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Josh Bids Farewell to The Americans!

June 11th, 2018
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I started watching The Americans very soon after I’d finished watching Breaking Bad, and right away from the pilot episode I was struck by the similarity of the set-up: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings had to hide their criminal activities from Stan Beeman, their FBI-agent neighbor, just as Walter White had to hide his criminal activities from Hank Schrader, his DEA agent brother-in law.  Of course, the two shows went in very different directions and turned out to have very different styles of story-telling.  (I loved them both!)  But as The Americans entered its sixth and final season, I wondered to what degree the endgame of the two shows would be similar.  The final run of episodes of Breaking Bad were among the series’ best — once Hank found out the truth about Walt, all bets were off and things got crazy.  Surely Stan would finally discover the Jennings’ secret before the end, right?  When would that happen, and what would happen once that revelation finally occurred??

What’s fascinating to me about this final season of The Americans is the way in which things unfolded not at all like how I’d expected — and yet, somehow, exactly in a way that, upon reflection, makes sense for this show and reflects the type of show this has been since the beginning, and the very specific, methodical way in which creator Joe Weinberg and his partner show-runner Joel Fields have told this story.

Breaking Bad went crazy in those final run of episodes — I found that final half-season to be a visceral, thrilling ride.  I’d expected The Americans to similarly ramp up the pace in this final ten episode season (all its previous seasons have been 13 episodes long), but instead, the show came back as the same show it had always been: a deep-dive into these characters and their lives, both personal and professional; steadily-paced and taking the time to show us all the details.  I was surprised at first that the show was taking so much time in this final run to introduce lots of new characters and situations for the espionage in which Philip and Elizabeth were engaging.  (Well, mostly Elizabeth, since the season began with Philip’s having been out of the game for three years.)  We spent a LOT of time in the early going this season with Sofia and Gennadi (the Russian hockey player) and with the dying artist Erica Haskard.

That’s a risky approach, but as I look back now on this final season, for the most part (and I’ll get to a few concerns in a moment), it worked!  I wasn’t impatient for The Americans to hurry up and get to the “good stuff,” because that was ALL the good stuff!!  I love the show for its methodical story-telling, and I respect the show-runners for allowing the show to remain true to itself rather than turning into something entirely different here at the end.  Importantly, while the story-telling was very carefully paced, the show was never slow or boring.  It was as intense and gripping as it ever was, and that intensity and feeling of dread grew and grew as these final ten episodes unfolded.  My curiosity built as the episodes progressed, wondering just how the heck this was all going to end, and beginning to fear more and more that the characters I’d grown to love over these six seasons (Stan!!) were going to wind up with tragic endings.

This season began after a big time-jump, three years after the season five finale.  The idea of a big time-jump for a show was thrilling when Battlestar Galactica did it a decade ago, but it’s become something of an overused TV device these days.  However, The Americans used their time jump perfectly — not for a sensationalist shock, but to give us a chance to explore how these differing circumstances, and the long-term impact of their lives as Russian agents living in the United States — had affected these characters and those around them.  It also allowed this final season to be set around the events of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1987, which worked perfectly for the climax of this story.

I was pleased that the season brought back several characters and story-lines from previous years.  I was delighted that they found a way to bring Oleg back to the United States, though heartbroken from the first moment because it was clear that this was not going to end well for poor Oleg.  It was nice to see Arkady again (last seen back in season four), and I was happy to see him on the pro-Gorbachev side of things.  We spent a lot of time with Kimmy a few seasons back, and so I was pleased that she proved to be important in this final year.  (Though, ugh, in such a distasteful way, as Philip cruelly uses her.  But that this despicable caused him to finally draw a line in the sand and say no to Elizabeth was an exciting moment in the season.)  I was thrilled that Pastor Tim made a final appearance (in a VERY tense scene on the phone with Stan!), and it was fitting that Father Andrei (who had married Philip and Elizabeth a few seasons ago) played such a large role in the ending.  Even Mail Robot got a great final moment in the spotlight this season (crowding Stan and Aderholt in the elevator)!!

As I have written about before on this site, a huge part of my ultimate evaluation of these types of serialized television shows is based on how satisfied I am by the series finale.  Are the creators able to bring their story to an ending that feels “right”?  Am I happy with where all of the characters we have been following wind up?

