The Americans doesn’t have much in common with Game of Thrones, even though they’re two of the best shows (if not the best shows) on television. One’s a slow burn with a focus on character, the other kills regulars by the dozen. One doesn’t have dragons, one does. But there is one similarity: the season finale. Game of Thrones famously saves its biggest moments for episode nine, a week before the finale — The Americans doesn’t really ever do “big moments,” especially in the finale. There are no “small talk” scenes, nothing that will have you tweeting the “OMG” emoji. “Persona Non Grata,” a fantastic episode in a fantastic season, is a tease. It treats the viewer the way Gabriel treated Elizabeth and Philip: a bomb is dropped, but it hasn’t yet landed.
In this case, the bomb is the Jennings being allowed to return home. Not Paige and Henry’s home, but Elizabeth and Philip’s, back in Mother Russia. After everything that’s happened this season — beginning with Martha, and ending with William Crandall (a never-better Dylan Baker) being brought in by the FBI — it was inevitable that such a moment would arrive. Even Gabriel (and all of EST) knows that Philip’s heart isn’t in his job anymore. But it was still stunning to hear it come from his mouth. Not that we know how Elizabeth and Philip are going to answer. That would be the landing. It’s too immediate. Better to let the shock slowly sink in, like a deadly virus.
Let’s break down five key elements of “Persona Non Grata”:
1. The episode begins with a surveillance scene that, midway through, feels like it’s never going to end — in a good way. It’s like something from a dour remake of The French Connection, or Jimmy Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo. There’s little dialogue, only Philip waiting for William, and William eventually realizing the jig is up. (Note to self: never say you’re going to do something “one last time” in real life — it won’t end well.) His solution to being surrounded by the feds and an ominous helicopter: Smash the toxic vial on his hand. It’s better to ooze out of your orifices than fade away, I guess. Baker played the scene in the hospital, with agents Beeman and Aderholt pitying him from above, as if William embraced the sweet relief of death. He was a lonely man in America, with little to go back to in Russia. We don’t actually see him die, but unlike Game of Thrones, where “corpse or it didn’t happen” is the rule, we don’t need to — he’s not himself anymore. No wonder he says more than he should about an all-American Russian couple with kids.
2. There’s a lot of motion in this episode, or, more accurately, a lot of talk of motion. Elizabeth and Philip are maybe (but probably not) going to Russia; Mischa is on his way to America to meet his travel agent father; Oleg is heading home to be with his grieving mother; and something’s moving in Matthew’s pants. There’s been a lot of Twitter talk this season about how Paige is no better than the universally-reviled Dana Brody from Homeland, but that’s unfair to both Dana, who was terrible and pouty, and Paige, who’s anything but. Hating Paige is hating Elizabeth. She’s truly her mother’s daughter — Paige genuinely cares about Pastor Tim and Alice, and she has romantic feelings for Matthew, but she’s also using them for information. Elizabeth did the same thing with poor Young Hee, except she was the one calling the shots. Paige isn’t, and she has to act like a teenager and think like an adult. That’s not easy when you care about the cute boy across the street, but you can never see them again because his dad’s an FBI agent, your dad’s a KGB officer, and if the FBI agent finds out about the KGB officer, you’ll never see your family again. Dana Brody just had to worry about lying for that jerk Finn.
3. Not only is Pastor Tim still alive, his family is growing. I would not have guessed that coming into this season. Never try to predict where The Americans is going. You’ll always be wrong.
4. Prove me wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is the first episode in TV history to include a Leonard Cohen song and highlights from Super Bowl XVIII between the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins. The halftime show? Two marching bands performing a “Salute to Superstars of Silver Screen.”
5. This season of The Americans was tense, perfectly paced, superbly acted, wonderfully directed, and other ways of saying “excellent.” There were fewer sex scenes and broken bones, and more mournful kisses and broken hearts. It was a season of sad uncertainty, but I’m certain it was the show’s best season yet. If Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Alison Wright, Dylan Baker, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, or Mail Robot don’t win Emmys, what’s the point of Emmys?
The Americans returns in 2017 for the first of two final seasons.