‘The Americans’ Ends Its Penultimate Season On An Anti-Climactic Note

The Americans just concluded its fifth and penultimate season. My review of the finale coming up just as soon as a pipe bursts in my apartment…

“It’ll be good: all of us together without all this shit on our backs.” –Elizabeth

A year ago, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields explained to me that they needed two seasons to conclude the series, in part because they realized they had a particular story that they needed this fifth season to tell. But as season five kept dragging, and kept setting up storylines like Mischa’s arrival in America, only to shut them down prematurely, I began to wonder when this special and necessary story would materialize. And it never quite did — at least not in a form that was resolved this season.

Mischa was going to meet his father… only he didn’t, because Gabriel intercepted him. Philip and Elizabeth were going to go back to Russia… only they can’t, because Kimmy’s dad is now too valuable a source of intelligence for them to abandon. The PGU is closing in on Oleg’s role in the capture and death of William… but nothing’s happened yet. Stan might be dating a spy… or Renee might just be a very supportive girlfriend. Henry was going off to boarding school… only then he wasn’t… and now maybe he is again? Narratively, it was a season of anti-climaxes and “To Be Continued”s, which can work for some series (The Sopranos at times was almost entirely anti-climaxes), but seems an odd fit for a show that’s traditionally been so straightforward with its storytelling. Plot and character arcs continue from season to season, but Fields and Weisberg have generally seeded each season with a handful of missions and arcs that could be paid off within that year, and that could create a sense of tension and forward momentum on a show where the primary character arc — Will Philip and/or Elizabeth realize they have to quit this business before it destroys them and their family? — is such a slow burn. And we never really got that this year.

Some smaller stories found closure in “The Soviet Division,” sure. The most satisfying of those was Martha’s tutor introducing her to the idea of adopting an adorable orphan girl, which would be a happier ending for Martha than I think any of us could have imagined back in season one. She’s exiled to a foreign land, still doesn’t speak the language very well, may never see her parents again (even after the USSR crumbles and its citizens are granted freedom to travel elsewhere, Martha would be facing a long prison sentence at minimum if she went home, and possibly the death penalty), won’t get to grow old with the man she loved, etc… but she will have this girl. At the core of Martha’s story — and the reason Philip was able to slip into her life, take it over, and then ruin it as easily as he did — is a fundamental loneliness. “Clark” filled that void to a degree, but was barely around, which is why Martha kept pushing him about children. Being a single mother in Russia isn’t what Martha might have dreamed of once upon a time, but you can see in the look on her face — so gloriously played by Alison Wright — that it’s very much what she wants now(*).

(*) For that reason, I’m hoping this really is the last time we see Martha. Things are not likely to get better for her if she happens to wander into the narrative in the final season.

Mischa also gets a happy ending of sorts — both of them courtesy of, I’m assuming, Gabriel playing second-hand Santa — as we see how relieved he is to get to know Philip’s family, even if he has yet to meet his father (and likely never will at this rate). And the finale sends off both the Morozovs (with Evgheniya and Pasha going back to Russia after Pasha survives his suicide attempt) and Tuan (more on him in a bit), and we may well have already seen the last of Pastor Tim and Alice after that soup kitchen scene. So there was some closure to be found even within the context of the season; just not about most of its major conflicts.

I had a long conversation with Fields and Weisberg about the finale, and the season. They argued that the story they had talked about last year was a more emotional and personal one, involving Philip and Elizabeth growing extremely close together at a moment when both have started to realize they can’t do this job anymore. For them, the decision not to go back to Russia because of Kimmy’s dad was a climax, because it involves Elizabeth realizing she has to save Philip from himself by offering to work solo while he ceases all spy work other than occasionally hanging out with Kimmy so he can swap out the recordings.

That’s certainly a breakthrough for her, along with her interest in leaving in the first place. She’s still committed to the cause enough to insist on staying just for the sake of those tapes, but not so mono-focused on it anymore that she can’t see how much the job is wrecking her husband. The Elizabeth we met in the first season was uncompromising in her mission; this Elizabeth has finally recognized that some of the mission’s costs are no longer worth paying.

But even that decision feels less like a resolution to all that’s come before than like a set-up for a new status quo in the final season. Assuming Philip takes her up on the offer — and assuming the Centre allows it (which I imagine they would, since this arrangement still provides much more value than if the family were to leave the US altogether) — that could be an interesting approach for the final 10 episodes, especially in light of the lecture Elizabeth gives Tuan about needing a partner to do this work, because he won’t survive on his own. Would this mean Elizabeth is doomed? Or that Philip won’t be able to resist coming out of semi-retirement because he realizes how much his wife still needs him? It’s more about setting up a new story than concluding one that we’ve already seen. There’s more emotional impact on the leads than there was with, say, Mischa, simply because they know how close they came in this instance, but still.

