Spoilers below for The Americans series finale.
The Americans is over, but one question remains unanswered: Is Renee a Russian spy?
Maybe she is. Maybe she played a long game by getting close to Stan, cozying up to his friends and colleagues, and then maneuvering her way into a job with the FBI. She’s told Stan how important his role is, and how essential it is that he remain in a department that investigates foreign nationals. Why would she do that if she didn’t need him for access? She’s gotta be a spy!
Or maybe she isn’t. Maybe Philip and Elizabeth’s lifelong paranoia has made them incapable of seeing an innocent, loving relationship without assuming ill will. Maybe Renee is just a nice, career-minded lady with golden wavy hair and a passionate devotion to Stan Beeman. Maybe Philip’s prickling worry is a mirroring of The Americans’ longstanding concern with surveillance, moral skepticism, and doubt about the motivations of relationships. Maybe the fact that we all think Renee must be a spy is an indictment of us, not her.
Whatever the real answer may be, the finale keeps it well-hidden. After Philip tips off Stan about his suspicions, Stan stares at Renee while she sleeps, his face shifting from loving to stricken. Later, he embraces her, and if there’s even a hint of insincerity somewhere in his mind, he disguises it. The Americans ends without a definitive answer to the Renee question.
But according to actress Laurie Holden, who played Renee, there is an answer. “Renee serves a very specific function in the narrative. Her purpose has been to stir up intrigue. I know, but I will never tell,” she told Vulture. “When the audience goes back and re-watches these episodes, they will be able to find clues which will better inform them as to who she really was.”
For his part, actor Noah Emmerich said that he’d “hate to pollute the waters” with his theories. “I don’t feel that I’m extra qualified beyond anybody else to weigh in, although I somehow would have more weight if I said something, but I do think it’s a tantalizing question. I’m sure some people will be frustrated by it, maybe lots of people will be frustrated by it, but you know, that’s the way life is,” he said.
Meanwhile, co-executive producer Joel Fields suggests a more pragmatic reason for Renee’s ambiguous ending. “That unanswered question we felt was one that Phillip didn’t have the answer to, Elizabeth didn’t have the answer to, and Stan wouldn’t have the answer to,” he said. “The only way to answer that would have been to try to create some additional plots from outside the story.”
So, what was the point of Renee? Why plant her like a seed in the series so long ago, only for the finale to leave her story unresolved, like a budding flower that never quite blooms? Why spend so much time nurturing that potential in her, only to leave it unaddressed?
It’s easy enough to decide that, yes, she is a spy whose secret stays undisclosed. But her role is first and foremost to “serve intrigue,” as Holden put it. Renee is the show’s ultimate unanswered question.
That’s why the best Renee moment of the finale isn’t Stan watching her sleep, or when she’s standing in the driveway watching the FBI raid. The best moment is one where she’s not even there. After an unbearably painful scene between Stan and the Jennings, where all the truths are suddenly laid bare in a parking garage, Philip leaves Stan with a cruel gift: “I don’t know how to say this, but I think there’s a chance Renee might be one of us. I’m not sure,” he says. It’s a wrenching moment between two men who used to be best friends, a gesture of honesty that Philip knows will hurt Stan, even if it’s meant to save him. This climactic scene performs exactly the same function that Renee did for The Americans as a whole: It gives us this ending we’ve been yearning for and expecting, but right at the end, it twists in a small detail that refuses to give us complete closure.
The rest of the finale is surprisingly definitive. So many conflicts that previously seemed unresolvable fall into place: Stan realizes he’s been had; the FBI learns everything; Philip and Elizabeth are forced to abandon Henry as they escape to Russia, and they are ultimately abandoned at the border by Paige. After years and years of making its fictional world seem full of infinite potential outcomes, The Americans shuts them all down in a way that feels just and inevitable. It’s a masterful, quiet implosion.
That’s why it makes sense that Renee is lurking out there in the D.C. suburbs like an un-detonated mine, forever threatening to explode beneath the finale’s massive emotional closure. We don’t find out if Renee is a spy because an ending that tied everything up in a neat bow wouldn’t be true to the story The Americans has told for all these years. When every question is answered, the narrative doors close and the story fades from your mind. Renee is there to make sure that, even at the end, The Americans is still holding one door open.
Reporting by Maria Elena Fernandez and Jen Chaney.