When it was announced near the end of its fourth season that The Americans would go out on its own terms after its sixth season, I felt a mixture of emotions. While I was glad that Joe Weisburg and Joel Fields would get to tell the story they wanted to tell, I also wasn’t convinced the show had enough road to travel during its announced 23-episode final arc. Now, at the end of season five, how do I feel?
Well, for starters, if any show earned the right to call its own shot in this manner, it’s The Americans. It’s been in my Top 10 list each year since its debut, and has aged like a fine, cold war-inspired wine ever since. It’s a testament to how smartly the show has squeezed the Jennings family into a corner over those four seasons that I thought the show had reached its final act. It was like a game of chess in which players don’t realize the impact of certain moves until much later in the game. Elizabeth and Philip are not where they thought they would be at this point, but where they are feels like a logical extension of the choices made both by and for them.
My concern was that the show would pull a Justified and have a fifth season that felt like a 13-episode placeholder to get to the good stuff rather than a season that needed to set the table for the endgame. Justified is one of my very favorite shows of this decade, but that fifth season was a slog to get through. The Americans at times this season moved at the speed of continental drift, but its overall theme of entropy actually suited the overall pace and tone of this incredibly melancholy season.
If the show seemed to be repeating storylines of past seasons, well, that felt intentional: Not only were Elizabeth and Philip running missions that felt eerily similar to previous ones, but so too was Stan Beeman, whose work mining a new Russian source felt like Nina Krivola Part II: Electric Boogaloo. The point wasn’t that Weisberg and Fields had run out of spy stories to tell. The point was that the weight of this type of repetition had worn down these individuals to the extent that getting out of the game felt like survival rather than vocational preference.
If you felt that type of repetition made this season feel at times redundant, I won’t try and convince you otherwise. It’s an interesting choice that would not have worked for everyone, and at times, didn’t always work for me. Having come to the end of the season, that theme of entropy becomes much clearer. What kept me going when the show seemed to be slightly stumbling were the consistently amazing performances of Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, who helped sell the weight on their respective shoulders even when their byzantine lives required a flow chart maintained by a madman.
Straight up confession time: If you strapped me to a polygraph, and asked me if I understood every single mission, countermission, and long con at play this season, you would see the lie when I answered, “Absolutely.” But I don’t watch the show for the specifics. For one thing, the show itself usually explains what’s going on eventually. For another, I understand what’s at stake for the individuals even if I don’t always understand the geopolitical implications of what they are doing. The early-season storyline about potential crop sabotage made about as much sense as schematics for a skyscraper to me, but I understood why it made the Jennings upset. I gave up trying to figure out if Stan’s Girlfriend Who Is Totally A Spy But Maybe Not was indeed a spy about halfway through the season because it made my head hurt. But it was fascinating to see Philip’s paranoia mixed with regret over Martha’s current status. The show knows how to put relevant hooks into complex machinations, which is why it’s worth working through some of its more opaque episodes.
(Also, after this finale, even Stan knows what’s up, right? RIGHT???)
Holly Taylor was her usual stellar self this season, and watching Paige turn into her mother’s daughter was a fascinating progression. Just watch the small smile on Paige’s face during tonight’s finale after her mother delivers a solid thwack to her face during self-defense. The show is, among many things, a nature/nurture debate in which both parents see which child turns into themselves. Philip has always wanted their time in America to help provide his kids the freedom of choice he never had. But Elizabeth constantly reminds him that those choices are illusions given their circumstances. In the pilot, Philip dances in cowboy boots for Paige to the tune of Juice Newton’s “Queen Of Hearts.” In the season five finale, Elizabeth is delivering Paige a beatdown in their empty garage. Both parents are trying to protect their daughter. Who is right?
One of the best parts of season five was the solidification of the Jennings’ marriage, not just in terms of the beautiful, impromptu ceremony late in the season but also in their concern for the each other’s sanity. Whereas they could previously throw themselves into covers that required them to seduce marks without emotional consequence, now they truly feel that they are cheating on the other when they do so. It’s another example of how seemingly repetitious plots have been smart variations that demonstrate how different these people are at this stage of their mission. I was relieved that Philip didn’t throw that recording in the ocean in tonight’s finale. I wasn’t happy that it would make his life more difficult, but to do it without Elizabeth’s input would have undone all the work this season did in bringing them closer together than ever.
That bond is what makes The Americans work. Immanuel Kant once created the concept of a “realm of ends,” a thought experiment in which people treated each other in order to achieve their well-being rather than means to an end. In the late 20th century, philosopher Stanley Cavell picked up on this idea and added a caveat: Such a utopia was possible, but entry to it alone was impossible. Cavell framed this in terms of marriage, and cited countless films of the 1930’s and 1940’s in a genre he dubbed “the comedy of remarriage.”
Now, no one would mistake The Americans for a comedy (although Stan’s joke about Mail Robot was incredible), but it’s not impossible to imagine Weisberg and Fields at least coming to the same conclusion as Cavell independently when viewing tonight’s finale. You can see it in the way that the Jennings lean on each other in the final scene, in the urgency with which Elizabeth urges Tuan to ask for a partner to help with future spywork, the way Martha cries at realizing she might soon be a mother, and the desperate way Stan wants to believe Renee is the answer to all his problems. The world is hard enough alone. But with someone else at your side? It’s at least bearable on the worst days, and occasionally great on the good ones.
Sadly, the worst days for most of these characters seems likely in the final, shortened, 10-episode season. I honestly don’t know what The Americans has in mind for its final run next season. I don’t know if I want the Jennings to escape unharmed, if I want Paige to throat-punch Stan, Mail Robot to become sentient and form SkyNet, or if I want Henry to be revealed as the combination of Bobby Fischer, Albert Einstein, and David Cassidy. Ostensibly, Stan realizes what his neighbors have been up to all along. But I’m not sure The Americans is the kind of show that will pay off its pilot in the finale in such an obvious way. Does the show NEED the Jennings and Beemans to come to an overt conflict in order to pay things off? At this point, I’d say no: Given the incredibly quiet nature of tonight’s finale, this isn’t the kind of show to end on a rain-soaked, rooftop showdown between its primary players. There is little tidy about the world of The Americans, and while I feel more strongly than ever that the show will end on a high note, I also don’t think it will adhere to longform narrative norms as it approaches the finish line.
But that’s for another time and day to discuss. It’s a shame more people haven’t been able to watch its greatness as its unfolded, but it’s a show that will hopefully have a shelf life as people continually find this show on their own terms. It’s an all-timer, and I can’t wait to see how it ends next year.