Why The Americans Keeps Reminding Us Someone Important Is Going to Die

Elizabeth (Keri Russell), Philip (Matthew Rhys), and Elizabeth’s hidden suicide pill, in a scene from The Americans. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX/FX Networks.

Someone important is going to die in the last three episodes of The Americans. I don’t know this for a fact. But it seems like a reasonable conclusion to draw during the final season of a series about spies and FBI agents who routinely kill or get killed while doing their jobs.

Twenty-first century TV theorizing has pretty much trained me to think along these lines. During The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, among other dramas, viewers and writers constantly speculated about which major characters would not survive. Perhaps unintentionally, the sixth season of The Americans is reinforcing that impulse by planting reminders of death everywhere: in plot points, lines of dialogue, and even songs. The Grim Reaper has always lurked around every corner of this show’s D.C. streets, but this season, he’s not even bothering to stay in the shadows.

The very first episode of season six was called “Dead Hand,” named after the Russian system designed to automatically launch a retaliatory attack in the event of a U.S. first strike. Elizabeth Jennings’s mission to protect Dead Hand has put a suicide pill in her possession, a reminder of the potential brevity of her own life hidden inside a locket that hangs like an albatross around her neck.

Elizabeth has killed at least one person in nearly every episode this season, and each death has had rising implications, culminating with the murders of FBI informants Gennadi and Sofia in their apartment, in the near-presence of their young son. Elizabeth’s central undercover operation this season, as the hospice nurse for Erica (Miriam Shor), puts her face-to-face with human mortality, forcing her to view it from a more emotional perspective and consider whether she’s been living her own life according to a truly higher purpose. Even the cigarettes she’s constantly smoking — which, as Henry pointed out during their exceedingly brief time together over the Thanksgiving holiday, cause cancer — imply that she’s toying with death at every moment, whether on the clock or off.

If one considers all of these elements as clues, they all point to Elizabeth Jennings as the character most likely to die before the end of the series. The fact that the penultimate episode is titled, “Jenkins, Elizabeth” has bolstered concern about that for some fans, who see it, out of context, as an epitaph of sorts. But The Americans usually does not tip its hand in such a blatant way, which makes me think that these “clues” are red herrings that exist more to emphasize what’s at stake for Elizabeth rather than what her fate may be.

Besides, the specter of death isn’t hovering solely over Elizabeth this season. It’s brushing up against Philip, too, even though he’s tried to avoid it by stepping away from the spy business. In the past few weeks, he’s nearly strangled his own daughter during a chokehold demonstration and, in this week’s episodes, chopped off the head and hands of a fellow spy because he knew he needed to help and protect his wife. He may not be a killer anymore, but he certainly remains kill-adjacent.

Philip has always seemed to value life more than Elizabeth does; when she shows him her suicide pill, his immediate reaction is that she should flush it down the toilet. The ongoing conflict between them this season has emphasized that disconnect. Saving people and things — Kimmy, Paige, the travel agency — is what matters to Philip. It’s also why I worry about his survival. It would be entirely fitting with the deeply melancholy tone of The Americans if he sacrificed his own life to protect Elizabeth’s, despite having removed himself from working for the Russians. The fact that Philip is seen earlier this season line-dancing to the upbeat Eddie Rabbit song with the foreboding title “Driving My Life Away” seems meaningful.

Then again, that song provided the soundtrack for a montage that also reveals Elizabeth preparing to gather intel from Erica’s husband and Paige considering what she might glean from a congressional intern with whom she’s just spent the night. Paige is another death-adjacent character who has become acquainted with the more dangerous side of her mother this season. In this week’s episode, “Harvest,” she tells Elizabeth that she is completely committed to continuing her work as a spy and even says she does not fear death, which is exactly the kind of thing that a TV character might say before realizing what it actually means to die.

Then there’s Stan, who, like Philip, has tried to extract himself from intelligence work but keeps getting pulled back into it. Before Dennis tells Stan about the illegal Russian informant with the code name Harvest, Dennis asks him to come downstairs so they can talk. Stan’s response: “Every time I go down there, someone winds up dead.” Is this foreshadowing? Perhaps. It’s a believably casual joke that, to those of us watching with the knowledge that Stan still doesn’t have, carries the hint of something ominous.

The truth is that death could believably come for any one of these characters, and that’s really the point the writers are trying to convey this season. Because The Americans has always been such a deeper, more substantive twist on the spy thriller, the series is taking its own final moments to drive home the fact that international conflict, specifically between Russia and the United States, leads to real casualties that carry real weight. It’s pretty extraordinary for a show to grapple with death in so many different ways — from grotesque to comical (I’m sorry, but when Stan brought up dead Aunt Helen, I laughed) to profoundly sad — when it is reaching the end of its own life. It’s a credit to the entire creative team behind The Americans that it’s doing so in a way that isn’t meta and doesn’t announce itself. The sense that death, in some form, will come for someone or someones, is embedded subtly in the very molecules of the show and always has been. Even if you absorb what’s happening without playing the theorizing game of trying to predict who may bite the dust, you can feel in your bones as you watch that things will not end happily for everyone.

That Crowded House song in the first scene of the season’s first episode said it point blank: “We know they won’t win.”

Why The Americans Keeps Reminding Us Someone Is Going to Die