“I was hoping to make it home for dinner, but things got very topsy-turvy at the office.”
That’s how Soviet spy Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) signaled to Elizabeth (Keri Russell), his partner in espionage and life, that their world has just imploded at the end of the penultimate episode of The Americans. It was a terse, bland phrase, the sort of thing that one half of any romantic couple might say — only here it’s code for something like, “The worst has happened. Start packing.”
And so begins a journey that takes Elizabeth, Philip, and Paige (Holly Taylor) from Washington, D.C., to the Canadian border, leaving the family’s other child, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), behind in the care of Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent who purposefully let them go. This closing episode, titled “START,” is a classic case of a crime-and-jeopardy-packed series choosing to end with a whimper rather than a bang. And the seeds were planted in Philip’s single-sentence warning to Elizabeth. As is so often the case with The Americans, if you look past the vanilla surface of phrases like “I was hoping to make it home for dinner, but things got very topsy-turvy at the office” — the kind of thing that TV dads from George Jetson to Andre Johnson might say — you see roiling depths so unnerving that that you recoil in disgust, and wonder, like Stan, how you could have missed all the signals. What is The Americans, when you get right down to it, but the story of Philip and Elizabeth hoping to make it home for dinner only to have things go topsy-turvy at the office?
Their office isn’t really the travel agency they used as cover for spying, seduction, kidnapping, and assassination; it’s the KGB Rezidentura in Washington and its main office back home in Moscow. In 1987, the year in which this final season was set, their bosses, who were always unforgiving and exploitative, have grown increasingly desperate in the face of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms triggered the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Of course, whether Moscow is the real home of the Jennings is a question that The Americans leaves open right to the end. Philip and Elizabeth’s “Now what?” expressions during the final scene on a hill overlooking Moscow strongly suggest that this was an ideological home only, emotionally as cold as a Siberian winter even when the sun is out. Nobody gets a happy ending here: not the Americans, not the Russians, not the Russians posing as Americans. “I lose one son in a useless war,” says Igor Burov, hearing of his son Oleg’s arrest in Washington, “and now this.” A mother and father bury their son’s fake passport in American soil and make their way to Canada, where their daughter decides she’s had enough and steps off the train that’s carrying them toward the final leg of their journey. Her parents stay on the train because they’ve been on it their whole lives and never seriously considered disembarking.
Topsy-turvy at the office, indeed. You can’t go home for dinner again. The entire show is about that phrase, and the finale unpacks it with great precision.
The Americans is (I guess I have to say “was” now!) a series in the vein of The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad, about anti-heroes doing ugly things just out of sight of polite society while presenting themselves as working stiffs. But Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’s drama always distinguished itself through its emphasis on political ideology (most anti-hero shows are about money); the Mad Men–like scrutiny it gave to real history; its refusal to foreground subtext and symbolism and make the characters self-aware; and most of all, the idea of life as an extended performance on an endless array of large and small stages. The latter notion is externalized through Russell and Rhys’s extraordinary, often borderline farcical array of wigs, hair dyes, glasses, and facial appliances, some of which suggest an alternate show (a wacky sitcom, perhaps) that their children might have watched on TV while the adults discussed tactics in the garage.
This subdued finale, written by Weisberg and Fields and directed by Chris Long, is one of the best that I’ve seen, a terrific example of an ending that summarizes what the series was about while putting a new frame around it. “START” pulverizes any idea of a script for these role-players to “play” and forces them to work off-script. The privilege (or excuse) of needing to stick to the script, rain or shine, has allowed Philip and Elizabeth to break every last one of the Ten Commandments in the name of a higher ideal: the destruction of America and capitalism. It has also allowed Stan, the beer-drinking, flag-saluting Yankee, to feel patriotic even after hacksawing huge ethical corners, including falling in love with a double agent (later triple agent) and straight-up murdering a Soviet operative in retaliation for the KGB killing his partner. (Philip did that deed, but thankfully Stan never found out.) Everybody’s gone off-script now, and the series goes off-script with them. And so The Americans, a series that has never shied away from its TV-ness, goes in a startling new direction in its final chapter, envisioning its two most important sequences as, respectively, a stage play produced without costumes or sets in a parking garage, and a Russian silent movie that carries much of its meaning through images, confining dialogue to a few sentences so tight-lipped that they could fit on old-fashioned title cards.
