Spoilers ahead for the season-four finale of The Americans.
The central issue of The Americans comes down to a single, key question: Is it possible to be a Russian spy and still raise a quintessentially American family? The answer to that question has always hinged on Paige Jennings, and every single Americans season finale, including the one that aired Wednesday night, has made that clear. Slowly, in tiny increments, Paige has been moving farther away from defining herself as an American daughter and closer to defining herself as the daughter of Russian operatives. That trajectory can practically be plotted on a graph, using the final moments of all four seasons of The Americans as the coordinates. That arc proves that, at least so far, Paige is the key to understanding what lies ahead on The Americans, because her choices dictate her whole family’s future.
Think back to the first finale, when Paige and Henry are staying with the Beemans and under the impression that their parents are helping Elizabeth’s great-aunt when, in fact, Elizabeth is recovering from a gunshot wound sustained while attempting to complete a mission. (Firer of the gun that caused the wound: Stan Beeman.)
Paige tells the Beemans she needs to run across the street to her house to get some homework. Once she’s there, she feels compelled to enter the laundry room. That’s where we leave that inaugural season of family drama and spy thrills: on a shot of Paige Jennings, searching among the carefully folded clothes for some hidden clue that will explain what’s really going on with her mom and dad. She doesn’t know what she’s even looking for; she just knows she’s suspicious. By shutting the door on season one with that scene, The Americans tells us it’s important. We should make a note of it.
Season two ends, not with an image of Paige, but a discussion between Elizabeth and Philip about Paige. They have recently been told that the Centre — which turned Jared Connors into a spy, against his parents’ wishes, resulting in the death of everyone in that family — is looking at Paige to be the next KGB youth recruit. Philip — the more white and blue, in addition to red, of the two — is against it. But Elizabeth thinks it might be good for their daughter.
“She’s looking for something in her life,” Elizabeth says. “What if — what if this is it?”
“It would destroy her,” Philip responds.
“To be like us?”
That question hangs in the air, unanswered. The last thing we see is the whole family — Elizabeth, Philip, Paige, and Henry — sitting down to dinner in their Falls Church, Va., home. Paige is still in the dark about her parents at this point, but the possibility that light will be shed on that subject — and that this family unit could soon be threatened — hangs in the air.
In the season-three finale, “March 8, 1983,” the end plays out while Ronald Reagan is delivering his famous anti-Russian, Evil Empire speech. At this point, Paige knows her parents are spies and has been instructed to tell no one. But she’s so conflicted, she can’t keep that information inside. One of the final images in that finale is a close-up of Paige’s lips whispering a secret into a telephone receiver: “They’re Russians.” Toto, Paige isn’t in the laundry room anymore.
Paige’s travel itineraries in those three season finales are notable, too. In the first, she and Henry face the prospect of getting whisked away to Canada; instead, they end up away from home, but only just across the street. In the second finale, Elizabeth and Philip unexpectedly take Paige and Henry to a motel not far away (unbeknownst to the kids) from a secluded cabin harboring the son of other Russian spies. And in the third, Paige travels to West Germany, alongside Elizabeth, to visit her dying grandmother. By the end of each finale, she’s back home. But at some point, in each one, she travels farther away from it and closer to people who share her parents’ heritage.
But now it’s January of 1984, and Paige Jennings is no longer completely in the dark. She knows exactly who her parents are, what they do, and, to an extent, how dangerous their work can be — 0nly to an extent. Philip — aware that Paige feels an increasing sense of responsibility to report back to her parents on what’s happening at the FBI agent’s house across the street, and also aware that his daughter has been getting it on with the FBI agent’s son — can see the transformation she’s undergone. He knows that Paige, a young woman now interested in self-defense and slowly learning she can use her sexuality to get men to open up to her, is inching ever closer to becoming her mother. And he doesn’t like it. “Don’t do this, Paige,” he tells her. “You have no idea. No idea.”
The last scene of every single Americans finale, up to this point, has unfolded inside the Jennings household. This one pointedly culminates with a shot of Philip and Paige walking inside the house, but the camera stays outside of it, closing on a shot of the exterior that feels very much like a good-bye to all that.
What does all of this tell us? For starters, it suggests that Elizabeth and Philip will do as Gabriel instructed and swiftly move the family to Russia. Elizabeth and Philip are pragmatic enough to realize that, with William in FBI custody, their cover is severely compromised. (Also, now that Mischa is coming to the United States, it would be appropriately tragic for Philip and his son to exist as two Russians, crossing flight paths in the night.)
But the key lever in this decision, as ever, is going to be Paige. Philip is less likely than Elizabeth to want to return to his homeland; he likes America, home of bitchin’ Camaros, too much. But if faced with the choice of letting Paige turn into a version of the U.S. Elizabeth — a woman who has embraced a life of kept secrets, paranoia, and giving away her body to serve a supposedly higher cause — he’d rather see Paige turn into a version of the Russian Elizabeth. In that scenario, at least she’ll be safe, no longer living steps away from Stan Beeman, the man who jokes about their two families uniting if Paige and Matthew get married, and who remains oblivious that he’s the one who could rip the Jennings apart.
Just as she doesn’t appreciate Philip’s insistence that she stop seeing Matthew, Paige probably won’t be thrilled about uprooting her life and settling in the land of borscht. But given her maturity, her growing interest in her parents’ work, and the fact that she’s had some time to accept their true identities, she has a shot at adjusting. Henry is another story. Now that we know there are only two seasons left of The Americans, perhaps the Jennings’ narrative will start being driven more actively by the most overlooked member of the family, a kid who has no clue what’s going on with his parents and will have zero interest in leaving behind his video games, Washington Redskins football, and thoroughly American boyhood.
Paige has always been her parents’ focus and the determiner of the Jennings’ fate, and I believe she’s the key reason they will decide it’s best to go to Russia. But once they arrive, if they still wind up feeling unsafe, even thousands of miles from the U.S. of A., I’m betting it will be because of the two sons — Mischa, the one seemingly on his way to hunt down the father who, once upon a time, shared his name, and Henry, the boy most likely to be Stan Beeman’s secret pen pal after his parents force him to settle into a place that feels nothing at all like home.