Series Finale, Report: The American, Season 6

13 Jun

I’m still digesting the series finale of The Americans but it ended like the show. Relatively slow, methodical, with not a ton of plot, by series finale standards (though a ton for an Americans episode) but filled with deep, searing, well-developed character moments that pack an emotional wallop.

A few thoughts on the episode, the final season, and the series more broadly:

Elizabeth and Philip were never antiheroes. One of the primary facets that made the  show brilliant, but particularly at the time, was how it was an inversion of the antihero shows that dominated the critical TV landscape when the Americans started, chief among them the fantastic Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Those shows featured family men who cared about themselves selfishly ahead of their families or anyone else, and who the viewer often rooted for against their work rivals, while rooting against them at home.

Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are thoughtful, well-meaning people who care deeply about their family, both their children and each other, and the world, more than they care about themselves. They did terrible, terrible things for their jobs; far worse than anything Walter does in Breaking Bad, killing dozens of people, and ruining many other innocent, civilian lives in the process. But they were never doing it out of selfishness. They were never doing it for themselves, for practical gain, or to feed their egos. In fact, they got nothing but negative externalizes from it.  They did it for love of country, for idealistic reasons, for Elizabeth, for sense of duty, and, and for love of Elizabeth, for Philip. It was a job and they did it, but it was never something they enjoyed, got pleasure from, or benefited from, with the exception of Elizabeth feeling her sense of higher purpose being fulfilled.

The Jennings were good people put in an impossible spot; asked to do something that, were it flipped to Americans in the USSR, would have been considered the highest form of patriotism by us.

The finale was not a Breaking Bad-style action-packed series of twists and turns and goodbyes to various characters. That would hardly have been true to the show, though the finale was certainly plot-filled compared to almost any other episode. A criticism of The Americans has been its deliberateness at times. The Americans hammers home certain traits and beliefs of their characters over and over again. For example, snce early on in the show, Elizabeth has been a true believer in the cause of communism worldwide, while Philip was the depressed cynic who was only kept going in their dreary espionage business by his initially (but no longer) one-sided love for his wife.

This deepening of the characters though, even if repeat some of the same points, never manages to feel one-note because of the richness of the acting and writing.  It makes us feel like we know these characters in an intimate way, heightening the emotional connection, and making even small changes and revelations feel drastic and impactful.

The first half of this final season was about the Jennings on a collision course. Philip had slowly discarded his desires and ideals time and again over the course of several seasons to please his wife, because Elizabeth had an iron will, really believing in everything she did, unbending, while he didn’t even know what he believed, He didn’t want Paige to know what they did, but relented. He didn’t want Paige involved in what they did, but then relented.

Finally, this season, we reached a point where Philip says no more. He had been out of the business for three years and he was done with this bullshit. He likes America, whether Elizabeth does or not, and he cares more about the successful raising of his children than whatever spy business his taskmasters had planned for him. He calls of his trip with Kimmy, warns her not to visit a communist country during her trip, and stares off with his wife over the matter.

For a moment, this threatens to tear him and his wife apart for good. Elizabeth had, without meaning to in a malicious way, totally coopted Paige. Paige was completely under her spell, and well into junior spy training under her and Claudia’s tutelage.

That was based on the deal Philip and Elizabeth struck. Elizabeth gets to shepherd Paige into the family business and Philip would get Henry, and he would keep Henry as far away from the spy world as possible, with as American a life as a child could have – popular and sociable at boarding school, far from the Jennings and their drama, playing ice hockey.

Paige, though I don’t believe it was Elizabeth’s intention, was being slightly turned against Philip. His inability to handle the work was a sign to Elizabeth, and thus to Paige, through osmosis, of weakness. Philip rebelled against that. His, understandably, believed there was strength to the choice not to continue obeying orders from people you don’t trust for a cause you don’t believe in, rather than Elizabeth’s narrative that he had dropped out simply because he couldn’t handle the rigors. Seeing his own daughter call him out as weak spurs him into both warning Kimmy and challenging Paige, in her apartment, to a fight, to show her that he’s still got it.

There’s another version of the show where the end game involves their final dissolution. However, just when it seemed as if the two Jennings would be at open war with one another, a moment comes when Elizabeth needs Philip. She needs him to help, not to hurt, importantly, to help someone escape, rather than deliberately to kill or sabotage (although two FBI agents end up dead, after the plan goes off the rails). The operation is a disaster, but the crisis brings them closer together. Finally, the conflict between the two is solved by Elizabeth actually coming, for just about the first time in the series, towards Philip’s point of view.

I was rooting for Philip and Elizabeth to get caught up until the last episodes, and still wouldn’t have minded if they had However, Elizabeth’s rejection of her masters, her love of country triumphing over her view of herself as order-taking soldier in the idealistic communist army, and thus working to save rather than prevent the arms deal at the nuclear summit, had me rooting for them to make it out of the series free.

