields and Weisberg. After that? We drink all the vodka there is.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.