(There’ve been a few spoilers so far in this review, but nothing too huge.  But seriously, folks, if you haven’t watched the finale of The Americans, turn back here, OK?  You’ve been warned!)

For the most part, I thought the series finale of The Americans, “Start,” was fantastic.  I was expecting earth-shaking explosions (it’s the series finale of a spy show!!), but here again the creators of The Americans surprised me and gave us a final episode that was exactly as step-by-step patient as the show has always been.  From the beginning, The Americans has been a show about a marriage.  It’s dressed up in a lot of fun (and terrifying/horrifying) espionage stuff, but this has always been a show about characters, and specifically about the fraught, complicated marriage between Philip and Elizabeth.  I love that the show stayed so true to itself right up until the very end.  I was expecting explosions and violence, but in the entire final episode, there was just one gun drawn, and it was never fired.

I was surprised that they waited until the very final episode for Stan to finally, finally learn the truth about Philip and Elizabeth.  But boy howdy, when that moment finally came, it was as intense a moment of television as I have seen in a long while.  That lengthy (over ten minutes long!!) scene in the garage, in which Stan confronts the fleeing Philip, Elizabeth, and Page, was phenomenal — a highlight of the entire run of the show.  There was so much riding on that scene — the weight of our expectations since the very first episode — and it was amazing.  Was I shocked that Stan let them go in the end?  Absolutely.  I was stunned by that choice.  But it works.  I love that the show was able to surprise me at this late date, and surprise me in a way that, upon reflection, feels like a choice that I can understand Stan making.  I didn’t expect him to make that choice.  I thought for sure that his desire for justice would trump everything else, and that there was no way he was going to let the Jennings leave that garage.  But I can also understand how he realized that they were not going to lay down on the ground, and that ultimately to try to stop them he’d have to shoot (at least one of) them, and that in the end he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

It was an incredible sequence — and then it all ended in that whopper that almost made me fall out of my chair: Philip telling Stan he thinks his wife Renee is a spy.  Wow.  I was as angry at Philip in that moment as I have ever been throughout the whole run of the show.  I can understand how Philip’s intention might have been to help his friend Stan by being honest with him, but it’s clear in that instant that Philip has completely destroyed Stan’s life.  As if Stan’s life wasn’t already completely ruined by discovering that his best friend had been lying to him the whole time, and that he had failed as an FBI agent by allowing undercover Russian operatives to live next door to him without his being the wiser.  Now the only thing Stan might have been able to fall back on — his happy marriage to Renee — is ripped away from him too?  It’s horrifying.  And heartbreaking.  Here at the end of the series, it was Stan who most had my sympathies, and for whom I was most rooting.  That the finale ends in such a devastating way for Stan was so sad for me.

The other truly shocking scene in the finale was, of course, that train sequence.  This was just exquisite television.  Every beat of that sequence was perfectly constructed, perfectly written, perfectly acted, perfectly edited and scored to that U2 song.  I reacted just as Philip and Elizabeth did, filled with shock and dismay, when I saw Paige standing on the platform, outside the window.  (Though unlike Philip and Elizabeth, I think Paige probably made the right choice.  Ultimately, I think — I hope!! — that Paige and Henry will be able to make lives for themselves in the U.S., away from their parents who — despite how we might love and have sympathy for them after having watched this whole show — had done so many terrible, unforgivable things.)

I loved the finale from start to finish.

But.

I truly wish that we had gotten ten more minutes at the end.  After having watched this show from beginning to end, and after having spent so much time with these characters — and also so much time wondering how this could all possibly end and where everyone would wrap up — I was disappointed that the show ended in such a vague way, with so little information given to us about what ultimately happened to all of these characters.

