Back when this final season of The Americans was only halfway through, after five episodes of watching marital resentment between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), after watching their college-age daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) join them in the spy game, after watching Philip struggle with his pursuit of the capitalist American dream and Elizabeth leave a trail of bodies in her wake in her mission to, as always, protect Mother Russia, I didn’t think this could wrap up with everyone alive. I thought maybe Philip would flip on Elizabeth and finally admit everything to best friend, neighbor, and FBI agent Stan (Noah Emmerich). I thought maybe Paige would die, pushing Elizabeth, already so committed to the mission, toward madness. I thought maybe Stan’s girlfriend Renee would end up also being a Russian spy. I was wrong about a lot of those things, and last night’s series finale “START” was a fitting way to end a show that has always kept us guessing.
The Americans isn’t interested in telling stories about the finality of death. Its primary focus is in the whispers and memories and shadows of people that stay behind, of how we mold and reshape ourselves in extreme circumstances as a way to survive and how those who came before us work their way into our minds and our selves. Think of how the specters of certain people have lingered so long after they’re gone: Triple agent Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru), murdered by the KGB after being caught in her feelings for both Stan and my forever boo Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin). Artist Erica Haskard (Miriam Shor), perhaps the only person who really, truly challenged Elizabeth to look inside herself, her inner turmoil and her pain captured in that painting that Elizabeth wanted, and burned, and yet can’t get out of her brain. Civil rights activist Gregory Thomas (Derek Luke), who only appeared in a few episodes but whose relationship with Elizabeth is a continued source of sadness and regret all these years later. And Mischa (Alex Ozerov), the son Philip Jennings didn’t have but Mikhail did, the firstborn he never met and yet whose abandonment is mirrored in how Philip considers leaving Henry (Keidrich Sellati) behind.
Mischa isn’t dead, but he’s cut off from his father all the same, and that forced, unwanted isolation — that combination of knowing and unknowing, of being aware of what happened but having no idea what is going to happen — can be worse. And that is where practically everyone is when “START” ended the series last night. No one is whole. Philip and Elizabeth are gone, back in Russia, back to being Nadezhda and Mischa, back in a country where they haven’t lived in decades and in a society they don’t really understand. Think of when Elizabeth and Philip argued about that Pizza Hut opening in Moscow — they were on different sides of the cultural divide then, and they may still be. What happens to agents whose missions are not only over, but failed? What does Gabriel do? Or Claudia? Are they patriots? Or traitors?
Philip and Elizabeth are together, and that’s always how it was going to be. Think about how often the two of them are paired in “START” — Paige is there too, but the eyes of her parents are always on each other. When they make the decision to leave Henry behind. When they’re confronted by Stan in Paige’s apartment building parking garage, and she’s staring at Stan’s gun, but Elizabeth is staring always at her husband, both in the job and in life. When they throw away their old identities and their American wedding rings, and how Philip looks at Elizabeth when she hands him his real one, from their basement wedding three years before, officiated by the same Father Andrei (Konstantin Lavysh) who tells Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) who they really are. When Paige goes to the bathroom in McDonald’s and Elizabeth and Philip stay behind, still negotiating about who should stay and who should go. When Paige steps off the train and leaves them forever, and how Philip doesn’t chase after his daughter but goes to sit next to his wife. How they lean on each other, finally at rest, in the back of the car Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn) is driving. And their united stand overlooking the Moscow they both recognize and don’t, how Philip can admit, in English, that it “feels strange,” and how Elizabeth counters in Russian that “we’ll get used to it.” They always have, and they’ve always done it together.
There is no better example of this cooperation and collaboration, this partnership at all costs, than that parking garage showdown in Stan. This is what Philip and Elizabeth have been training their whole lives to do — manipulate and obfuscate and empathize and inspire. What Philip is telling Stan isn’t all lies, but it isn’t all truths, either. They were best friends, and Philip and Elizabeth did have a job to do, but they certainly have killed tons of people, and Philip hasn’t thought his mission is “the right thing to do” in a long time, and yet he’s still done it. He still went to Chicago — for Elizabeth. He initially kept up the ruse with Kimberly (Julia Garner) — for Elizabeth. And how he offers himself up to Stan, how he takes control of the conversation and appeals to the one person who has been his closest friend and his most dangerous enemy, is for Elizabeth. Look at how this scene is designed: Philip is shot alone, Stan is shot alone, the two of them locked together, while Elizabeth and Paige are set away. The only time the Jennings reconvene is when Stan steps aside to let them leave, but not before Philip’s final act of friendship and honesty toward Stan is also his most hurtful — telling him his suspicion that Renee (Laurie Holden) may be a Russian spy just like them. “I’m not sure,” Philip says, but the certainty isn’t necessary. The damage is done.
“Nothing to win, and nothing left to lose,” Bono sings in the seminal U2 single “With or Without You,” and although it’s probably the most mainstream song The Americans has ever used, it also couldn’t be more apt for how “START” positions its characters in the end. Stan is left with his career and his relationship thrown into question; he gains a son in Henry, while that son loses his own identity:
Paige is cut off from everyone; the sister who was so worried about what would happen to her brother will probably never see him again. She’s in Claudia’s old safehouse, in the apartment where she discovered new parts of herself, but what will be kept and what will be lost? She was going to be a spy, like her mother, but that dream shattered when she spit at Elizabeth earlier this episode, “He’s not you. None of us are.” If Paige isn’t Elizabeth’s daughter, is she anyone?
I can’t say much about Oleg, because I’ll just cry. But please know that the shot of Oleg’s father walking away from Arkady, with his arms wide open, a man on the brink of collapse, will wreck me forever. “I lost one son in a useless war and now this. What do I tell his mother?” is just soul-crushing.
And so all there is left for Elizabeth and Philip is each other. Character actress Margo Martindale’s Claudia had questioned, with smirking doubt, whether this would be enough for Elizabeth (“What’s left for you now? Your house? Your American kids? Philip?”), but when she imagines what their lives would have been like if they had stayed in Russia instead of being sent to the U.S. as illegals, her suggestion to Philip that “Maybe we would have met — on a bus” is a gesture of goodwill. How she trails off when she says what Philip “might’ve …” done is a kindness, too. She loves him, so she won’t place her expectations on him or her idea who he would have been without her and without this life. But she can offer a future where they end up together, to coalesce with the devastating reality they now share. They’re memories to Paige and Henry now, like how Nina was to Oleg and Stan, how Oleg himself will be for his wife and his father and his mother and son, how Gregory was for Elizabeth. And Elizabeth and Philip and Nadezhda and Mischa will haunt the people they loved, and who loved them, for a long time.