“You were meant for better things. We all were.”
Nothing said in this final episode of The Americans more concisely expresses the theme of the season than these two lines, from Dennis Aderholt to Father Andrei, as they sit in an FBI interrogation room together. Aderholt is trying to persuade Andrei to give up the identities of two Russian spies who have, like his congregants, trusted him with their secrets and their spiritual well-being. Aderholt has been turning the screws on him the best he can — first by pointing out the hostility the KGB holds toward the Russian Orthodox church, then by threatening to out the church’s connections to the agency. It’s an untenable position for Andrei, who eventually folds. He’s seen Philip and Elizabeth as few have, without disguises, in every sense of the word.
That line is a bridge that it took the entire series to construct. Aderholt is speaking in past tense, fully aware that they’re at the end of the war, not in the middle of it. He’s taking stock of what the Cold War has meant for everyone involved and casting doubt on whether the efforts and sacrifices that were made had any significant value. Aderholt just lost a couple of agents in the shootout in Chicago, for starters, but he genuinely sympathizes with Father Andrei’s dilemma, despite Andrei’s allegiances to an organization that’s been his sworn enemy for years. All the major characters in The Americans — and the minor ones, too, like these gentlemen — have chosen to submit themselves to a larger institution in the faith that their efforts would be rewarded. Their essential decency, their will to do the right thing, has been answered by betrayal, tragedy, and overwhelming regret. It wasn’t worthy of them. Not by a long shot.
It’s no mistake that Aderholt and Andrei’s conversation happens right before the money scene in “START,” an 11-plus-minute exchange between Stan and the Jennings spies that’s long enough to span from one commercial break to the next. Because the biggest dramatic hurdle showrunners (and writers) Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have to leap is convincing us that Stan will show mercy and let Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige drive off into the night. Before watching the finale, in a back-and-forth on Twitter with fellow critics and Americans enthusiasts Tara Ariano of Previously.TV and Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, I joked that I “want[ed] everyone to explain that it was all just a big misunderstanding.” That’s more or less what happens in “START,” which is perhaps the least tragic ending for a series that made tragedy inevitable. We’ve gotten to know these characters so well over the course of six seasons that we can comprehend actions that would otherwise seem abhorrent and inexplicable. So it makes sense that Stan, who’s known the Jennings family for years — and who considers Philip his best friend — might be capable of seeing them on a human level, despite the lies that have made a fool of him and the losses that have been absorbed by the FBI’s counterintelligence division.
Still, it takes some doing. Stan’s Thanksgiving speech isn’t far back in the rearview, after all, and his interest in understanding the nuances of the conflict within Soviet factions over Gorbachev is approximately nil. He believes in the law, and he’s been witness to many deaths for which Philip and Elizabeth have been responsible, most recently the agents in Chicago and Sofia and Gennadi, informants he’d worked hard to protect. So for him to let them go requires him to stand face to face with Philip — Elizabeth and Paige, too, but especially Philip — and believe that he’s telling the truth, at long last, about who he really is. And Matthew Rhys nails the moment: Philip is a practiced liar, with all the motivation in the world to talk his way out of this situation, but Rhys’s vulnerability and sincerity in the moment is heartbreaking to witness. When Stan tells him that he’s turned his life into a joke, Philip responds, “You were my only friend, in my whole shitty life. All these years, my life was the joke, not yours.”
It was inevitable that Stan would finally discover what his neighbors have been doing all these years, but to stage their confrontation as an 11-minute dialogue scene, as opposed to a shootout or a fight or a dramatic arrest, is more in keeping with The Americans’ style. Plenty of characters have met bad ends over six seasons — and the show could stage an elaborate suspense set piece when it wanted, like the Chicago sequence — but the central characters lived through the entire run. This was never a show like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, where fans could speculate over who would be the next to get got, and it doesn’t end that way, either, even though those options were on the table. Chekhov’s cyanide pill was never swallowed. Renee was never activated. It’s genuinely audacious to rely on reams of dialogue, rather than action, to bring these relationships to a conclusion. And the tension never flags. They have a lot to talk about, after all — their friendship, their jobs, the intercepted message from Oleg, and poor Henry who’s staying behind — and the gears in Stan’s head are turning all the while. Letting them go doesn’t even seem like an option until it happens, but it makes dramatic sense. It’s earned.
