January 30, 2013. The pilot for The Americans debuted. I watched it more out of curiosity than anything. It looked interesting enough. It was set in the 80’s, and being a child of that decade, I was intrigued. The reviews were good, and the premise of Russian spies embedded in America was tantalizing.
One thing undercuts my enthusiasm. The casting of Keri Russell. I had always thought of her as a mid-level actor. Charming for sure, but flexible enough to play a hard-ass spy? This ball of sunshine? Nah. Come on. No way.
Was I ever wrong?
The show’s many virtues were immediate and unmissable. A pitch-perfect sense of time and place, excellent writing, a stellar cast, and a commitment to realism. Hell, if I’m being honest, when the first notes of Quarterflash’s Harden My Heart burst forth, I was all in. Sometimes it’s the little things.
More than anything though, there was the revelation of Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. She was hard, driven, unsentimental. Nearly all the sweetness drained from her face and replaced by a steely-eyed intensity. IMDB lists Russell as 5 feet 4, and she’s always been a slip of a woman, but on The Americans, she was fierce, forceful, and frightening. A 64-inch giant.
Her performance over these six seasons has been nothing short of revelatory. In its way, her performance was impactful on a Mark Wahlberg/Boogie Nights level. In which all that came before was rendered null, if not void. I had no idea Wahlberg could be Dirk Diggler. I also did not know Keri Russell could be Elizabeth Jennings. New light through old windows.
How gratifying it is to say that the rest of the show was up to her standard. Matthew Rhys as husband Philip did not make as strong an impression out of the box, but my, was he ever a grower. The (slightly) softer of the two leads, his internal conflict deepened over time. While Elizabeth was completely sure of the mission, Philip was full of uncertainty. The cold fire of Elizabeth was met by Philip’s wounded regret.
One of the few “only on TV” indulgences the show allowed itself was that of the FBI agent next door. A conceit that should have proved faulty turned out to be anything but. Noah Emmerich’s sad, haunted Stan persevered past contrivance and became a real friend to the Jennings’. Even if at times it required him to look as dense as a post.
The show did struggle some with the Jennings’ kids. Holly Taylor as daughter Paige has a dalliance with Christianity that became tedious, but once her parents revealed their second life as Russian spies, and she decided to enter that life herself, her character found purpose.
I’m not sure the same could be said of son, Henry, played by Keidrich Selatti. The show never quite figured out what to do with him. It became almost comical how often Henry was “at a friend’s house”, or “upstairs”. Eventually, the show shipped him off to private school, where he would literally phone in half his performance.
Which is why I was astounded by how much emotion was packed into the finale, particularly around the farewell scene from a cold pay phone to Henry’s dorm. Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige know exactly what they are doing. They are saying goodbye without speaking the word. Henry has no idea. He thinks his dad is probably drunk. Somehow, all those years of Henry being an innocent bystander – almost an afterthought – took on new meaning as we, the viewer, realized what Henry was. Collateral damage.
Such was the wonder of the last episode of The Americans. It’s quite possible that the last season of The Americans was its best. It is just as possible that the final hour of the show was also its finest.
Of the six seasons The Americans was on the air, season five was probably its weakest. For the first time, the show lacked momentum. It wasn’t bad, per se, just sluggish. However, it’s final year was altogether something else.
The showrunners took the brave choice to make the final year the most forlorn of the series. It was muted and grey. Every scene was steeped in gloom. Aside from the occasional outburst, the final year of The Americans was its quietest. For Philip, who had effectively retired from the spy game, he had to deal with the seething, constant, barely below the surface resentment of the still active Elizabeth, his failure at running the travel agency that had served as their cover, and the constant questioning of whether this life was worth it.
In many ways, this final year belonged to Philip. Bruce Springsteen once sang in the song Brilliant Disguise, “God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of”. Philip was that man. Disillusioned by his country of origin and the deeds they had asked him to perform. All but estranged from his children. Henry by geography, and Paige who had chosen her mother’s path. Worst of all, his marriage to Elizabeth which was once arranged, then connected to love, had become bitter and terribly strained. He was losing everything and nothing all at once. The people he cared most about were still near in a sense, but far from him in all the ways that mattered most.
And that’s before things got really bad.
After five years of playing the heel, Stan finally began to catch on to the spies next door. A painful discovery that left Stan feeling foolish and feckless. The scene where he confronts Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige is full of masterful acting and deep heartbreak. I’m not sure a real FBI agent would have made the choice Stan made. In fact, I’m pretty sure they would not have. Great writing and acting can make you forget such things though. Accept them even.
As Stan calls Philip out on all his lies, he finds he still can’t hate him. For his part, while Philip essentially comes clean, it’s impossible to tell how much of what he’s saying to Stan is sincere, or simply sincere sounding words meant to extricate the Jennings’ from an impossible situation. I’m not even sure if Philip knows.
“I wish you had stayed with me in EST, Stan”, may be the most unlikely sentence in a spy thriller ever. Perhaps the saddest too.
As the Jennings go on the lamb, into Canada, and then back to Mother Russia, the finale reaches its peak on a train bound to the Canadian airport and then to a home they no longer know or understand.
The moment is tense as can be. The porters on the cars are looking out for two fugitives. The Jennings’ are in disguise, but will it hold? First up is Philip. His grey wig and mustache are just enough to avert a second look. Next is Elizabeth. Her wig is done up in short, sloppy ringlets. Her large glasses being the only other effect. She passes too. Although the porter’s second glance feels dicier.
But what of Paige? We soon find out as the soundtrack reaches the crescendo of U2’s With Or Without You and has it double, then triple over itself as we see Paige outside the train, on the stop, watching her parents roll away. It is an astounding sequence.
Philip and Elizabeth make it back to Russia, with only each other for comfort. Their exhaustion turns into acceptance. They are now strangers in the land of their birth. That which they have fought for they barely recognize. Philip asks the driver to stop. He wakes Elizabeth. They step out and walk over to a bridge overlooking a body of water lit by city lights.
“It feels strange”, Philip says.
“We’ll get used to it”, Elizabeth replies.
Fade to black.