Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Americans Ends with a Fittingly Quiet and Emotionally Devastating Finale

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Series finales are a tricky business. Ending a story in any medium is hard to do, but ending a TV show like The Americans poses a challenge only comparable to other long-running series in books or manga or gigantic series of movies. Fans invest years in these stories, and making all those fans happy might be the hardest thing in fiction. Sometimes it goes really well, like with The Leftovers. Sometimes it goes really badly, like with Dexter or How I Met Your Mother. The better the show, the harder it is to deliver a worthy finale. Even powerhouses like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos stumbled a bit in their finales.

I’m not sure how the finale for The Americans will be remembered in the grand scheme of TV finales. We’ll need time and reflection to properly judge both the finale and the show in any historical sense. Right now, though, I’m satisfied. Satisfied and crying. This finale was fittingly Americans, for better or worse.

A Series of Unfortunate Goodbyes

Boiled down to just a series of plot points, very little truly happened in this episode. The Jennings tried to get away with Paige, the FBI tried to catch them, and Stan ultimately does but lets them go. Henry is left behind. Paige eventually makes the decision to leave her parents rather than accompany them to Moscow. Philip and Elizabeth return home relatively incident-free.

In execution, this finale served as a powerful, prolonged goodbye, both for the audience and the characters. With the truth revealed and no option but to run, The Americans spent this final episode not tearing things away, but forcing its characters to let those things go. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields relied on the characters they have created and the actors playing them to carry this last episode through a series of devastating goodbyes. They relied on the emotions cultivated through 6 seasons to affect the audience through conversation.

I think it worked. I think it worked quite well. This finale delivered powerful scenes, one after another. The garage confrontation between Stan and the Jennings family was everything we’ve waited for and then some. Paige standing outside the train while her parents watch helplessly was a gut punch of the highest magnitude, as was the scene of her downing shots in Claudia’s empty apartment. The Americans hit hard and quietly, as it usually does.

Everyone makes it out, but at the expense of everything they knew and loved. Henry lost his family and his perception of not just them, but the truth of his entire life. Stan loses his best friend, and with Philip’s suspicions about Renee will likely lose his marriage. Paige loses everything; in the end she returns to Claudia’s now-empty apartment because she had no idea where else to find stable ground. All three of these characters are left behind to pick up the pieces, and I’m not sure how they manage. They’re survivors in the emotional wreckage left in the wake of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.

Philip and Elizabeth themselves are no different. They return home as victims of their lives as well, having lost said life. Their children, their friends, and the only life they’ve ever known are now gone. They face an uncertain future in a country they don’t know, with nothing but each other to rely on, and not knowing what will happen with their children.

Step by step, scene by scene, The Americans made us watch each of these ugly, devastating goodbyes. Scene by scene, Philip and Elizabeth lost everything. It was all the worse that they lost nothing by way of errant bullets or tragic accidents. I doubt anything could have topped the look on Elizabeth’s face when she realizes leaving Henry in America is the right thing to do. Nothing could have topped the look on Stan’s face as the Jennings family laid out the whole truth and asked him to let them go anyway, or the broken posture as he watched them go. Having Paige die couldn’t possibly have affected them as much as watching her decide to step off that train and leave her parents of her own volition. Oleg’s death couldn’t possibly hurt as much as watching his father and wife react to the news that he will likely serve years in prison.

Really, we shouldn’t have expected anything else. Ending The Americans with an hour of running, loud music, and gunfights as the Jennings escape FBI handcuffs or KGB bullets just wouldn’t be true to the series. This has rarely been a show to romanticize or exaggerate espionage in such a way. Having Philip and Elizabeth get away and return home in this manner was perfect in that regard.

You’d think their return home to be a victorious moment, but it was the opposite. It was loss. It was stripped of all sense of victory. Their final conversation, looking out on their homeland again after so many years, showed only fear and uncertainty. Where do they go from here? What do they do? They don’t even know what country they have returned home to. Certainly not the one they left, that both spent most of their lives fighting to protect.

