'The Americans' Ends Its Second Season as One of TV's Best Dramas
The murders of Emmett, Leanne, and Amelia Connors have haunted Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings during the spring of 1982 and the second season of The Americans, but their nightmare — their fear of their own children becoming collateral damage in this war — is closer than ever of becoming a reality. But what if it isn’t a nightmare? What if the yearning Paige has felt this season to belong to a cause that is greater than herself actually makes her a good fit for siding with the Soviets? What if Philip and Elizabeth can bring her into the fold and reveal who they truly are and who she might just become? It could be a pipe dream of Elizabeth’s, an idea she was toying with at the conclusion of the stunning Season Two finale, “Echo,” which answered all pertinent questions remaining for the season. But just as the two of them came together and worked all season to keep Paige and Henry safe, the notion of changing the dynamic could split the them apart again.
The “sacrificing for the greater good” theme was beautifully employed in “Echo”; each character that spouted or acted out on behalf of such ideology stood in contrast with the others. Paige was inspired watching Pastor Tim arrested for civil disobedience at the protest rally, revealing to her parents that it’s the behavior of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice that draws her to church. “I wish I could tell her about the real heroes, people sacrificing themselves for this world not some stupid children’s story about heaven,” Elizabeth says to Philip later, surely thinking of Emmett and Leanne and even poor Fred. He was the perfect target for the Centre — a lonely, mostly friendless man looking to belong to something, anything. He could be trusted after all, and he obtained the paint samples Philip and Elizabeth requested he get, but his “heroic” act cost him his life. The tension was built perfectly in this opening sequence as the Jennings waited for Fred’s return and learned of his fate through a mix of updates on the police scanner and a phone call on a pay phone from the dying man. Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone” played as they drove around, finally hearing, “He’s going gray. Get the coroner out here, he’s gone.”
His sacrifice was probably for nothing. Stan wore a wire to his meeting with government officials in the know about the Echo computer program, which is essential in the Soviets’ race to develop stealth technology. They need both the radar-absorbent material and Echo, which determines if stealth aircraft will or won’t be detected by radar, for it to be successful. Fred did his part, but the gamble the Rezidentura made on Stan loving Nina enough to betray his country and provide them with Echo didn’t pay out. Though saying it was a matter of loving Nina “enough” isn’t accurate. Of course Stan loved her, but he’s no idiot. (He’s also on to Martha’s habit of stealing confidential files from the mail robot, or at least he is subconsciously, considering it played a part in his dream.) Surely he suspected Arkady’s promise of Nina’s release in exchange for Echo to be a trap, and that combined with his character and conscience made him realize the betrayal was one he couldn’t make. “Tell Nina I’m sorry,” he said in a letter, and off Nina was sent to Moscow for a trial and possibly an execution. She was silent this episode, accepting her fate with a heartbreaking sadness as the two men who love her, Oleg and Stan, watched her go. It may or may not be the last we see of her, and it’d be beneficial for viewers to learn why she didn’t take the money Oleg gave her and run. Maybe she stayed out of a sense of duty, owning up to her own betrayal and considering her fate just one of the many sacrifices that comes with this life.
Larrick’s journey was less profound (and his tracking skills and ability to appear in various locations quite quickly a tad unbelievable), but he worked as a catalyst for discovering who killed the Connors and why. He was the easy guess, but The Americans had a more disturbing and heartbreaking culprit in mind. Once Philip and Elizabeth learn Larrick is AWOL, they flee to a remote hotel near the cabin where Jared is staying to keep Paige and Henry safe. It isn’t long before Larrick kidnaps Phillip and surprises Elizabeth, visiting Jared, in the woods outside the cabin. But Jared has his own gun. He shoots Larrick, who shoots him back, and Phillip is able to wrestle Larrick and shoot him in the back. It’s too late for Jared, and his pleas to them as he bleeds out recall the desperate phone call from Fred and reveal Jared was more similar to Fred than the Jennings had realized. Both Fred and Jared were manipulated into joining the cause — now we know why Kate met with him out of disguise and why he was willing to go along with the expatriation plan and trust Elizabeth. Jared’s revelations coupled with those given by Claudia later on spell it out: the Centre is interested in second-generation illegals, the kind of agents born to American citizens meaning they are more likely to withstand background checks for infiltrating organizations such as the FBI and CIA. Emmett and Leanne refused to let Jared participate, so Kate was sent to reel him in. It worked. He was convinced he loved her and was likely egged on in this belief by Kate, and his parents’ refusal to accept his entering their line of work was enough to make him snap and kill them. They didn’t understand, Jared tells the Jennings — they didn’t listen. Amelia didn’t deserve such a fate, but it couldn’t be avoided. “What we do, it’s for something greater than ourselves,” Jared said, as blood spilled from his mouth. “Kate always said the work, the cause — that’s what matters.” How easily those sentiments change when they come from a boy who has killed his family in the name of a cause he doesn’t understand and clearly underestimates. There’s nothing heroic about the story of the Connors. There’s only sadness.
Now the Centre wants Paige. “Paige is your daughter, but she’s not just yours,” Claudia tells Philip and Elizabeth. “She belongs to the cause, and to the world. We all do. You haven’t forgotten that, have you?” Philip is adamant that Paige remain innocent of this world, and he risks a public encounter with Arkady to get this point across. Elizabeth, however, begins to waver. “She does need something,” she tells him. “She’s looking for something in her life. What if this is it?” “What?,” Philip says. “How can you even — we swore. We swore we would never … It would destroy her.” “To be like us?,” Elizabeth responds before calling Paige and Henry to dinner. As the family gathers for dinner and Phillip and Elizabeth look at each other across the table, the tableau being painted is clear: The notion that their family life can be kept separate from their work life is gone for good. They’ve struggled with it all season, and their behavior already has Paige suspecting them of lying all the time. That’s what Jared seemed most angry about, that he was lied to by his parents. His whole life was a lie, he said, and why wouldn’t Paige have a similar reaction? And if the Centre was able to get to Jared without his parents’ consent, what’s to stop them from getting to Paige?
The Americans was strong in Season One but came back stronger this season, smartly delivering a story with a clear arc that tied all its plot points together. But now executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have shaken things up again, and in a way most weren’t expecting. Life can be quite dangerous for those who live in lies. They can’t stay safe forever.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.