The Americans has come to an end. A review of the series finale coming up just as soon as I get back to my ping-pong tournament…
“We had a job to do.” -Philip
They get away.
They get away together.
They get away with everything.
They get away with nothing.
They get away.
Is that too much punishment? Not enough? And is judging the finale on the basis of whether the leads experience enough comeuppance missing the point of this entire story?
“START” defies assumptions in many ways. No one dies, and the only gun drawn is by Stan, whom everyone in that garage but Paige knows isn’t going to use it. No one but Oleg goes to prison, and his sad fate was already revealed last week. Stan doesn’t tell Aderholt about the garage confrontation with the Jenningses, which in turn gives Paige an out if she wants to tell law-enforcement that she was in the dark about her parents’ true identities. There’s no flash-forward past Philip and Elizabeth’s return to Moscow, and while we can guess what’s to come for some characters based on the historical record — that, for instance, as Russia becomes more like the West (McDonald’s opens in Moscow in 1990!), then falls into chaos and mob rule, Elizabeth may come to profoundly regret the decisions she and Philip made in these last few episodes. (#ClaudiaWasRight) — we don’t know for sure, and never will.
But if it’s less explosive than we might have expected — or even wanted — it also feels for the most part very true to the spirit of the six seasons leading up to it.
Priority-wise, The Americans has always been a show about marriage that used the spycraft to heighten the stakes, rather than an espionage drama that used the family material to make Philip and Elizabeth more relatable. Its chief interest was in the compromises necessary to make any long-term relationship work, about the disagreements every pair of spouses will have about career and parenting and everything else. The assassinations, honeypots, and Stan’s investigations provided narrative propulsion and suspense, and Soviet ideology was at the heart of every choice Elizabeth made, particularly when it came to Paige, but all of that was thematically secondary to husband/wife and parent/child issues.
Could the series have ended with some combination of Jenningses killed or behind bars for life? Certainly, and it wouldn’t have rang false if it had happened. But the fact that the finale’s tragedies are all small-scale and family-related — Elizabeth and Philip abandon one child and are abandoned by the other, Stan learns that his best friend has been betraying him for years, and that his wife may be betraying him in the same way — feels in keeping with all that we’ve seen before.
Given the potential for a bloodbath and/or multiple incarcerations, a finale this internal required an extraordinary level of execution to not feel underwhelming. Fortunately, all involved — including a script by Fields and Weisberg, direction by Chris Long, and the acting of this wonderful cast — were up to the challenge, and if “START” wasn’t what I was prepared for, it still left me thunderstruck in so many moments.
There are two centerpiece sequences: one as talky as the show has ever been, the other driven entirely by the silent reactions of Russell, Rhys, and Holly Taylor, and by an all-time great music cue.
The former, a 10-minute-long conversation in a parking garage between Stan and his neighbors, is basically the climax of the spy portion of our story. There’s still the matter of Philip and Elizabeth getting out of the country, getting back to Russia, and finding safe harbor with Arkady (whose only previous scene with either of them was when Philip confronted him at the newsstand at the end of season two), but for all intents and purposes, when Stan lowers his weapon and lets them get in the car so they can pass along Oleg’s message, it’s over. It’s by far the scene that most defied my expectations, as I spent the minutes leading up to it screaming at the TV, “CALL IT IN, STAN! CALL! IT! IN!,” and assuming he would be dead the second he confronted the three of them alone, with no backup on the way. Instead, all four leave the garage alive, but what happens to Stan is in many ways a fate worse than death. He already had been forced to consider the idea that his best friend had played him for a fool for years, but there’s believing and then there is knowing, and when Philip finally drops the charade(*), Stan’s world seems to shatter — only to break apart twice more, first when Philip convinces him to betray his country on some level in order to help the despised Soviet enemy, then when Philip’s parting gift is to destroy Stan’s marriage by suggesting that Renee is a fellow illegal.
(*) He mostly drops the charade, since he and Elizabeth continue to lie shamelessly about all the murders they committed, both to keep Paige on their side and keep Stan from having second thoughts about letting them go.
The entire scene is masterful: Rhys’ delivery of the monologue about everything he and Elizabeth sacrificed for a cause he doesn’t even believe in anymore, the look of disbelief on Russell’s face when Philip fesses up, how Noah Emmerich makes clear that he’s barely hanging on by a thread through all of this. (“You were my best friend.”) But it’s the unexpected Renee payoff that makes it a grand tragedy. I’d spent most of this season worrying that the writers were taking too long answering that particular question, and that the resolution would feel rushed and unearned when it came. Instead, it’s perfect, and perfectly evil: Stan will never know, and we’ll never know, though we can make some guesses based on Laurie Holden’s expression in the scene where Renee watches the FBI agents empty out the contents of the Jennings home. Philip does this as something of a kindness to his only friend, as a way to protect him from yet another betrayal, but there’s no good ending to Stan’s story now. Whether Renee is a spy or not, the mere suggestion of it, on the heels of finding out his best pal was a spy himself, will eat away at him, and at the marriage itself. Either he’ll feel compelled to investigate her, and proof or not, things will fall apart, or he’ll try to ignore Philip’s warning, even as that nagging feeling won’t ever go away, and he’ll go to that dark place he was in with Sandra and Nina and everyone else early in the series. His career may somehow survive this fiasco (Aderholt seems more concerned for his friend than angry with him for not noticing sooner, and it helps that Stan previously approached him with his suspicions), but his marriage almost surely won’t. Beautiful. Terrible. Great. It’s like the Hitchcock definition of surprise (a bomb under a table unexpectedly goes off) versus suspense (the audience knows a bomb is under the table at the start of a scene) stretched out to a lifetime of Stan being aware of the bomb under the table, never sure when or if it will go off.
