From the beginning it was clear The Americans would end in tragedy. How could it not? A period drama set against the backdrop of the Reagan administration and the Cold War, when the political and ideological divide between the U.S. and Soviet Russia was at its greatest, the series focused on a pair of protagonists, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), whose life’s work as deep cover Soviet operatives would ultimately find them on the losing side of history. But television being what it is, the question of what sort of tragedy was headed the Jennings family way was one the show would have to wrestle with come time for the series finale.
As that episode demonstrates, The Americans executive producers and co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields delivered an incredibly pensive, intimate conclusion that is both satisfying and surprising. It delivers a suitably emotional climax that will inevitably counter what some believed (thanks in large part to a cyanide capsule around Elizabeth’s neck all season) was in the offing. There’s always a bloodthirsty contingent among the viewership for whom only a violent end equals suitable punishment. It’s common when dealing with characters who not only force viewers to weigh the morality of their actions against the desire to root for them, but do so over and over again for six seasons. Just look at the exceptional and still-divisive ending to The Sopranos in 2007, and the lengths to which certain corners of the internet have gone to not only resolve or explain the finale’s ambiguity, but to definitively declare Tony Soprano dead — i.e., suitably punished for his many crimes.
At the end of its venerated six-season run, The Americans finale splits the difference between ambiguity and certainty for the Jenningses, as well as FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), choosing to close out a dark, sprawling, and emotionally brutal spy story by focusing on the one thing that really mattered: the dissolution of the family at the center of this series. Though technically a spy tale, the real emotional currency of The Americans has always been one of fraught domestic drama. The series’ potency relies on the believability of a family whose existence was built on a foundation of lies, but that nevertheless managed to become what it pretended to be.
So, for ‘Start’, a pitch perfect conclusion to one of the best shows on television this century, and certainly the best show FX Networks has ever produced, to strike at the heart of what Philip and Elizabeth had built during their years attempting to undo the political agenda of the United States government, while also seeing them successfully flee back to the Soviet Union, it is one of the most emotionally unsparing scenarios possible. A narrow victory that is also a tragic loss. That especially true of Philip, the show’s enduring emotional heart, who so wholly assimilated to life as an American and as a capitalist he left behind a failing business whose ambitions for growth grossly misjudged its ability to do so, and whose final meal as an American was take out from a McDonald’s near the Canadian border.
It’s every bit the tragedy the show was meant to deliver. The creators, cast, and episode director, Chris Long, manage to turn a tension-filled episode into an hour of television (well, 68 minutes without commercials) that gratifies both sides of The Americans equation. In a sense, ‘Start’ harkens back to the series premiere. In that remarkable first hour, Philip and Elizabeth were closer to having their cover blown than they would be again until the series’ penultimate episode, ‘Jennings, Elizabeth’, when Philip narrowly eluded capture by the FBI who had a full surveillance team on Father Andrei (Konstantin Lavysh). That Philip’s American dream comes crashing down under circumstances that are no fault of his own, and at approximately the same time Stan’s suspicions of his neighbors have once again peaked, might under any other circumstances feel too opportune, yet here it signals a run-in six seasons in the making.
‘Start’ is a longer episode than most, though, to be fair, The Americans has handed in some extra-long episodes this season, and yet, aside from the usual superlative montage work and music cues the series has developed a reputation for, there really aren’t that many scenes in the final episode. It’s a concentrated affair building up to Stan’s confrontation with the fleeing Jenningses. The moment is the major set piece of the finale and of the series, frankly, and it’s also, notably, the one moment where the threat of violence isn’t purely emotional. It says a lot about the show’s intent and emphasis on Elizabeth’s staggering body count and the often graphic onscreen violence this season that when the tables are turned, The Americans summons a level of anxiety so palpable it borders on torture.
Emmerich has been something of an unsung hero of the series, a rare third lead with an incredible series-long arc that culminates in a critical decision in a D.C. parking garage. Emmerich’s performance is full of anger, anguish, and shame; he fuels his final interaction with his best friend with a kind of crackling raw-nerve energy that makes it all the more unbearable. Stan’s the one holding the gun, but he needn’t be; the pain inflicted by the truth, by Philip’s admission of both his status as a Russian agent and as a man holding on to a life of regret, is far greater than what Stan’s admittedly limited options could produce. Stan’s decision to let Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige drive away is debate fodder. Whether you feel like you understand his motivations and his decision or not, or whether you think even Stan fully understands the choice he’s made is part of what makes the choice so compelling. But Stan’s decision to step aside is one that couldn’t be justified if not for the sensitive character work done by Emmerich and the show’s writers these last six seasons.
The emotional violence of the scene reverberates through the remainder of the episode, which delivers a series of similarly painful moments all in sequence, like waves crashing down on someone treading water. It’s an effective technique that builds on the sense of finality in each moment, as in the strained telephone goodbye to an oblivious Henry or when Paige deboards the train, choosing to take her chances in the U.S. amidst the fallout of her parents being outed as Russian spies, it becomes increasingly difficult to catch your breath.
There are questions, though. ‘Start’ may see Philip and Elizabeth back in the cold embrace of Mother Russia, but the ending is not as simple or as pat as “they got away.” Philip’s bombshell that Renee (Laurie Holden) might also be a deep cover Soviet operative is an even more devastating blow than finding out your racquetball partner has probably been holding out on a life-affirming Borscht recipe for years. It’s understandable why Philip would share his suspicions about Renee: he wants to help his friend. But the virtue of Philip’s intent notwithstanding, he’s nonetheless planted a seed that’s going to further wreck Stan’s life.
The decision to leave Renee under a cloud of suspicion is in part what makes the finale so effective for this unique series. The uncertainty of Paige’s future, Claudia’s whereabouts, how Henry processes the truth about his family, or whether or not Martha will have an awkward run-in with Clark while picking over the scant selection at a Russian grocery store, guarantees viewers will have something to discuss long after the series has ended. Philip and Elizabeth (or Mishca and Nadezhda) are back where they started, but its not the end for them. Like all good finales, the series may have reached its conclusion, but there’s more to these characters’ story.