I was thinking about doing an Over and Out wrap-up of series finales from 2018, but I noticed most shows that ended last year were canceled, so even though their last episodes exist as de facto series finales, none of them embodied the true spirit of these columns. That is, of course, except for The Americans,a show that ended on such a bittersweet and pitch-perfect note that delegating it to a mere spot on a list of lesser shows would have felt like a cheat. So, instead, I’m going to spend a little bit more time in the middle of a Cold War I have grown to love.
Joe Weisberg and Joe Fields’s ’80s-set game of KGB and FBI cat-and-mouse premiered on FX in 2013, a year when I had no cable and bothered to watch only shows I sought out for myself. And, for some reason, I ignored it. It was made by a network I trusted, and it featured actors I loved, but at the time, I felt too bogged down by all of the other shows I was watching to commit myself to something new. I tried starting it a few years ago but never got into the swing of it and dropped off after three episodes, more because of my own lack of attention span than the sheer quality of what was in front of me. And by the time the buzz around the show was near-deafening in its penultimate season, I just couldn’t imagine catching up to watch the end of the series week by week. So I intentionally waited to pick the show back up until it ended in May 2018 so I could barrel through the series in as short a period as possible. And I am so glad I did.
Despite how explosive and heart-pounding the show often was, the creators understood the true journey we cared about was the Jenningses fighting to stay together . . .
What truly fascinates me about the show’s final episode, “Start,” is how restrained it all is. Despite how explosive and heart-pounding the show often was, the creators understood the true journey we cared about was the Jenningses fighting to stay together and finding some sort of happiness despite the often insurmountable odds rooting against them. The crux of the show wasn’t the geopolitical fate of the world that Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) were so cavalierly toying with across its whole run, but instead it was the fate of their marriage, arranged back in Mother Russia decades earlier, only to be truly built in the heart of a country they were both bred to despise.
The Americans’ true crowning achievement was its utter dedication to crafting fully three-dimensional characters. This is never more true than in “Start” when we’re given quiet moments with nearly all of the major players we’ve spent so long rooting for. Instead of going out in a blaze of gunfire, as a lesser show might have, the curtain is pulled back on each of their hopes, dreams, and insecurities. When Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) confronts Elizabeth, Paige (Holly Taylor), and Philip with the knowledge that they’re the people he’s been chasing after all of these years, your heart breaks for him—even though you’ve been hoping without hope the whole time that he would fail. And in Philip’s emotional admission that, despite all of it, Stan was his only real friend in a life that was essentially a sham, you recognize this man of a million masks and wigs and lies means every word of it, even as he still lies to the face of the man who has caught him.
And that heartbreak continues as the episode hurtles toward its final scene, a montage of silent meetings set to U2’s “With or Without You,” a song I’d normally hate but that fits into this moment in a way no other song could. From the silent collapse of Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) in the corner of his FBI cell, to his father delivering the news to his wife that he would likely not be coming home for a long time, to Stan telling Henry who his parents really are . . . You didn’t have to hear what was happening in each of these scenes to know what these characters were thinking and feeling because the show had done so much across its six years to help you get to know them.
None of these moments struck me quite as hard, though, as when the music fades and the sheriffs board the train Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige are taking in their attempts to flee the country. The tension ratchets back up to eleven because, even though no one speaks a word, you’re forced to wonder if they’ll even be able to escape after all they’ve already left behind. And when the sheriffs pass by, leaving the train, you’re given a false sense of security, only for Elizabeth and Philip to realize Paige has gotten off the train and won’t be coming back to Russia with them. The song creeps back in, and the montage continues, showing us again and again how much everyone has had to sacrifice in the name of this family.
I could spend another thousand words describing everything that has happened in this episode, but I’ll spare you that. I’m certainly not the only person who will ever gush to you about how incredible The Americans was, but two other moments floored me nearly as much as the montage, and I think they each work as a testament to the show’s mission and its main duo. The first comes before “With or Without You,” as Philip is leaving McDonald’s with a final American meal for his fake American family. He stops at the door, noticing another family in the corner of his eyes. They’re young, they have a son and daughter, and they represent to him something he always wanted but could never achieve. And with that final thought, he continues fleeing the country.
The second moment doesn’t come until the very last scene of the episode, as Elizabeth and Philip are finally back in their country together for the first time ever as a married couple. They contemplate whether it was all worth it and reminisce about their recruitment into the KGB. Elizabeth takes this time to imagine what life would have been like for them if they’d never left: a job in a factory, a chance meeting on a bus. And you can just see in her face how beautiful that sounds, and you can hear in her voice how much she loves this country she gave up everything to protect. And in the middle of their conversation, she switches back to their maiden language after Philip initiates their conversation in English, showing us that even now, after everything, the gulf between them still exists. But, The Americans shows us, that’s OK. Their family will push forward into the next phase of their lives: the children will grow up, and Philip and Elizabeth will live out their glory days in a place that has become alien to them.