You could ask the same of every character. What future lies ahead for Stan? He knows the truth. He will likely face consequences for not knowing the truth earlier, and Philip’s suspicions about Renee probably damns his marriage. Henry and Paige will both suffer for their parents’ work. Paige has nothing, and who knows whether she can escape FBI scrutiny. All of their lives have shifted beneath their feet, and who knows how long it will take them to regain their balance. Perhaps they never will.

Yet, in typical Americans fashion, there is hope that they can. For all the emotional turmoil Stan has gone through and will continue to go through, he has come out the other side a better man than when this show began. His final scenes did suggest a possible peace with Renee’s questionable status as a KGB spy. His fanaticism about the KGB and Russia has dissipated, in large part due to his friendship with Philip. He and Henry at least have each other, and considering how close they’d grown in previous years, this was the best-case scenario for either of them.

While Henry will likely face consequences over his parents, he remains an innocent. He knows and did nothing. Stan can easily provide him cover. Paige will have a harder go of it, but unless Stan says something, she has plausible deniability. It will be hard for them both moving forward, but they do have a chance. A better chance than if their parents dragged them to Russia and a life they couldn’t recognize.

Philip and Elizabeth also have hope. They return home heroes. They still have each other. Life will be hard for them, without question. I doubt the anti-Gorbachev faction will be pleased at having their plans foiled, so a danger still exists. They still have to adjust to returning home. However, they have done this before, and can do it again. It will just take time. Time to rediscover who they are outside of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, travel agents and KGB spies. Time to figure out who they are in a country they do not know. They’re right back where they started so many years ago.

This ending was so fitting for the show The Americans became over the years. It delivered victory stripped of all sense of victory. It stripped the romance from the escape and left only the ugly truth. All that was left was brutally emotional honesty, and people trying to deal with this honesty.

I wish I could see what happens next. In the end, Weisberg and Fields were right to trust their characters to carry a deathless, character-heavy finale. I am not ready to let these characters go. They left too great an impression on me. I would happily transition into another season watching these characters adjust to their new realities. And yet, if you have to end this show somewhere, this is the place.

The Americans has always differed vastly from most prestige dramas I’ve watched in my life in that I never felt a strong desire to see it reach some central climax of a greater conflict. Of course the moment would always come when Stan found out his neighbors. The moment would always come when Philip and Elizabeth must leave America. As a television show, of course it must come to an eventual end.

However, that was never the draw for me. More than possibly any drama I’ve ever watched, I simply enjoyed watching these characters in this world. This was true even in the more espionage-heavy days of the first two seasons. With each new season, The Americans engaged me more and more with its characters in a way that made me not want to let them go. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. This has always been a show about characters, about marriage, about family, and in a way that made me feel like they were my family.

It has been interesting to watch The Americans develop over the years. It did start off more engaged in spy work, with the first two seasons revolving around the threats Philip and Elizabeth face in their work. Death was more common, and the show took more of a “mission of the week” type structure. The core theme of marriage and identity was always there, but not quite trusted to carry the show.

Starting with season 3, though, there was a definite shift towards a more familial, quiet show. The espionage drama never vanished, but it took a backseat to the complicated dynamic between Philip, Elizabeth, and their friends and family. They became the plot. The espionage informed their evolving dynamic. While I’d never say plot vanished or became unimportant, sometime during season 4 I found myself realizing how much I just wanted to watch these characters exist.

I’ve never felt this way about any other show I’ve seen. I want to watch these characters forever. The Americans created an attachment like no other show I’ve ever seen. If a spin-off was announced tomorrow involving Philip and Elizabeth adjusting to life in the Soviet Union, I’d be ecstatic. Same with anyone else in the main cast. It’s a remarkable achievement for a show to create characters so good.

