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.