In the finale of the first season of The Americans, Elizabeth took a bullet to the abdomen, a wound from which she had finally recovered when season two began. In last night’s second-season finale, multiple bullets flew, but this time neither Elizabeth nor Philip was struck. Instead, three U.S. citizens who, at different points, were working for the Russians — Fred, Larrick, and Jared — got shot and killed, implying that Americans who pledge their allegiances to the Russian flag, even temporarily, as in Larrick’s case, run a high risk of losing their lives. That’s a sober reality Stan Beeman seemed to grasp and one that, based on the orders relayed by Claudia in the episode’s biggest plot twist, Paige Jennings may soon have to confront as well.
Claudia’s revelation of Russia’s Second Generation Illegals program — the effort to recruit the American-born offspring of KGB agents, including Paige, in order to more effectively infiltrate U.S. intelligence agencies — delivered the biggest gasp in a finale that certainly contained some tense moments, but wasn’t quite the explosive shocker three consecutive weeks of Larrick-hovering suggested it might be. I was prepared for a season-two closer that, narratively speaking, would drive the audience up a steep cliff, place the front wheels of the car just over the edge, then leave us teetering there, Breaking Bad near-cardiac-arrest style, until the show resumes in 2015. Instead, The Americans ended its very strong second chapter by confidently executing several of the classic moves in its repertoire — a chase scene set to a rollicking ‘80s song (Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone” as opposed to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”), moments of angsty uncertainty involving the Stan/Nina relationship, more awkward conversation between Martha and Clark, a Jennings mission (Operation Extradite Jared) that went heart-stoppingly south — while making an obvious effort to begin laying the foundation for season three.
The most significant mystery that got resolved in this episode was the identity of Emmett and Leanne’s murderer. It turned out it wasn’t Larrick. The killer was the Connors’ own son, Jared, who had been groomed as a second-generation illegal behind his parents’ backs, and decided to homicidally fight them when they objected to his attempt to follow in their stealth footsteps. It was Kate who converted Jared to the cause, at the Centre’s insistence, sans the signing of any parental permission slips, which also explains more clearly why Claudia got booted from her post and Kate was installed in her stead. The Centre knew that the best way to win over a teenage boy was by assigning a young, pretty blonde to do the persuading.
At this point, it only seems right to pause for a moment and start a slow clap for Owen Campbell, the actor who played Jared and had to do an insane amount of heavy explaining while he lay dying on the cold, hard, woodsy New York ground. That death scene was essentially a race to see what would gush out of Jared more rapidly: neck blood or exposition. I honestly think it was a tie.
While Campbell handled the moment with an impressive sense of control, all that Jared information dumpage, while necessary, dragged on to a degree that was almost comical. (Elizabeth! Philip! Stop listening so intently and do something to staunch the jugular flow, for God’s sake!) That was one of a couple of quibbles I had with this season finale. Here’s another: Man, did they get rid of Larrick awfully quick. This guy has been stalking Philip, Elizabeth, and Jared for the last four weeks of the season. He finally tracks them down, handcuffs them, and announces he plans to turn them in, and then, with their arms tied behind their backs, mind you, Elizabeth and Philip manage to fight him off and kill him, just like that. I didn’t necessarily expect Larrick to succeed in his attempt to turn the Jennings over to U.S. officials, but after all the buildup, I wanted to watch the potential for their unmasking play out a little longer. (Side note: I also really wanted Henry to be a little more irritated about having to go to some junky hotel in the middle of the night, sit in the room alone, spend an afternoon eating sad sandwiches in a park, and then come home. But not Henry. “I had a good time,” he said cheerily when the Jennings family returned to Falls Church. Kid: You really need to set higher vacation standards.)
