KGB Drama, OMFG Ending
Note: This Review contains spoilers for the final season of The Americans. If you haven’t seen it yet — well, what are you waiting for?! Go! For the rest of you:
All through the final season of FX’s extraordinary Cold War thriller The Americans, I’ve been concerned about two things: How will they end it? And will they stick the landing, or leave us, like The Sopranos and Mad Men, stuck in ambiguity hell? Well, I can say with confidence: they didn’t screw it up.
Throughout the final season, Elizabeth and Philip have been at odds. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) has been slowly burning out all year, having been working alone, mostly on work to try and undermine the US position in the famous 1987 summit that helped bring the Cold War to an end. Philip (Matthew Rhys), out of the game for three years, and not doing particularly well in his cover job as a travel agent, has been trying to work against her and for the Glasnost forces under Gorbachev. In the final three episodes, Elizabeth learned from Claudia (Margo Martindale) that she has been manipulated in a plan by the KGB to remove Gorbachev from power. She finally broke, and decided to openly move to stop the attempt.
Meanwhile, Stan Beaman after more than seven years, finally began to wonder if his next door neighbor and the man he has considered his best friend, might actually be the Russian agents that he spent the first five seasons of the show chasing. Simultaneously, the FBI began to move a snare of its own around the Jennings themselves, finally catching up with them, by reaching the priest who married them.
It all came to a head in the final episode. Knowing that they had been compromised, Elizabeth and Philip began to run, making the agonizing decision to leave Henry, their son behind, so that he might have a future in America. Then they went to get Paige, who had finally been indoctrinated into the sleeper agent program that they had been involved in.
All of this led to one of the most magnificent scenes — maybe the greatest single accomplishment in television history since Walter White finally realized in ‘Ozymandias’ that all of his actions had been a lie. Stan, acting on a hunch, went to Paige’s apartment, as Elizabeth and Philip came to pick up their daughter and go on the run. It built, very slowly for nearly two minutes — Stan calmly asking why the Jennings were taking their daughter home, while they tried to parry, before he pulled his gun on Philip and said: “Get on the ground, you f — ing piece of shit!” Realizing that the game that they had played for nearly a decade was over, Philip and Elizabeth confessed. To everything. What they had done. Why they had done it, and now they had never wanted things to go this far. As brilliant as Rhys and Russell have been through the life of this series, this was Noah Emmerich’s moment. The genuine anger melting into astonishment, and then listening, first with shock as they told them to take care of Henry, and the final blow: that Renee, the woman who had become Stan’s second wife, might be a KGB agent herself. (The series never revealed that in the final moments, but maybe that’s just as well. It probably would’ve come as an anticlimax.)
Emmerich’s work in the final episode was extraordinary. Particularly, after letting the Jennings’ go, he returned to the stakeout he had left appearing the same, and then when he learned — this time from the FBI — that the Jennings were KGB — it was a performance worthy of an Emmy nomination.
After this moment, one might consider everything that happened afterwards as falling action, the same way that everything after Walter’s confession to Skyler was the real climax of the final episode of Breaking Bad. But there were still some astonishing moments. The final telephone call the Jennings had with Henry, trying desperately to sound normal. The silent sequence on the train leading to Canada, as the marshal’s did one more search through the Jennings’ IDs that they passed, and both Jennings as they realized that Paige had gotten off the train. And the final few moments as Elizabeth and Philip, now back in the Soviet Union, discussed what their roles had been like, and whether their children would be alright without them.
Of course, there were a fair amount of questions that were left unanswered. Was Rene really a KGB agent? What will happen to Paige and Henry? And how will Philip and Elizabeth readjust to the Soviet Union that is, for better or worse, about the change dramatically, in spite of everything they did? Of course how things play out historically. Gorbachev came back, the USSR did collapse, and Russia changed. But knowing what lies in the future, I can’t help but remember Claudia’s final words to Elizabeth. “I’ll go back home. We’ll adjust. We always have.” One could certainly see Claudia whispering in the ear of Vladimir Putin.
Regardless of one’s geo-political persuasion, one can’t argue that The Americans was one of the truly great television experiences. It will never have the same reputation as The Sopranos or Mad Men or Breaking Bad — it was often too cerebral even for the new Golden Age. You had too constantly pay attention, if for no other reason then too be aware when there would be a scene done almost entirely in subtitles. And it didn’t enjoy either the mass audience of some of the bigger hits or the awards that Mad Men or Homeland got. (Though the Emmys have been more generous to it the last couple years.) But at its peak, The Americans could be as great as any of them. It certainly ranks as one of the great shows of the 2010s, and hopefully, maybe streaming or on DVD, it will someday be considered with the same awe that we consider the others. Das Vadonya.
My Final Score: 5 stars.