For Philip and Elizabeth, getting found out means losing their children. It’s mind-blowing to consider that this was always a probability, a carefully planned-for contingency that they wind up executing just as swiftly as they did any other job. Once upon a time, the kids were part of a plausible cover story, a perfectly boring tale about travel agents raising a family in suburbia. Now they’re deciding with breathtaking certainty to leave one of them in America, where he has no relatives and no home, and will likely grow up to resent his parents for abandoning him. And they’re trying to whisk the other one away from her own life without any discussion. (“It’s over,” says Elizabeth firmly. “This is how it works.”) The gulf between the plan and the reality of its execution is canyon-sized: There may be some difference in how much Philip and Elizabeth consider themselves Americans, but they’re fully parents. That’s a role they’ve turned into their life. And now it’s over.
The scene at the phone booth brings those feelings out with devastating clarity. All three of them are back in disguises, but they cannot do as they planned and “act completely normal” when talking to Henry. “You know how proud we all are of you, don’t you? And how much we love you?” says Philip, absent of all chill. Maybe there’s some future where he’ll talk to Henry again — his proposal to hide in New York or out West is touchingly delusional — but never at such an innocent time, when Henry only knows him as a loving father and struggling travel agent. “What your father said, I feel the same,” says Elizabeth, in what by her standards counts as an unseemly display of sentimentality. Paige can’t bring herself together long enough to chime in. She’s not cut out for this work.
For a show that’s been thoughtful in its song selections, “START” ends the series with two so ideal that they seem written for The Americans or plotted with them in mind. Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms produced a few big hits in 1985, with the one-two-three punch of “So Far Away,” “Money for Nothing,” and “Walk of Life” to kick off side A. The title track, a seven-minute dirge that closes the album, didn’t chart in America, but its lyrics about post-traumatic stress disorder, inspired by the Falklands War, sync up nicely with the war the major characters have spent two decades fighting. The beginning of the song:
These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
The end of the song:
We are fools to make war
On our brothers in arms
The use of U2’s “With or Without You” is not as subtle or allusive, but its on-the-nose quality is effective in its own way. That’s a single everyone knows — the biggest hit off U2’s most celebrated album — and speaks directly to the conflicted souls on display in the montage. Philip looks at a happy family at the McDonald’s, living the normal life he’ll never have and can no longer pretend to have. Stan tucks a sleeping Renee into bed, uncertain if she’s the love of his life or one of them. Paige quietly slips off the train meant to carry her toward Russia, but she stays behind and resurfaces at the apartment where she’d spent days talking to her about Russian history and culture. Those where the times she felt closest to her mother. She probably wanted that feeling more than she wanted to make some small difference in global affairs.
And finally, there’s Renee. Since Weisberg and Fields introduced Renee early last season, we’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is she or isn’t she a spy? It seemed perverse for the show to leave that question unanswered before the finale, but to leave that question unanswered during the finale is a true masterstroke. For Weisberg and Fields, it was never important to know if Renee was yet another person to betray Stan’s trust; it was important to know if Stan could bring himself to trust someone. When she consoles him in the driveway as the FBI rummages through the Jennings home across the street, his need for her is achingly palpable. And when he returns back to the scene, Laurie Holden gives a look that’s the picture of ambiguity. It reminded me of Robert De Niro’s opening narration in Casino: “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
In Casino, De Niro’s car blows up. In The Americans, we’ll have to be content with never knowing. What’s important is that Stan has chosen to trust Renee, even after all he’s experienced. There’s hope in that.
Hammers and Sickles
• In an episode packed with incident, it was nice to see some moments carved out for quiet contemplation. The opening with Philip in the garage, pausing for a moment to feel the weight of his world collapsing, sets the tone for the whole episode.
• Oleg’s fate is unclear and likely bleak, but there’s something wonderfully bittersweet about witnessing his heroism as viewers while his father and Arkady lament that his trip to America was all for naught. He is, however, kind of hot?
• “We don’t kill people,” Elizabeth tells Stan, ridiculously. Even when all the cards are out on the table, Elizabeth still bluffs by rote. But the passion she and Philip summon over Oleg’s message is an important reminder that the fate of their home country still matters to them.
• What a brutal scene to witness Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige burying the last remnants of their American lives in a pit. That includes a passport for Henry, who’s effectively given a living burial.
• The dream sequence with Elizabeth scanning the paintings around the room while in bed with Gregory (and pregnant with Paige) is the only misstep in the episode. The Americans never needed to be The Sopranos with its arty abstraction. It’s better when it’s direct.
• “They’ll remember us. They’re not kids anymore. We raised them.” Looking out over a Moscow that’s new and strange to them, Philip and Elizabeth find a measure of solace, like empty nesters raising a glass after graduation night. They worked together to raise two good, conscientious young adults. And they still have each other. That’s the happiest ending The Americans could have managed.