WARNING: The following review contains *SPOILERS* for the series finale of The Americans. Read ahead at your own risk!
It’s rare for a series finale to leave you entirely satisfied. Even rarer is it for it to also leave you wanting more. In fact, those two things sound like they should be at odds. How can a show have you feeling as if there’s more story to tell with its characters, yet also leave you in a place where you don’t necessarily want to see any of it? It’s a paradox I’ve been trying to reconcile since the final moments of “Start”, the series finale of The Americans. After a six-season long journey following Philip and Elizabeth Jennings on their quest to pillage Washington, D.C. in thename of the Soviet Union, during the height of the Cold War, their journey comes to an end in a way that I don’t think many of us expected; Philip and Elizabeth get away scot free.
That’s right; after a season where Elizabeth basically becomes a Russian killing machine and Philip is dealing with the malaise of being a former spy incapable of making his American dream work, the final scene of The Americans isn’t either of them getting their comeuppance, or facing consequences for their actions, it’s Philip and Elizabeth re-becoming Mischa and Nadezhda, staring out at their native home from atop a bridge, wondering what comes next for them, for their children, and for the country they sacrificed their lives for.
In a surface level kind of sense, or for someone who may have previously given up on the show, this might seem completely inadequate, unsatisfying way to end a show where the protagonists are antiheroes. Even when their finales shock and wow us, shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire and so many more have taught us that bad guys generally tend to get what’s coming to them, even if they’re the main characters, or if they have a redemption arc. Despite the fact that they might tell angry FBI agent that they were just doing their job, or how they’re actually the people they always appeared to be, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are bad people, doing bad things for bad reasons. Logically, nothing short of capture or death would be an appropriate or satisfying end to their tale, especially after a final season where, at long last, Stan opens his eyes, figures out what’s been happening under his nose and ostensibly becomes the show’s hero.
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that Philip and Elizabeth don’t exactly get a happy ending. They don’t seem pleased to be back in Russia, even if they’re in awe of what their nation has become in their years away. They don’t seem satisfied with the decades of work they put in, or the situation they’ve left behind. They’re merely escaping because that’s what they’ve been instructed to do. And they don’t get to see the results of their work, or even the results of their betrayal, as the catalyst to the finale’s events involve Elizabeth going rogue after realizing that her handlers were working against her in order to orchestrate a coup on Gorbachev. But neither of them ever seem to consider, for example, surrender as a logical course of action. The only course of action they know is to go back, no matter what the cost (in this case, their children), so that’s the conclusion we get. It sort of makes sense. Philip and Elizabeth still fail, they still sacrifice their mission, yet they get to prove one last time that they’re badass spies capable of just about anything under the right circumstances.
It’s a bittersweet ending that shouldn’t work, yet does, not only because it’s so well acted or because it’s an unexpected twist for these kinds of shows, but also because, when you think about it, the show has been subtly hinting at this kind of thing for years. It sacrificed the pacing of its entire fifth season last year simply to get us to a place where Philip has to quit his job, even though we all kind of saw it coming, to get us to a place where Elizabeth becomes complacent and consumed by her work, to beat us over the head with the fact that is and always has been a show about the mundane and prosaic nature of American life, even when you’re a freaking spy doing cool spy shit. Even in this final season, which was markedly better paced and more exciting, finds time to spend on Philip running a travel agency and going line dancing, or his strained relationship with his family. All the while, Elizabeth clocks in at an 11, killing at least one person and episode and dealing with a clandestine plot to overthrow a government, even roping Philip back in for One Last Mission several weeks before the finale, a mission which, by the way, fails catastrophically and leads to Elizabeth figuring out that her handlers are working against her and eventually questioning her work and betraying them, a moment six seasons in the mkaing. Philip leaving the service and forcing Elizabeth to take the brunt of the work also leads Stan to finally getting a whiff of what they’re cooking. But they leave most of that on the table and abandon it prior to the finale so we can get long scenes of Elizabeth and Philip riding planes, trains and automobiles, of Stan staking out multiple buildings, in order for it to be more reflective and melancholic.