First, the parking garage, or, as I like to think of it, Shakespeare in the Parking Garage. As Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige try to make their escape and are confronted by Stan, what stands out is the stripped-down quality of the staging. There are no disguises. Everyone looks more or less as they might if they were having a conversation on the street in front of the home where the Jennings family used to live. It took me a while to accept that Stan would let them go, after all he’s been through, but the interior logic of the scene demands it, and the performances help sell it. It’s been said that the actor’s job, like the con artist’s, is to find the truth in the lie, and this scene is a master class in what that means. Nearly every word out of every Jennings family member’s mouth is misleading, yet there’s emotional truth underlying each one. Here, perhaps more than in any other scene in the show’s six-season history, you have to appreciate what an exceptional liar Philip is. “I’m done with that now,” he tells Stan. “I have been for a long time.” That’s just not true at all, but at the same time, it’s one of the truest things he’s said out loud. Philip has been over this job for years, but he returned to it out of love for his wife and perhaps some residual, baked-in loyalty to the motherland (which he obviously didn’t feel while he was out line-dancing to country-Western music). Elizabeth was always the true believer, Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth. But even she sees that their time is up, and now they have to do and say whatever is necessary to extricate themselves before the noose tightens.
“I wish you stayed with me at EST,” Philip tells Stan, referring to their brief time together in a self-help group. “You might know what to do here.” Stan wasn’t in that class for long, but something must have sunk in because he lets the family go. Maybe it’s the responsibility they entrusted him with, a sacred duty that transcends nationality, patriotism, and national security: Henry is like a second son to Stan, and since the kid’s biological parents can either flee or go to prison, he does the impossible thing and stands aside, letting them exit the stage one final time.
Then the finale shifts from theater into silent cinema (with music). There’s little significant dialogue in the last ten minutes, save for border officer saying, “Identification please,” Elizabeth’s dream line “I don’t want a kid anyway” (spoken after awakening in bed with her beloved Gregory, played by Derek Luke); and Philip’s “Arkady Ivanovich, pull over,” which sets up the final exchange on the hill. Instead, we get a subdued yet powerful succession of images of anxious faces waiting to be found out or waylaid, scored to two pieces of music: U2’s “With or Without You” and “None But the Lonely Hearts, Op. 6, No. 6,” by Tchaikovsky. The use of the U2 song is uncharacteristic of The Americans, in that it’s a well-worn smash hit deployed on a series that tends to prefer deep cuts. But the interaction of music and visuals is sublime, and very much in character. Phrases that could have been interpreted in a straightforward, obvious way are fragmented in the prism of this series’ kaleidoscopic take on identity, so that you can’t help reading them in divergent or conflicting ways, depending on the scene or moment. Philip and Elizabeth can’t live with or without the USSR, the United States, the KGB, the travel agency, or their family. Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige fear giving themselves away — the parents by somehow slipping up and getting caught, Paige by letting her parents know that she’s really not up for a change this big and would rather stay behind and take her chances. Paige gives herself away in the sense of treating her life as a precious possession and bestowing it on herself. Looking at her parents through the train windows is the saddest and scariest thing she’s ever done, and the bravest.
The Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, has more of an emotional than intellectual effect, investing the final leg of Philip and Elizabeth’s journey with the feeling of a subdued tragedy recollected in tranquility — one recalled not with searing anger, but something like a world-weary Chekhovian shrug: “Well, what can you do?” The train becomes a plane, the plane becomes a car, the roads stretch out into the distance, day becomes night, and suddenly there they are, looking out at a skyline that has been an ideological abstraction to them for decades, even as they fought and killed to further its ideals — ideals that are being amended or rolled back as the Cold War lumbers into its final phase. What to make of any of this? What was it all for? They gave the job everything they had, and the reward was giving up the only pure thing in their lives, their relationship with their son and daughter. It’s so sad you have to laugh. And even at the end, Elizabeth and Philip are half-in and half-out, speaking English and Russian, looking at their new home, which used to be their old home, and thinking about the old home that once was new.
“Feels strange,” he says in English.
“We’ll get used to it,” she says in Russian.