This The Americansreview contains spoilers
The Americans Season 6 Episode 10
If you want purpose, you have to pay for it.
We all want purpose. That’s what this whole art thing is about. Art is what happens when a bunch of frightened animals who happen to have enlarged frontal cortexes are let loose on a lush rock in an infinite lonely universe and told to just figure that shit out.
Mikhail and Nadezhda were just two kids from Russia trying to figure that shit out like the rest of us. They wanted purpose. Theirs was a hard life: war, famine…more war, more famine. So instead of working in a factory or dying on the arid plains of Afghanistan like the rest of their comrades, they looked somewhere else for purpose.
They found that purpose, like so many others have, in the New World. The home of the free, the brave, the Big Mac, the bold, the baseball: America.
It wouldn’t be an easy life. The Colonel whose name Mikhail can no longer even remember told him as much. But that didn’t matter. Because when purpose and destiny are out there for the taking, you take it. That’s what all the artists say.
Mikhail and Nadezhda became Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. They found their purpose. In The Americans series finale, “START,” they pay for it.
“START” is a perfect ending to an imperfect final season of a great show. All of the moments we knew that would come since the pilot six years ago finally come in “START,” and they arrive in satisfying, brutally sad ways. The story of Mikhail and Nadezhda ends the only way it ever could: with those two idealistic Russian kids coming home to something that’s no longer a home.
This is understandably the longest episode ofThe Americans run yet but the journey its key characters embark on is refreshingly simple: Safe House – College – Parking Garage – McDonalds – Train – Moscow.
That’s it. That’s all that this finale has to geographically cover. Because within those sparse few locations, the sad conclusion to the Jennings’ family can be told in its devastating entirety.
The safe house and Paige’s college provide the emotional stakes for the finale. Henry Jennings has long been one of the least essential characters on The Americans. In that respect he fits perfectly into one of modern TV dramas’ favorite memes: the useless sons. When shows want to depict the every day American family, that has somehow always meant a richly-realized mother and father, capable oldest daughter to depict changing cultural mores surrounding gender, and then an A.J. Soprano. Henry Jennings, Chris Brody (Homeland), and Bobby Draper (Mad Men) have all represented a certain cultural archetype rather than actual human beings and perhaps that’s to be expected. It’s difficult to find young actors who can keep up with the brutal emotional and dramatic demands of capturing what boyhood in a family experiencing something massive is like.
“START” in some ways keeps Henry as more of a cultural symbol than a human being. But the thing he symbolizes is enormous. Henry’s very presence, just as a voice on the other end of a telephone, is the finale’s emotional atom bomb. Philip and Elizabeth have been lying to themselves for years. The very moment they told Paige their secret and then let Henry go off to a private high school without telling him the same secret is the moment they lost everything. This was always going to end for them, and sooner rather than later. They correctly surmised that Henry wasn’t ready to hear the truth about his family. That also meant they were committing to leaving him behind.
Philip brings it up first after Elizabeth lays out the plan to pick up Paige from college, then get Henry from New Hampshire and make a break for the Canadian border.
“He belongs here,” Philip says.
Elizabeth argues back and forth with Philip for a moment and then lets out an Emmy-winning sound halfway between a gasp and a sob. That sob is the realization of everything. The realization that they accidentally raised an American. The realization that she’s going to never see her only son ever again. The realization that she should have realized this a very long time ago…like Philip clearly did.
This is an impossible, absurd situation. It’s an impossible, absurd price to pay. It’s the kind of ironic twist of fate that leads to Philip saying with a straight face “This is hard for us. We all love Henry,” as though he’s telling his daughter that Rufus’ hip dysplasia has gotten too bad and he needs to be put down rather than the fact that she has to leave her brother behind and flee the country. But what else can he say? This is the cost. This is happening.
There is a large portion The Americans’ audience who now wants to see Philip and Elizabeth (particularly Elizabeth) receive their comeuppance for their crimes, though calling this level of embedded espionage and betrayal makes the term “crime” seem somehow both quaint and extreme. There’s no accurate word for the totality of what Elizabeth and Philip has done. And there’s no accurate word for the consequences. Still, irony and fate still conspire to come up with something far more devastating than Uncle Sam could pull off at a CIA black site.
Henry Jennings has improbably become The Americans’ emotional core at the very end. And as if redeeming one little thought of loose friend weren’t enough – here comes EST! Question: your FBI agent best friend has figured out you’re a Russian spy and has a gun raised at your head. Do you:
A. Beg for your life
B. Make a run for it.
C. Remind him of the time you spent at Erhard Seminars Training so he’ll understand that the right thing to do is whatever he wants to do because you trust that what he really wants to do is let you go so you can warn your government that the KGB is compromised and let the nuclear arms summit go forward as planned, ending the Cold War and ushering in an era of peace not seen yet in this century.