Even in the finale itself gets its tensest and most exciting scene out of the way relatively early. The “garage scene” is something you’ll likely hear TV fans talking about for a good long while, as it instantly feels like something poised to go down as one of the best scenes in television history. Stan hasn’t yet confirmed that Philip and Elizabeth are Russian spies, but his hunch eats away at him enough that he stakes out Paige’s apartment. Sure enough, the Jennings arrive to take her away, so he confronts them in the parking garage. What follows is a heartbreaking, anxiety-inducing scene where Philip first tries to deny Stan’s accusations and feigns ingurance, before he surprisingly comes clean, and tries to appeal to Stan by saying that they were merely doing a job for his country, much like Stan does. Stan doesn’t buy it, because he’s (rightfully) betrayed and because he’s smarter than that and his job doesn’t entail that much murder, so Philip digs deep and decides to appeal to the version of Stan that still remembers him to be his best friend. And in truth, as Philip sheds his layers of deceit, there’s a sincerity to what Philip is saying. He hasn’t been a spy for the better part of three years. He resents Elizabeth for still doing it and for roping Paige in, and he hates how their work has ostracized their son. On top of that, he’s useless as a travel agent and has largely wasted the last three years of his life. He’s pathetic, the same way Stan feels pathetic, and his appeal manages to convince stan to let them go.
Deep down, you probably know Stan’s going to let them go. That’s the kind of show that The Americans is, and there’s still like half an hour left in the episode. But if there was ever a moment for them to pull the trigger, figuratively and maybe even literally, this would have been it. If there was ever a moment for them to fall into the trappings of the kind of show that The Americans pretends to be as expertly as their main characters pretend to be The Jennings, this is it, in this long, uninterrupted scene where a shaken Stan doesn’t actually shake one bit, holding a gun in the general direction of his best friends for a solid ten minutes. This is where Stan or even the Jennings might do something unexpected, and we spend the entire time wondering when it might happen. But like I’ve already said, this isn’t really that kind of show. It isn’t a twist-based show, it’s a character study, and whether or not he feels betrayed Stan is still Stan. It makes much more sense for him to let the Jennings walk all over him, the same way he let them walk all over him for years prior, and live with the shame of what he did. It makes sense for Philip to bare his soul to his best friend, like he’s always wanted to do, but then still do the selfish thing, even kicking him while he’s down by suggesting that his wife might also be a Russian spy. That’s something that Stan has to live with, and it’s entirely Philip’s fault, but it makes sense in the context of who they’ve always been. And it makes sense, a few moments later, in the shows final crescendo (once again, figuratively as well as literally, as the sequence is set masterfully to U2’s With Or Without You), when after escaping all the way to the Canadian border, Paige decides to abandon her parents and go back, presumably unable to live with who they are, what they’ve done, and what awaits them back in a country she’s never truly known.
But we’ll never actually find out why Paige left, or what happens to her. She goes back to Claudia’s abandoned apartment and has a drink of Vodka, but we’ll never find out if she turns herself in, or what happens to her. We’ll never find out what happens to Stan. He goes home and sleeps on the chair next to his bad, suddenly distrusting of his wife. We’ll never find out if she actually is a spy, or how Stan copes with not only the betrayal of the Jennings, but also his utter failure at doing his job. We’ll never find out what happens to Henry. After he sarcasms his family off the phone as they’re trying to say their final goodbyes, we only see him as Stan breaks the news, and he seems more disappointed than shocked. We don’t even get to see what becomes of poor Oleg, his final moments on the show spent in an FBI holding show.
The show leaves all of that to our imagination so that Philip and Elizabeth can return to Russia and stare wistfully out across a bridge, pondering whether or not what they did was worth it and declaring that they’ll find a way to survive, as they always have.
It’s an ending that may play better with critics than with general audiences, but it makes me feel like Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg leave it in a perfect if unsatisfying place, which is an exact mirror both of reality and of what The Americans always has been. The Americans drew you in with action, sex and intrigue, but it was never about that stuff. It was about life and people, and that’s exactly how it decides to end.
“Start” is a perfectly balanced series finale, so it gets 10 perfect musical cues out of 10. Season 6 as a whole gets 9 discarded wigs out of 10.
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