After six seasons, The Americans, one of the most underrated shows on television, closed out the series. I only starting following this show a few years ago, getting hooked at the frenetic, albeit sloppy first episode while the song Tusk played in the background. At first glance, the show is about espionage, but there are several things that have always fascinated me about this show. Sure, the spy games were usually realistic, but the most interesting part of this show was the dynamics between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as a married couple, working together as spies, while running a legitimate travel agency as a cover, and raising their two children.
The writers have said that ultimately The Americans was about a married couple and that the spying business was just a tool they used to show the ebb and flow of that marriage. Their missions, their goals as spies were mirror images of what was truly happening to this husband and wife, who were sometimes at crossroads with each other.
Of the two, Elizabeth Jennings was the dominant partner, the surer half of the couple, who was more ardent of her convictions as a Russian spy doing her duty. Whereas Philip was more pragmatic, perhaps more practical, or some may even say less resolute in his ideology as a Russian. He once asked an incredulous Elizabeth what was wrong living in America where there were food and electricity. This simple question shocked Elizabeth, highlighting the increasingly divisive path they were taking. Of the two, Philip was the “softer,” even kinder one, and definitely more forgiving. For instance, even when Elizabeth continued to heap her frustrations on him (some earned, some not), Philip told Father Andrei in the penultimate episode that Elizabeth “cares about the whole world.” There was a certain sensitivity to Philip that allowed him to understand his spouse’s rigid convictions. Elizabeth’s unbendable loyalties made it difficult for her to understand not just her husband but also her American children, which was part of her tragedy.
In spite of who they were and what they were doing, I liked the Jennings. I often had to remind myself that Elizabeth and Philip were the “bad guys” (at least in the context of my upbringing in the middle of the Cold War) therefore I had to stop rooting for them. But I couldn’t help it. That’s the thing about anti-heroes that while you like them, and even root for them, a part of you (the viewer) is still repulsed by some of their actions. Even when I knew that they would eventually “lose” the war, I found myself wanting our Russian spies to win, although I wasn’t quite sure what kind of “winning” I wanted to happen.
The series finale was a pitch-perfect ending to this series. The confrontation between Stan and the Jennings (minus Henry) could easily have been melodramatic. Yet, it was written with the echoes of betrayal, rage, and also regret, and pain. The scene between Stan and Philip was especially touching, fitting for both men who loved each other. I couldn’t help but think that in spite of Philip’s duplicity, his most honest, constant relationship was probably Stan’s. It certainly wasn’t Elizabeth, nor his children’s (especially after the scene with Paige in her apartment in one of the earlier episodes). However, even in that raw confrontation, Philip still lied, so did Elizabeth. It was hard to know whether it was second nature, or a matter of survival for them because even as he was telling Stan who he was, he still didn’t reveal the depth of his misdeeds: “We don’t kill people.” An obvious lie. As if discovering his best friend was a Russian spy wasn’t enough, Philip had to tell Stan that Philip suspected Renee (Stan’s live-in girlfriend) was a spy. I couldn’t tell if there was any malice in Philip revealing his unfounded suspicions, or it was a desperate attempt to save his friend. Regardless, it would further erode Stan’s sense of not just his reality but perhaps his sense of self. Poor Stan. He was another collateral to the damage that the Jennings left in their wake.
I know Keri Russell is a great actress but in the final episode, she took my breath away. From that tiny gasp when she realized Philip was right about Henry, accepting that they had no choice but to leave their son, to the way her eyes filled with tears, and how she walked out of that room defeated, she was beyond amazing. That single gasp contained all her grief, and as a mother, I felt for her.
Then there was the shocking scene of Paige standing on the train platform. As she sees her daughter’s lone figure disappear from sight, the quiver of Kerri’s lips, the small luxury of a tear for a second, then nothing but an empty gaze, showed the stoicism that defined her character throughout these series. It was a swift shifting of emotions in a span of thirty seconds where words were not needed, and Kerri carried that scene in a hauntingly beautiful way.
The ending didn’t tie up everything beautifully and presented it to the views with a bow. It was the opposite, many of the questions remained (such as Renee–is she, isn’t she; Martha, Henry, and Paige, in the destruction that Philip and Elizabeth left behind, how did they survive?) I read once that writers should give people what they need, not what they want. In this case, the writers of the show gave us exactly what we needed. The acts of Philip and Elizabeth in the name of their country were repulsive. The aftermath of their actions left lives destroyed, and extinguished so leaving them with a happy ending was almost anti-thesis of what this show was about because the show has always been actions, reactions, and consequences. Elizabeth and Philip were not going to get away unscathed, their actions for decades was sure to have consequences, especially for them. And boy, did it cost them. Some viewers may find the ending “happy” after all Elizabeth was able to go back to her home country as she wanted. But what happiness was there for Elizabeth and Philip, when their children were gone, when they now lived in a country that was home yet strangely wasn’t? They were still children in so many ways when they left Russia. I cannot imagine that some sort of American sensibility didn’t rub off of them in all those years. I think it was one reason why it was so easy for them to go against the Center, and reveal a coup against Gorbachev because they understood that there was a new era, a chance for their country. Their distance from Russia allowed them some clarity even if they were in the thick of espionage. This ending was perfect as it showed the costs of their own deceit to Elizabeth and Philip, and it was staggering. In spite of everything they did, everything they believed in, and even though they were back in their motherland, they were not truly fully Russians, and certainly they were not Americans. And it cost them everything. Philip and Elizabeth didn’t value much–not their possessions, especially Elizabeth (Philip did to a certain extent), not relationships as their duplicity ensured that they couldn’t create normal relationships, not even with each other. What they valued most was their nationalist ideals, and their children. Those ideals were dead with their betrayal of the Center, and their children were out of their reach. In the end, was it worth it? I don’t think even Elizabeth can say with certainty that it was.