All the great, built up character work was on display to make it believable when Elizabeth defies Claudia. Elizabeth, a hardened soldier who believes in the importance of taking orders and following the plan is also an unbridled idealist at heart. She really deeply believes in the anti-materialistic communist promises, and does what she does for her country and for what she thinks will be a better world. Lying to her; as Claudia must have known, would not sit well. Americans were lied to, Elizabeth believed, they didn’t have the truth. Lying is an admission the facts aren’t on your side. To do awful things to Americans was an acceptable trade off for the greater good – but to turn on one of their own who had done nothing, to lie, to frame her own people for no other cause but because they deem it necessary, crossed a line.

And so the two worked together, teaming up to prevent the assassination of an innocent Soviet negotiator, right before they got found out. In another show, Philip and Elizabeth would have desperately scrambled to find a way to stay in the country. They would have frantically zigged and zagged until at least they realized maybe there was no other option. Not here. Once they were burned, they were burned. That was it. Philip and Elizabeth had to go.

Henry, Philip long knew, had to stay.

Paige, well, Paige’s decision to stay behind while her parents go back to Russia, may be the most interesting part of the entire heart-wrenching finale.

The Jennings, and Philip knew this right off, but was powerless to stop it, ruined Paige’s life the exact moment they told her who they really were. That was it; there was no going back. Paige doesn’t speak Russian. She loved the spy world when it was a fantasy, when she was under the powerful spell of her courageous and strong mother who she loved so much. Elizabeth believed so strongly in the righteousness of what she was doing that it spread to Paige through osmosis. Paige loved being a part of that movement, a way for her to make a difference in this poverty and inequality-plagued world.

But she never really knew what was going on. There was so much that Elizabeth and Philip wouldn’t tell her, because following people and playing with radios and stealing documents was one thing. But sex and murder was another. Paige lashed out at Elizabeth in the penultimate episode, correctly intuiting that Elizabeth both used sex to work a source Paige had heard from, and that she had many times before. Making that assumption and disbelieving her mother would seem a little much in that case if it hadn’t been rooted in work getting there, with Paige slowly pushing back against denials from her mother, and slowly learning more about the spy game over time.

After that scene though, we didn’t hear a lot of that in the finale. Paige reacted poorly when Elizabeth and Philip showed up out of nowhere at her dorm, still irritated at them, but everyone was in crisis mode and after a couple of sharp barbs, she got with the program and temporarily put her irritation aside.

But it’s hard to imagine her decision to stay was not rooted in that betrayal.  It took Paige this long to really realize it, but her parents aren’t just the innocent bloodless paper-chasing spies that Elizabeth in particular claimed them to be.

Philip and Elizabeth mostly tell Stan the truth in the harrowing garage scene that was the central scene of the finale. But they do deny killing people. This is probably partly for Stan’s benefit; if Stan was on the fence about killing them or bringing them in, certainly a long road of murders particularly of FBI agents, or his old partner, might sway him in the moment. But more importantly, it’s for Paige. Paige may have come more and more around to being a spy but it was because being a spy was fun. She got a taste of how real it was; but never to the extent of murder. Paige agreed to get deep, irrecoverably so into something that will brand her a criminal for the rest of her life when her mom didn’t really tell her the whole story. This wasn’t what Paige signed up for.

She told her parents time and time again not to lie to her, and her mom in particular, and yet they did, and they did it because if Paige knew how many people they really killed, well, she probably would never have forgiven them. And the repercussions of her having a sense of their culpability if not the full story, may have been what swung Paige to stay. She has more in common with Henry than Philip or Elizabeth but she straddles two worlds. They ruined her. She has no friends. Henry got lucky and escape their inevitable destruction, maybe. Paige didn’t.

At the heart of the show has been how Elizabeth and Philip tell everyone different combinations of lies and truth, and get them mixed up in between. So often they root their lies in truth, and vice versa. In that garage scene, Philip, by and large comes clean. Does Stan believe him? What makes Stan stand down? I do believe that Stan believes that Philip is telling him the truth, and we know he is. Stan really was Philip’s only friend. Does Stan do it for Henry, with whom he has an established bond? It’s hard to say and I’ve gone back and forth in my mind over whether this behavior is consistent with what I believe the Stan we’ve known would do.

I do take exception to the idea that Elizabeth and Philip losing their children was the ultimate punishment. The ultimate punishment would be ending up in jail for their crimes, their many murders, particularly of civilians. They didn’t do it for themselves, but they did it knowing the potential eventual consequences. For most of the series, I hoped at least Elizabeth or Philip would end up caught. I was temporarily swayed towards rooting for them from their actions and behavior in the final episodes, but a few days later with some room to breathe I still think they deserved to end up behind American bars. I’m still okay with the ending but less okay with people thinking that this is actually a worst case scenario for the Jennings.

It’s going to take some detachment to figure out where the Americans finale fits in the pantheon and really think deeply about whether Stan would or wouldn’t have turned in the Jennings, and whether that’s true to his character, and whether it’s a sign of strength or weakness, or neither. But there’s no question The Americans delivered a powerful finale, true to itself, with breathtaking moments and stirring emotional cues. As an ending to my favorite hour long show of the past half-decade, I’m not disappointed, and with finales, that low bar counts for a lot.

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