The garage scene is followed by what I assumed would be the series’ final music montage, as Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” accompanies the aftermath of this choice: Stan quietly returning to a surveillance post he knows is pointless, Oleg wallowing in a cell while his wife gets the terrible news from Mr. Burov, and Elizabeth and the others throwing out all evidence of their old lives. It’s among the most famous songs the show has ever used, one that’s been prominently featured on other TV show soundtracks (it’s a huge component of The West Wing‘s second season finale), and sure seemed like the kind of big gun that would only be broken out at this late date. Instead, it’s not even the most famous song in the episode, as U2’s “With Or Without You” — one of the decade’s most iconic tracks, from the band’s 1987 mega-hit The Joshua Tree — comes on as the Jenningses arrive at a McDonald’s (symbol of capitalism, and of the enormous changes soon to come to their home country), and we see more of the aftermath, including Stan watching his possibly-duplicitous wife sleep, and Stan driving up to St. Edward’s to break the unthinkable news to Henry. (The half-smile on Stan’s face as he watches Henry skate through the last fully carefree and innocent moments of this kid’s life broke me, and still breaks me just thinking about it.)
Mainly, though, the song is accompanying another trip north, as the Jenningses ride an Amtrak train up to Canada, where their bogus passports will make it easier to travel back to Europe, and then to Russia itself. We are conditioned to be on edge throughout this whole journey — even the McDonald’s conjures up thoughts of another cable anti-hero drama whose family enjoyed fried food in its nerve-wracking final moments — and when the song cuts out as Border Patrol officers check passports at Rouses Point, we’re left holding our breath to wonder if this will finally be the moment where the disguises and forged documents will finally fail. Instead, it’s misdirection setting up the spectacular blend of pictures and music where the song returns and Bono starts to wail just as Elizabeth sees Paige standing on the train platform(*), not a captive of Border Patrol, but voluntarily running away from her parents like they ran away from their lives and her brother.
(*) Russell and Rhys told Mo Ryan that they essentially had to film their reactions to Paige’s departure in one take, due to the logistics of filming a moving train. Sometimes, your first take is your best — and these were clearly great ones from both actors — but imagine if they’d muffed it and there wasn’t a chance to go back and try again, for perhaps the most important moment of the entire series?
Do we know exactly when Paige decided to bolt? No, though she certainly didn’t look happy when we saw her walking up the train aisle earlier in the sequence. And we don’t need to know exactly why, because she had so many reasons, and they’d been building ever since her parents told her the truth back in “Stingers.” The surprise isn’t so much that she gets off the train, but that she leaves her apartment with them in the first place after the penultimate episode’s kitchen argument with Elizabeth about Jackson, and that you can credit to the heat of the moment and the effective bullying of her parents. It’s a long train trip from the DC area to Canada, plenty of time for Paige to realize how much she’ll hate life in Russia, how little she can trust her mom and dad, and how she can’t leave Henry behind. When last we see her, she’s a woman without a country: a trained and indoctrinated Soviet operative with no handlers and no mission to believe in, drinking vodka from Claudia’s abandoned kitchen because it’s the only thing that makes sense. Stan probably has to stay silent, which means she has a chance to have a life, though the State Department job or anything remotely like it are no longer possibilities. But can she ever fully put this behind her, or has she been broken as much as Pastor Tim once feared?
Her exit, coupled with the earlier decision to leave Henry behind (whether living with Stan, Paige, one of his rich friends, or in the foster care system), means that Philip and Elizabeth take nothing with them from their 20-plus years in America — except one another, that is. They have given their entire adult lives over to this mission, which Philip long ago stopped believing in, and which Elizabeth turned against to a degree at the very end. (In a manner that, again, she will likely regret for the rest of her life.) They lived together, and had children together, for the purpose of their cover — as Elizabeth’s dream of Gregory will remind us, while calling back to the story Gregory told Philip back in season one, she had deep second thoughts about having kids late in the first pregnancy, telling him, “I can’t go back, raise this child, live this lie” — though in time came to love both the kids and each other. Leaving Henry behind was agonizing for both of them — it’s not until the possibility of never seeing him again presents itself that Elizabeth truly comes to understand how much she cares for her boy — but at least they could comfort themselves with the idea that Paige would be with them, safe in their home country, ready to more fully learn about who her parents are and where they came from. But they’ve lied to Paige almost as much as they’ve lied to Henry, up through that confrontation with Stan in the garage, and Paige couldn’t be righter in her choice to get the hell off that train and away from her monstrous parents.
