This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 13
Despite being one of the best dramas on television, The Americans has always struggled in the season finale department.
Season one’s finale was so aimless and anticlimactic that it kept me from joining in on the “best drama on TV” critical dogpile until season two finally washed the bad taste out of my mouth. Season two’s finale was technically an improvement in the sense that where was a concrete resolution but some unfortunate child acting kept it from greatness. Last year’s was actually pretty great though still a marginal step down from the season itself.
On paper, the season finale of this fantastic fourth season, titled “Persona Non Grata,” seems like it would fit in with its underwhelming brethren. It in several instances commits the one mortal sin of season finales when it becomes much more concerned with the future than it is the present. Sure, season finales should set up the next season but they also shouldn’t feel like a below average Marvel movie: introducing some characters and/or Infinity Gems to fill out the next team-up movie’s roster.
Two of the biggest questions “Persona Non Grata” raises go unanswered. Philip and Elizabeth are faced with the impossible decision of whether they should abandon their lives in American and relocate their children to Russia Gabriel now that William is in the hands of the FBI. Philip’s Russian son, Mischa, proudly announces his intentions to head to American and find his father, the travel agent. By episode’s end Philip and Elizabeth haven’t made their decision and Mischa hasn’t put all of his fraudulent passports and international currency to good use.
The lack of resolution should be frustrating and it should be the mark of a bad finale. But it’s not. “Persona Non Grata” is a fantastic, near-perfect finale. Partly because of the sheer emotional devastation it’s capable of wreaking and partly because of that lack of resolution.
The lack of resolution in Philip and Elizabeth’s decision-making process and the lack of resolution in Mischa’s trip to America shrewdly work in the episode’s favor. In Philip and Elizabeth’s case, their inability to make a quick decision is not only rational but puts the audience directly in the room with them as they meekly look out the window to see Stan has come home.
Oh great. Stan’s home. Maybe William didn’t give up our identities after all, though they can never truly now. And now we must sit with them for almost a year as they turn over the possibilities in their head. Sure, we’ll have chores to keep us occupied until (likely) March of 2017 but one day while we’re bagging groceries our minds will snap back to Philip and Elizabeth sitting in their home on January 22, 1984*, wondering if they should leave their entire lives behind.
As for Mischa? “Persona Non Grata” leaves his story right where it should, on the precipice of the biggest journey of his life. We should have seen his involvement eventually coming especially since earlier in the season Gabriel told Philip that his son survived the Afghan War. Still, when Mischa first appears onscreen, it’s actually unclear who he is and for a moment I thought we might be in a flashback to Philip’s childhood.
This season did open with a flashback to Philip’s young life in Russia. In some ways, Mischa is a flashback to the elder Mischa’s childhood in Russia. After a discussion with Paige, Elizabeth tells Philip: “I told Paige a little bit about Smolensk. Do you ever wonder what it looks like now? It could be totally different.” To which Philip replies: “Probably not that much.”
It appears Philip is right. Not much has changed in the homeland. Mischa spends time in a mental institution for the thought crime of saying maybe the war in Afghanistan was a dumb idea. Then his “reward” for being Philip’s son is to get to return to the most miserable looking home in Smolensk.
Young Mischa is immediately sympathetic and immediately fascinating not just because the character is well defined early on but also because we will soon get to witness the emotional journal of a Mischa looking for a new life in America again.
Enough about the future and how “Persona Non Grata” gets it right. “Persona Non Grata” also nails the present at hand because it’s one of the most unexpectedly, staggeringly emotional episodes of the series.
The lion’s share of the credit for “Persona Non Grata’s” emotional resonance goes to everyone’s favorite cranky Russian asshole William. Dylan Baker has had quite the career as an anonymous-ish character actor. His years of experience showed in his deft creation of William all season. William was cranky but not monstrous; difficult but rational. In “Persona Non Grata,” however, Dylan Baker just flat out acts his dick off.
The episode begins with the FBI’s low-speed pursuit of William as he heads to drop off the super virus to Philip in the park. William figures out he’s being followed and diverts his path then infects himself with the virus so that the FBI must take him to a hospital with a biocontainment facility as soon as possible.
The subsequent scenes of Stan and Aderholt witnessing William’s slow death at the hands of an evil virus their country harbored are amazing…just absolutely amazing. William, as his insides turn to mush and begin to leak out of him somehow communicates everything that is perfect about this show.
William is dying for his country like all good little martyrs want to do. He can’t escape the irony, however, that after a lifetime spent alone he finally gets to die in someone else’s company only it’s the enemy as they look down upon him like American Gods who can only offer him Cokes.
I listened closely to everything William said because they were perfect. The lines, the delivery, everything. I wrote down William’s final conversations like they were scripture because in a way they were. Most final words from well-spoken assholes are.
“After so many years in your country as your unwelcome guest, there is no one,” he says about who the FBI can call for him. Then when Stan and Aderholt ask him what working undercover was like he says “It was exciting at first. Like all new things. I was committed to something. And I was invisible…to everyone. It made me feel special like I was a star in my very own movie. Then what made me special became a curse. I was lonely…very lonely. The absence of closeness makes you dry inside.”
The absence of closeness makes you dry inside. Unbeknownst to William in his final moments, there is a lot more than loneliness that makes you dry inside. The look on Elizabeth’s face as she watches Paige strategically work out when the best time to see Alice and her new baby show this. Elizabeth isn’t lonely and her big fat prize for not being lonely is to get to watch as her little girl turns into someone who has to carefully calibrate and plan her every social interaction.
Philip also isn’t lonely. Philip has a family, a family that might actually be getting bigger soon unbeknownst to him. Still, there’s a part of him missing, as he reveals at an EST meeting.
“You choose a job before you really know you’ll like it,” Philip says. “One day you wake up and you don’t want to go to the office. Every morning I wake up with this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
The last thing William says before he dies is ““They wanted me married. I tried. We were fighting. I wish I could have been with her for all these years. Like them. Couple kids. American dream. Never suspect them. She’s pretty. He’s lucky.”
She’s pretty and he’s lucky. That doesn’t mean he’s happy.
Neither are Arkady or Tatiana or Oleg or Stan or anyone else involved in this nuclear dance. Agent Wolfe presents Arkady with the evidence that he planting a listening device in the FBI office and gives him 48 hours to leave the country. In response, Arkady can only sip whisky (probably American whisky) alone in his office while he looks in in anger at a bust of Lenin. Oleg turns down the opportunity to stay with Tatiana in the U.S. and eventually join her in Kenya because his mother needs him back home. “You’re a good son,” both Tatiana and Arkady tell him independently of each other.
All season, The Americans has shown that Philip and Elizabeth’s best assets are each other and the trust they share. Since they’ve brought Paige into the fold as well, their family unit has never been stronger and they’ve never seemed more indestructible.
The genius of The Americans is that in the heartbreaking final moments of a relatively minor character, it subverts all of that. William never had anyone. He could never make his relationships work. The price he paid for that was his own misery. The price Philip and Elizabeth may soon have to pay for loving each other and their own children could end up being the exact same.
*The Americans always finds cool ways to let us know what date it is. This time around is Super Bowl XVIII where the L.A. Raiders smashed the Washington Re…Racist Team Names 38-9.