Then there was the resolution of the whole Stan Beeman/Nina Sergeevna affair, which ended with a disappointing whimper, but a whimper that seemed completely in character with Stan’s inability to fully wrap his arms around any aspect of his life. Despite all his promises to Nina that he would do whatever it took to save her, when it finally came down to dropping the Echo code into Soviet hands, he couldn’t go through with it. After gazing intently at the image of Ronald Reagan on Agent Gaad’s wall, and the Washington Monument, and the look on Sandra’s face while she was having an orgasm on Gaad’s desk during Stan’s highly disturbing federal-agency sex dream, Stan realized he could not betray his country. All he could do was leave a note that said, “Tell Nina I’m sorry.” One could argue Stan made that call because he’s an American with principles. One could argue it’s because he’s a wimp who’s living his life like an FBI zombie. I would argue that it’s a combination of both.
As for Nina, she was escorted out of the Rezidentura and the U.S. by her comrades, but her knowing glance at Oleg implied she fully intends to take his money and run as soon as she can. Something tells me that wasn’t the last we’ll see of her.
Despite any issues I may have had with Jared’s bleedsplaining, the dispatching of Larrick, or the quiet way the Stan/Nina story ended, I still can’t complain about this finale, which overall was solid. If it didn’t feel like quite as much of a knockout as some other recent episodes, that only speaks to what a tremendous, breakout season this was for The Americans. During season one, the FX series proved it was a really deft, compelling spy thriller. During season two, it revealed itself to be a truly excellent drama, capable of keeping multiple plotlines chugging forward while also burrowing more deeply into its characters and staging glorious setpieces and montages often (I’m still trying to emotionally recover from the use of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood”), which make an impact without showing off excessively. I am hopeful that season three will dart into more interesting, shadowy corners of the Jennings’ story. That seems like a certainty now that Elizabeth and Philip are faced with revealing themselves to Paige and convincing her to fight their anti-American battle.
If season one of The Americans asked whether a marriage can survive when it’s based on falseness, and season two asked whether a family can remain intact when outside forces continually disrupt its stability, it seems like the question of season three will be simply this: What is the greater good?
The notion of serving a higher purpose was mentioned multiple times in this episode. Jared spoke of it: “What we do is for something greater than ourselves,” he told Elizabeth and Philip. Claudia did, too, when she attempted to convince Elizabeth and Philip that they must turn their daughter to the red side. “It could give their life a meaning and a purpose they could never get in this country,” she said of the opportunity presented to next-gen illegals, adding of Paige, “She’s not just yours. She belongs to the cause. We all do.” And Paige used similar language when she got home from that no-nukes protest and spoke about Pastor Tim’s arrest and the generosity of Jesus Christ. “He was willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good,” she told her parents, “and that inspires me.”
Clearly Elizabeth and Philip define greater good differently. “I wish I could tell her about the real heroes,” Elizabeth said, “the people sacrificing themselves for this world, not some stupid children’s story about heaven.” (Did you notice how, as soon as Elizabeth said that, the scene quickly flashed a mirror image of her in which she was bathed in a borderline heavenly light? Perhaps that was a subtle way of refuting her children’s story claim?) “If she said one more thing about nonviolent resistance,” Philip said, in the night’s best line, “I was going to punch her in the face.”
What is really worth sacrificing yourself for: your church? Your country? Your fellow man? (Clearly not when it came to poor Fred; when Elizabeth and Philip knew he was dying, they went straight for the Dumpster with his paint-sample shoes and didn’t even bother trying to make it to the phone booth where Fred drew his last breath). Your family? And if someone else’s greater good doesn’t sync up with your own, how can you convince that person to cross over to the place where you live? These are questions The Americans will undoubtedly grapple with when it returns severals months from now.
“It would destroy her,” Philip said when Elizabeth argued in favor of revealing themselves to Paige.
“To be like us?” she responded. The nature of the question implied that Philip and Elizabeth share the exact same values about serving Russia, rejecting the comforts of the U.S., and raising their children as Americans who, somehow, will grow up to be something other than American.
But Philip’s non-response suggested he does not see himself in that us, a prospect that seemed to leave him stricken. In the closing moments of this season finale of The Americans, as the still-intact Jennings family prepared to sit down to dinner, all the bullets that were going to be fired in this episode had already hit their targets. Yet there was Philip, looking like he’d just taken another one right in the gut.