Is losing both kids, being shamed by Stan, and returning to a country neither fully recognizes punishment enough for the many crimes of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings we have witnessed over these 75 episodes of television? Almost certainly not, and that’s before you consider that a Philip who lives in Russia can finally get to know his other son, and might even get a chance to befriend Poor Martha again, assuming she doesn’t send him away like she did Gabriel. (I look forward to all the fanfic where Philip leaves Elizabeth behind to be with Martha and her adopted daughter.) And that’s not to mention the fact that when the Soviet Union dissolves, Henry and maybe even Paige would have the ability to visit Russia if they so desired. If you’re looking at this as a spy or criminal justice story, then our protagonists get off incredibly lightly for all they’ve done, all the people whose lives they’ve ruined (Young-Hee, Jackson) or killed, in service of a cause neither fully understood and that both ultimately ceased to care about.
But if you’re looking at this as a family story, then losing your children because of decisions you made with your career, lies you told them, the many ways you prioritized everything else in the world over them feels largely in keeping with the ideas behind the tale. It could be worse for them — should be worse — but the looks on their faces as they see Paige on the train platform, the pain in their voices as they say their goodbyes to Henry, and the sheer exhaustion and self-loathing in Philip’s voice as he explains to Stan why he did what he did for as long as he did make it clear that they’re far from getting off scot-free. They ruined plenty of lives, but their own are part of that ledger. They get to go home, to reconnect with what little family they have left (Gabriel included), but it’s not really their home anymore, and the changes that are coming to it will weigh heavily on both of them, considering the huge role they wound up playing in what it will become. They have each other, which is not insignificant, and now they even get to wear the rings from their “real” wedding, but the rest of it? Pointless, hopeless, and just plain gone.
It’s not what I expected, or maybe even wanted, but it also felt right, and the slow and painful deployment of each new development left me riveted. Even the long driving montage at the end felt pregnant with suspense, because there was always the possibility of something bad happening at the border crossing, or when they made it to Arkady, given the continued existence of Claudia’s anti-Gorbachev faction.
At the beginning and at the end, The Americans was the story of a marriage and a family. The marriage survives the story; the family does not. Maybe years in the future, I’ll look back and feel as if I needed more out of the conclusion, even as each individual moment was spellbinding. Or maybe it’ll be as Elizabeth says to Philip, speaking to him in her mother tongue for possibly the first time since Father Andrei married them years earlier:
“We’ll get used to it.”
Some other thoughts:
* I spoke with Weisberg and Fields about the finale, and while they wouldn’t clarify anything Renee-related, they did go deep on their thinking about Philip and Elizabeth’s ultimate fate, the garage scene, why Chekhov’s Cyanide Pill was never used (Elizabeth buries it in the woods with all the other evidence of her life in Falls Church), and more.
* Because Weisberg and Fields don’t want to speculate on what happens past the events of this episode, we are left with the notion that poor Oleg will be imprisoned for decades because he was working off-books for Arkady. Stan can’t help him now because the garage incident compromised him, but I’d like to think that at minimum, Philip will visit poor Mr. Burov — whose gently despairing “Why me?” gesture to the heavens when he gets off the park bench was heartbreaking — to explain that, contrary to what Arkady believed, Oleg’s sacrifice was not in vain.
* I will say that leaving a potential reunion with Mischa to our imaginations only increases my frustration with his season five arc. Better to have only shown him briefly than to spend so much time with him and never dramatize the moment he finally meets his father.
* Though Mail Robot’s true curtain call was that hilarious moment a few weeks ago where it crowded Stan and Aderholt into opposite corners of the elevator, it does have a brief, motionless cameo, resting in the hall outside Aderholt’s offices when Stan comes back to work to be shown the Father Andrei sketches. The circumstances of the finale were too grave for a full Mail Robot appearance, but having it in the background for those paying attention felt fitting for the show’s greatest prop.
* Aderholt didn’t tend to have character arcs of his own, other than his brief romantic pursuit of Martha, so it was fitting that his last major scenes were just showing him at work: first masterfully talking Father Andrei into flipping, then comforting Stan while showing him the sketches of his neighbors as the two illegals.
* Paige wore a few minor disguises this season, but her first significant one came into play while the family was on the run — and it made sense that Philip and Elizabeth donned ones they’d never used before, under the circumstances — and it made her look uncannily like Velma from Scooby-Doo.
* The episode’s title comes from the START treaty between America and the USSR, which was proposed by the Reagan administration in the early ’80s, but not actually signed until George H.W. Bush was president.
Finally, this is, for all intents and purposes, the last thing I’m writing for Uproxx before beginning my new job at Rolling Stone on Friday. I’m glad the timing worked out so all my reviews of this show could live in one place. It’s been a pleasure covering it here, and I’m looking forward to chronicling the runs of other great shows at the new place. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see many of you at the new place.
What did everybody else think?