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The Meaning of Elizabeth’s Dream in The Americans Finale

Keri Russell as Elizabeth and Derek Luke as Gregory. Photo: FX Networks.

Spoilers ahead for the series finale of The Americans.

The Americans is a series typically uninterested in the vocabulary of dreams. Its visual language is sharp, lucid, and exacting — which is why Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) brief dream during the series finale is equal parts jarring and seductive.

The scene takes place after a series of tremendous losses for Elizabeth and Philip (Matthew Rhys). They’ve been able to elude authorities, but in turn, they’ve lost everything that has come to define them. They’ve severed themselves from their brutal reality as Russian spies. They decide to spare their son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), from a life on the run in Russia so he can remain in America. Paige (Holly Taylor) chooses to not to join them in Russia, slipping from the train they boarded, her good-bye to her parents a wordless and somber gaze brimming with mixed emotions. For Elizabeth, these tragedies are compounded by the loss of her profession as a spy, something she ended with finality in the penultimate episode by killing off KGB agent Tatiana to save a man she herself was previously ordered to kill. When her handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale), asks her in that episode, “What’s left for you?”, Elizabeth remains taciturn. What is left unspoken in the air between them is Elizabeth’s love for her family — that’s what she had left to hold onto. But as this dream suggests, everything that once defined Elizabeth has now turned to ash.

Throughout the series, Elizabeth has proven to be exceedingly skilled at hardening herself against the world around her. Her physicality this season in particular has been tense, as if on the edge of either an emotional collapse or brutal battle. Merely one second into the brief scene nestled into the end of the finale, I figured it was a dream simply by how Elizabeth moves. Relaxed, unfurled, more open to the possibilities of life rather than hardening herself in the face of its consequences. Compare the opening moments of the dream — in which she’s at ease in bed, her hair splayed on the pillows as soft light streams in — to the stunning confrontation with Stan (Noah Emmerich) in the garage. There, her body is tightly coiled, like a snake poised for attack, every movement carrying the threat of violence.

This is why the dream proves to be so revelatory. In everything from Russell’s carefully wrought performance to the sound design, the scene juxtaposes death and desire to create an unvarnished window into a woman who has grown adept at placing boundaries between herself and the world she navigates.

The sixth and final season is an intriguing mirror to its first, detailing how far these characters have come. In the dream, this comes in the form of Gregory (a charming and slyly seductive Derek Luke), a black radical Elizabeth convinced to join her cause, and more importantly, her first true love. She considered leaving Philip for him before he died at the end of the first season, after being framed by Russian forces. Elizabeth wakes in bed with Gregory laying next to her, plumes of smoke curling from his lips. It’s clear, even though he doesn’t say a word, the strength of the bond between them. Watching them together — their knowing gazes and physical shorthand — I wondered if this dream was based on a memory of Elizabeth’s or her unconscious dredging up everything that is now unattainable. Gregory only appeared in three episodes of the first season, but his presence has lingered throughout the show, becoming another tragedy in Elizabeth’s life and at one point during the fourth season, a cudgel she uses during a tense argument with Philip. Like this dream, Gregory has operated on The Americans as an intriguing window into an Elizabeth that’s more open, loving, and curious than she is with Philip. When Gregory places his hand on Elizabeth’s stomach as she wordlessly gestures for the cigarette they’re sharing, the scene swerves in an even more heartbreaking direction.

“I don’t want a kid anyway,” she says with nonchalance. As she takes a drag from her cigarette, the nearly imperceptible flutter of children’s laughter can be momentarily heard. This sound design choice brought me back to my own childhood memories of days on beaches under the burning sun, of jungle gyms and evenings in which anything felt possible, before I understood my own parents had an inner life as knotted as my own. Elizabeth then turns away from Gregory to regard the abstract art lining his walls, much like she did during the first season. It’s a pointed choice: earlier this season, when the terminally ill painter Erica (Miriam Shor) was introduced, whose dark, textured art preoccupies Elizabeth, my mind immediately went to Gregory. What he introduced Elizabeth to in the first season, Erica shows her how to find the beauty in during its last.

It’s at this point that Gregory disappears entirely from the dream, as if he blinked out of existence. Elizabeth turns slowly, regarding the paintings across the room, until her eyes fall upon a work that Erica did, one she was given as a gift after her death, only to set fire to it. The artwork is in black-and-white, and it features a woman, mouth agape, on the edge of torment or sorrow. The scene starts to operate even more on dream logic. The edges grow hazy. Cuts feel designated more by emotion than logic. Then Elizabeth’s eyes fall upon a painting on Gregory’s nightstand of Henry and Paige, a little younger than they are presently, and even more obviously morose. Seeing these paintings, and their devastating effect on Elizabeth, brings to light that this dream is as much about who she is now as who she once was, and will never be again. It’s a catalogue of losses and yearnings, everything she desires but remains out of reach, that she will only be able to savor in dreams and memories.

The Americans has dealt with the dreams and reveries of its characters only a couple times before. The most notable exception being the heartbreaking final moments of Nina Krilova (Amber Mahendru), who dreamed of escape just before her execution for treason in the fourth season. It would be easy to view the dream Elizabeth has as uncharacteristically blunt in its revelations. The dreams of people — fictional and otherwise — can often feel indulgent. What’s profound in someone’s personal experience can seem ridiculous and laborious when spoken aloud.

Elizabeth’s dream scene lasts only for about one minute and 30 seconds. But it haunted me alongside the other expertly crafted moments of the finale — the confrontation between Stan and the Jennings in the garage, Paige’s shocking good-bye on the train platform. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about the architecture of my own dreams, which recently have returned to a specific nightmare I’ve had since childhood involving the home I grew up in and the horrors I associate with each groove, each corner, and each hall, in a place that no longer exists as I remember it. I think for Elizabeth, her dream operates at a similar tenor. It’s both a reconstruction of past memories and the emotion of her present concerns.

In a recent conference call  about the final season, Russell noted she views the painting of Henry and Paige in the dream as “what the loss of kids is doing to [Elizabeth].” On a larger level, this dream operates as an index of losses and sorrows. It’s etched into the sound, the visuals, and the appearance of Gregory. It’s an elegy in the form of a dream, indicating that Elizabeth carries wounds that fester more deeply and longer than she is ever willing to let on.

The Meaning of Elizabeth’s Dream in The Americans Finale