The Americans has done season-ending cliffhangers in the past, like Claudia explaining that the Centre wants Paige to be recruited at the end of season two, but those seasons also moved more briskly, felt more exciting, and offered more satisfying stories within the context of that year and only that year (in the case of season two, the mystery of who killed the other spy family). This year had some great individual episodes and/or moments, but the great bulk of it was about arranging things for next year, which isn’t really how the show has operated in the past, and was frustrating at times to get through here.

The showrunners are aware they took a different approach this year, and that the audience could well have a different reaction to it all: “And if one of the results of that is people feel it’s less satisfying,” Weisberg told me, “then I think we just have to accept that.”

One of the more telling parts of that interview came when I asked about the influx of new recurring characters this season, particularly in the wake of the loss of so many familiar faces like Martha, Nina, Gaad, and Arkady. Fields noted that they never really worked to make the newcomers the narrative equal of those who left, and we never saw any of them outside of their interactions with the main characters. I don’t think the writers necessarily meant for the newbies to come across as placeholders, but that’s what happened. With the exception of Oleg’s parents (who had appeared briefly in seasons past), everyone seemed like mechanical pieces of the plot, there to either help or hinder the regulars. If anyone had been developed as much as Young-Hee (who, it should be said, also appeared only when Elizabeth was around), then maybe the season as a whole would have been satisfying enough to compensate for how much wheel spinning happened with the larger arcs. But the Borozov family conflict only hit hard in a more general sense: it’s awful that Tuan would inflict so much pain on any kid for the sake of the mission, regardless of our feelings (or lack of) for this particular one.

Introducing so many new characters and stories not only didn’t leave enough room to properly develop most of them, it interfered with how much we got of important older ones. Philip and Elizabeth’s entire future got turned around because of Kimmy, who’s barely appeared at all the last two seasons. Yes, we have some residual feelings about her from season three, but it felt like a cheat to bring her back onstage entirely as the excuse for Elizabeth to cancel her retirement plans. Better that the Borozovs, or Topeka, or the recruitment of Sofia, or some other arc been shelved in favor of more time spent with Kimmy (perhaps contrasting how well she’s doing versus Paige) so it wouldn’t come out of left field when she and her dad become so important again.

This wasn’t so much a bad season of The Americans as a disappointing one. There were still so many powerful individual pieces of it — even here in the finale, there was the tense and harrowing opening sequence with the discovery of Pasha, and Elizabeth’s concerns about Alexei’s security detail — and I imagine that years from now, this stretch will play much better for the audience who can jump straight to the sixth season premiere and see all these ideas start to pay off. But we watch the show a year at a time, and at the moment, season five doesn’t feel like it fully justified its existence as suggested by Fields and Weisberg when they asked for two years to wrap things up rather than one.

Some other thoughts:

* Early in the episode, Elizabeth fantasizes about bringing Tuan with them back to Russia — and this is after she knows he has talked Pasha into slashing his wrists, mind you. But it turns out that even she has her limits with the kid, particularly after he explains that he turned in a negative report about them to his superiors. Tuan was definitely one of the season’s more creatively successful new additions, in that he was so often surprising and complicated — even if, in the end, he turned out to be just awful. He’s either cold enough, or simply young enough, that he’s able to divorce his emotions from a mission more easily than his “parents” could. His foster brother from Seattle is a person to him, but Pasha was only ever a tool he could use to accomplish a particular task.

* We don’t know that Renee is a spy, but Renee is a spy, right? Obviously? Look, it could be a coincidence that her building’s plumbing problems require her to move in with Stan, and she could just be a really intuitive girlfriend when she suggests that the counter-espionage team needs him, and that he wouldn’t ultimately be happy when he quit. But come on. She’s getting closer to her asset, and she’s making sure that he doesn’t leave the job that makes him such a valuable intel source in the first place. Now, does she work for the Centre, or for some other government altogether?

* Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is one of the more famous songs the show has used, accompanying the montage of Philip and Elizabeth contemplating the end of their lives in America (how much stuff she wants to take with her, how much longer he’ll get to see his friend Stan) while Paige walks back to the parking lot where the mugging took place, no longer afraid (and also comfortable driving the family’s big boat of a sedan home in the dark). Paige is her mother’s daughter now; not even thrown when Elizabeth bloodies her mouth in a sparring session, leaving her almost proud of the physical bruises she has to go with her many emotional ones.

* Philip going to the water to mope about the Kimmy news, and what it meant for his future, was a very George Costanza kind of move.

* A few episodes ago, I wondered what Elizabeth reads for pleasure. The finale actually gave us a better glimpse of her current book: Space, one of James A. Michener’s doorstop historical novels, this time a fictionalized history of the U.S. space program.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com