Let’s start with Philip and Elizabeth.  After Elizabeth’s murder of Tatiana, I thought she and Philip were on the outs with their Russian supervisors.  I imagined delicious irony in their finally returning home to Russia, only to have to live in hiding just as they had done in the United States.  But in the end that didn’t seem to be the case.  (I didn’t get a sense, in that final scene that Philip and Elizabeth were on the run or in hiding.)  But how were Philip and Elizabeth treated when they returned?  Were they heroes or pariahs?  (Arkady seemed to have their back, but wouldn’t Claudia and her co-conspirators have sought to punish them?)  What was their reaction to the realities of life in the Soviet Union in the eighties?  I especially wondered what Elizabeth — who had built up such an idealized picture of life back in Russia during her long years living in the United States and detesting life there — would think when she encountered the tough conditions back in the Soviet Union.  While the finale’s final scene seems like it was intended to suggest that Philip and Elizabeth would wind up together, seeing as how this season pulled them as far apart from one another as they had ever been (or at least, as far apart as they’d been since the beginning of the show), I’d have loved to have gotten a glimpse as to how well they were able to reconcile.  Were things rocky or were they able to settle into a happy life together, now that they’d left the intensity of their secret life as spies behind them?  What happened the day Philip walked into a mostly-deserted market and bumped into Martha??

I wanted to know more about poor Stan.  Did his marriage ultimately fall apart?  Did he adopt Henry?  Was he able to find some happiness in his future, or was his life truly ruined?  (His connection with Henry always seemed stronger than with his own son — did they bond even more in the aftermath of the calamitous events of the finale?  Might that have been a silver lining for Stan?)  Where did Paige go after drinking Vodka in Claudia’s apartment?  Was she able to maintain any sort of relationship with Henry?  Did she create a new identity and start a new life for herself?  Or was she immediately caught and interrogated by the FBI?  Did Oleg live out the rest of his life rotting away in prison?  Did Stan ever visit him?  Did Arkady, or maybe even Philip or Elizabeth, eventually contact Oleg’s father and wife to tell them that Oleg was a hero?

I understand that they had a finite amount of episodes and a limited amount of time to tell the end of this story.  And I understand that it’s not realistic for the show to spell out everything that happened to these characters throughout all the remaining years of their lives.  But I truly believe that in just five or ten more minutes — maybe even one last montage — they could have given us some vignettes to better sketch out some answers to my many, many questions.  After having invested so deeply in these characters and this story, that would have been more satisfying to me.

Some other thoughts:

* I had hoped that Gabriel and/or Martha might pop up in the finale, but sadly that was not to be.

* After all the time the show spent following the journey of Philip’s Russian son back in season four, I was shocked that he was not even mentioned here at the end of the series.  That Philip might get to discover and form a connection with his Russian son, after losing both of his American children, seems like a lovely idea to me — but the show never went there.  That was weird to me.

* I loved how happy Philip was at the start of this season; having retired from the spy business, enjoying life line-dancing and running the expanded travel agency.  It makes me so sad to think about how different his life was ten episodes later.

* That scene in the finale of Philip, Elizabeth and Paige getting McDonalds made be think about what Philip and Elizabeth’s reactions would have been only a few years later, when a McDonalds opened in Russia!  I bet Philip would have been delighted and Elizabeth would have been very P.O.ed.

* The show teased us, early this season, with the thought that the endgame of the series might be Philip vs. Elizabeth.  (I dreamed of a scenario in which, rather than Stan’s discovering Philip, Philip might have revealed the truth about himself to Stan, to get Stan’s help in stopping Elizabeth and the anti-Gorbachev forces she was working for.)  I can imagine all the ways that seeing Philip and Elizabeth pitted against one another would have been cool, and I do feel a bit of a letdown that the show never went there.  On the other hand, that’s not what the show was about, and while it might be less exciting, it does feel right that Philip and Elizabeth wound up working together at the end.

* I was delighted that Stavos actually got a few meaty scenes this season!!  That was great!  Though, like most of the characters on the show, things did not end too well for poor Stavos…

The Americans was a magnificent television show.  As that great joke from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once noted, we are truly living in the Golden Age of Television if a great show like The Americans can be ignored.  I don’t feel this show ever truly got its due from the general public.  But that’s OK.  It exists, and those of us who loved it were able to enjoy it.  I am thrilled that FX allowed this show to run for six seasons, and to be able to end its story at its own pace and on its own terms.  I am going to miss it.  That heartbreaking finale has stuck in my mind ever since watching it.  (Poor Stan!!)  This is a magnificent achievement in television.  I look forward to, someday, watching it all over again.

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