D. None of the above
If you’re Philip Jennings the answer is “C.” In a conference call with journalists Friday, The Americans creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg said that Stan’s confrontation with Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige in the parking garage was the scene from the series they spent the most time writing. They would write, rewrite, step away for weeks, and come back and rewrite. In many ways, this is the scene that the entire series hinges upon. It’s ripe for melodrama – the very thing that The Americans does its best to avoid. Thankfully Weisberg and Fields’ work pays off.
It’s so satisfying to see Stan come up with questions that the Jennings finally don’t have the answers to. “Both your parents came to pick you up?” “You’re feeling sick? What’s wrong?” “You’re going home from college for a stomach ache?” “Where’s their car, Paige?” “So what happens if I call in this plate?” No one wants to see Philip and Elizabeth go down easy. They’ve tried so hard for so long. They’re Olympic-level lying athletes. Finally they’ve come to a place where the lies no longer work. So they try something radical: the truth.
“We had a job to do….we had a job to do.”
A parking garage below a state college is among the least cinematic places the show could have staged this final, crucial confrontation. That’s why it works. Stan discovers Philip and Elizabeth’s treachery the honest way. He puts in the damn work. He follows his intuition, he makes some phone calls, and then he correctly surmises where they’re going next. It wouldn’t be right for this to happen on a bridge, during a stormy night. Elizabeth and Philip’s whole life was spent in the shadows and now it has to unravel in a basement lit by cheap, artificial light.
“I kept doing it,” Philip tells Stan. “Telling myself it was important. Until I couldn’t anymore and I stopped. It was all just screwing people for…I don’t even know for what. So I quit like she said, like you did. I’m just a travel agent now. A shitty one. Except for now because I need to leave if I can. I have to run away from the only place I’ve known for the past..so many years. Stan, I have to abandon my son. He can’t come with us because I got caught. I finally got caught.”
This is the story of Mikhail and Nadezhda, the purpose they found, and the price they paid. It’s also the story of Stan Beeman – the tall, sturdy blond, American poster boy who almost had no choice but to join the FBI and save the world. With that hardened face, subtle nervous tics, and firm handshake his purpose was to always be a hero. So he followed that purpose and it cost him his wife, his partner, and arguably his son.
It doesn’t have to keep costing him. EST has always been a corny little side quest for Philip that his wife and friend like to needle him about. Here, however, it’s clear that Stan has internalized at least one lesson: be you. Stan was cast in the role as Captain America, defender of liberty when all he really wanted was a friend. Philip, Nina, Oleg – Stan has had a surprisingly easy time choosing friends over country when his job is to do the precise opposite. He does it again here and lets them go. In return he pays for this decision too as Philip tells him Renee may be a spy. No good deed…
On that same conference call Fields said they went through hundreds of songs to find the right one to score the show’s final montage. Settling on U2’s “With or Without You” was the right choice. Bono, The Edge, and the rest of the lovable lads from Liverpool follow Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige to pick up new passports, to a McDonald’s on the side of the highway, and finally to a train that will take them to Canada. This song has been alive for 30 years and has been featured in countless different ways but Bono’s “Woooah ohhh ohhh ohhhs” have been waiting for the moment that Paige leaves that train.
Paige has finally made her choice just like her parents did all those years ago. This time around, however, she’s made the Stan choice. She’s chosen people over country. Henry is her purpose. Someone has to watch him become a hockey superstar.
At the end of The Americans, nobody is home. Oleg’s family is missing a father, son, and husband (though maybe with Gorbachev firmly installed the U.S.S.R. can swing a trade). Henry and Paige don’t have a mother and father. Stan cannot trust the woman lying in bed next to him. Philip and Elizabeth don’t have a country.
Those two Russian kids wanted a purpose and were cursed enough to find one. After Elizabeth and Philip have lost Paige, Elizabeth dreams a strange dream. She’s in bed with Gregory (hey Derek Luke!), smoking a cigarette while she’s pregnant because she “(doesn’t) want a kid anyway.” She glances around the room at the abstract art. Then the art transform into Erica’s tortured graphite. There’s the woman with the pained face staring back at her. A photograph of her family adopts the same black and white shades.
Art was never more than a political tool for Elizabeth until she met a person brave enough to tell her the truth about it. Art is everything and nothing. It’ll let you see the world just clear enough to give you a purpose. And then when it’s time to die, it will let you know that you had the purpose wrong in the first place. All Erica wanted when the time for her came was more time. Time with her family “doing whatever.” Philip and Elizabeth don’t have that time with the Jennings anymore. It’s only Mikhail and Nadezhda now. And maybe Nadezhda should have just painted.
The Americans ends as a show without an era. It’s wedged somewhere between the “prestige” age in which television asserted itself a medium that can produce enduring cultural touchstones and this current time of Peak TV where there are so many options it feels impossible that one could reasonably be called “essential.”
What do we make of it then in the long run? I’m not sure it matters. Maybe it’s an essential part of the TV canon. Maybe it will fall between the cracks in our brains as infinite content demands more space.
It just had a job to do and it did it. And it concludes that job perfectly. The Americans ends exactly as it was always meant to: with two Americans, who have nothing left but each other, gazing out over an alien Moscow skyline.