Judging the ultimate legacy of The Americans is definitely premature. However, I feel like it will tie back to this shift in the show’s style. There’s a definite difference in the last three seasons compared to the first three seasons. There came a point where the pace slowed and characters took precedence over the plot. Seasons 4 and 6 were absolutely phenomenal. However, season 5 was a controversial one because of the glacial pace and emphasis on character over any real hard plot.

I wonder how this change will influence the ultimate opinion of The Americans. Will it be the spy show that became boring in the latter seasons? Will it be the family show that found stronger footing as it went along? I really wonder how time and distance will affect the legacy of The Americans. For myself, I can’t imagine ever looking back and not loving this show. I love these characters. Perhaps others won’t feel the same.

However, I do feel confident in The Americans’ legacy, despite this uncertainty, and I feel confident because of these characters. Weisberg and Fields created some truly fascinating characters, and a cast of remarkable actors brought them to life. I can’t imagine looking back in television history without remembering Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings or Keri Russell as Elizabeth. You can’t talk child characters without talking Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings. Stan, Oleg, Nina, Martha, Claudia, and Gabriel are all memorable side characters serving as fascinating foils and parallels.

In the end, I think the characters will be the legacy of The Americans. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields crafted a wonderful set of characters I thoroughly enjoyed watching for 6 seasons. The actors behind these characters not only lived up to their material, they elevated it. The end result was a show arguably unlike any I have ever watched. The characters truly define The Americans.

Now, I’m not claiming great characters are somehow unique to this show. Every great show has a great cast of characters, because characters are the engine behind any truly great show. Black Sails still has the biggest cast of amazing characters I’ve ever seen. However, none of them left me craving more like The Americans has. They have obvious, complete character arcs that make further viewing feel almost like an invasion, or as something unimportant. I’m okay to let the characters of Black Sails continue their lives without me there to see it. Same with The Leftovers. You reach a point where the arc is done.

The Americans had these types of complete character arcs from the first to last episode, for sure. Yet somehow these completed arcs still feel like pieces of the broader journey any person undergoes in their life. And that’s where The Americans feels so different to me. There’s still so much to see with the Jennings family and everyone that knew them. So much more I want to see. Everything that we’ve seen feels like just one part of the full, complete tale these characters will live.

Because that’s how real life works. We don’t undergo obvious character arcs within certain years that fully define who we are. Life continues afterwards and builds further upon the stories of our lives. No show has ever made their characters feel that way to me like this one does. It feels so real in a way most shows never manage. It feels less like a story and more like I’ve just watched actual people existing.

Damn it, I want more. I just want to watch these characters exist further. If this is where it needs to end, though, then I’m satisfied. It has been a real pleasure to watch The Americans. It’s been a unique, fascinating, well-written, well-acted, emotionally powerful ride.

One of Philip Jennings’s last lines has him wondering whether he and Elizabeth will be remembered by their children. Regardless of where The Americans ultimately falls in the all-time TV pantheon, it’s one of the more memorable shows of my life.

Final Thoughts:

  • So, final thoughts on Renee? Spy or not? I’m leaning towards no, just for the tragic irony of Stan never trusting her again despite her innocence.
  • Paige’s final disguise inspired my own headcanon about what happens to her. She clearly changes her name to Rebecca Sugar and goes on to create Steven Universe. It perfectly explains how SU manages to wrap complete emotional devastation in a fun, bright package.
  • If Matthew Rhys and/or Keri Russell don’t win awards for this episode, it better be because someone else was undeniably perfect. I’m talking Carrie Coon as Nora Durst levels of perfect.
  • Stan confirmed in this episode that he suspected Philip so far back as when he told him about Gennady and Sofia. Called it!
  • Philip and Elizabeth must have prepared Paige for the moment they would run, because she handled it remarkably well despite its suddenness.
  • I am a little disappointed we didn’t get more of Oleg. His fate isn’t exactly up in the air, but I wanted one more great scene from him in the finale.

Images courtesy of FX



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