Don’t Dream It’s Over: How ‘The Americans’ Crafted the Perfect Finale

     May 31, 2018


Midway through Season 5 of The Americans, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) told Elizabeth (Keri Russell) “It’s us, Elizabeth. It’s us.” And in the excellent series finale this declaration of unity truly came to pass. A long time ago this was a marriage of convenience, part of their cover. They made it real. Duty to country, duty to family is inextricably linked. The Jennings family only exists because of this operation. But what happens when that operation is over?

Family and the dynamics that exist within this unit have always been the heartbeat of The Americans. It has never been a show to relish in James Bond-like theatrics. The fanciest gadgets boil down to a purse fitted with a camera or a twig with a concealed note. This was never going to be a finale building up to a gun battle. The closest this show came to Mission Impossible was Philip’s break into a Tom Cruise-style sprint in the penultimate episode. The only kind of explosions are emotional truth bombs. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Jennings’ marriage has been the anchor, but in the final season even that has been put to the test. Because Elizabeth has been working solo—after insisting that Philip quit for the sake of his mental wellbeing—the burden has been on her. She told Tuan (Ivan Mok) he couldn’t make it alone, advice she ignored. And speaking of solo, while Paige (Holly Taylor) has been brought into this world, there are just some things she cannot understand, no matter how many Russian movies, historical facts, vodka shots and cooking lessons she takes. When the prospect of going home is thrown at her, Paige makes the decision to stay in the only country she has ever truly known. This is where she belongs.  


Image via FX

Home, like family, is an abstract concept that can’t be boiled down to one definition. The home Philip and Elizabeth have been fighting for looks nothing like the one they left in 1965. An earlier argument this season had them debating about what their people really want. Moscow is going to get a Pizza Hut, and that McDonald’s they stopped at during their ride to “freedom” isn’t the last time they will see the Golden Arches—the first McDonald’s in Russia will open soon after the Berlin Wall comes down, on January 30, 1990.  

To Paige, home is here in America. She is American. Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is American. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings by all accounts are American. We have seen Philip wrestle with the part of him that loves this culture, from the line-dancing to cars. But this season, capitalism has failed him. He is a failing capitalist. It just isn’t in his blood. When Claudia (Margo Martindale) sneered at Elizabeth about her “American kids” last week, it was meant as insult, a burden. But this is who they are. A product of the Cold War, but they won’t let themselves be defined by their parents choices. Paige still has agency, and she exercises it.

Teen characters as obstacles is a typical route for prestige dramas, but The Americans never fell into this trap. Instead Paige’s evolution has felt organic. At times it has been funny to wonder just where Henry is, so much so that they shuttled him off to school to explain his absence. But in this final episode, Henry becomes an emotional trigger. He is the only one who is pure in all of this. His words to Stan about his parents’ random activities awakened Stan’s suspicions a few weeks ago, an accidental snitch. Philip wants to preserve Henry’s innocence for as long as he can. They didn’t have an easy childhood, but this has not been the case for their kids. They raised them.

Philip is the one that argues against going to pick Henry up, he doesn’t want him to end up like them. This is his home, and his future is bright. The gasp of realization from Elizabeth is crushing. They are leaving their child behind. A strength of both Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell has always been how much emotion they can convey without saying a single word. This episode is the pinnacle of that. Emmy voters, pay attention.


Image via FX

Not that it is an easy decision for Philip to make, to abandon his son, but it is the right one. Paige argues against it, and when they phone him to say their version of goodbye, she can’t get out the words. Philip floats the idea of staying behind, but this family is getting broken up in one way or another. As U2’s “With or Without You” plays, Paige makes her choice. She can’t go with her parents. It could be a cliché, to use such an iconic song as this, but as the line “And you give yourself away” repeats just as Philip joins a chin-quivering Elizabeth, it is nothing short of extraordinary. Again, Emmy voters take note.  

Tchaikovsky’s melancholic “None But The Lonely Hearts, Op. 6, No.6” was part of Paige’s Russian heritage lessons, it is fitting that it accompanies her trip to the safe house that has now been vacated. Her greatest fear is not death, but being alone. She didn’t want Henry to be without anyone, but here she is. With no one. It is unclear what will become of her, but right now Paige’s fate would feel right at home in the great works of Russian literature. As does Oleg, who is ripped from his family. A man of honor, someone who kept to his word, now he is alone, and his father notes he has lost one son to a “useless war” and another to whatever this is.

Another major song cue in this finale is Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms” as the Jennings get rid of the possessions from their old life. Philip and Elizabeth are no more. The wedding bands Elizabeth grabbed at the end of the penultimate episode, their real wedding bands are put on, and Chekhov’s cyanide pill gets tossed into the ground. The transformation is almost complete. Later when they approach the border, apprehension is all over their faces, but exhaustion takes over as they slumber in the back of Arkady’s (Lev Gorn) car.


Image via FX

The Jennings’ returning to Russia has been a conversation for some time. At the end of Season 4, after William (Dylan Baker) was captured, this option was laid on the table. On that occasion, Paige was very vocal about how much she didn’t want to move there. The following year, Elizabeth suggested they go home because the work had become too much for Philip, but circumstances changed to make them stay. They daydreamed of where they would live—Odessa—but couldn’t quite picture how Paige and Henry would fit in. Now they have no option other than to run, and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is all that stands in their way. William didn’t give them up back then, but his delirious dying words describing the perfect family came back to haunt them.

A final season comes with a list of expectations. There are certain things we have a pretty good sense will happen, but with no idea how. We know on a global scale that Gorbachev will not get replaced. The Berlin Wall is coming down. We know Stan will find out that his best friend, his neighbors of six years, are KGB spies. What we didn’t know is how the latter would come to pass, or how real historic events would provide the means for escape.

When Paige found out her parents’ true identity, it was midway through episode 10 of the third season. Martha’s (Alison Wright) repatriation was not a season finale event. Major moments in this series almost never happen in the last moments, which is one thing that made this finale so expertly crafted by showrunners, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. As per their playbook, the Stan confrontation in “Start” takes place before the Jennings have even left the city, at the start of the second act. Stan follows them into the parking garage and with a simple “Hey!” and everything changes.

This finale is full of these heart-wrenching moments, and the look on Stan’s face as he sees Elizabeth and Philip approach Paige’s building in light disguise (i.e. a baseball cap and a beanie) shows that this is all the confirmation he needs. The feeling he had in the pilot was right. Something was indeed “off” about the guy who would become his best friend.


Image via FX

Pretty much every relationship in The Americans is built on a lie; Philip and Elizabeth didn’t get together in a conventional sense, Henry doesn’t know who his parents really are, Stan moved in and Philip became his friend because of his job. Fear was part of the reason why the latter happened. But their relationship with those working in the KGB has been the biggest lie of all. Elizabeth has been manipulated by the people she trusted. When they get home to the Soviet Union, they don’t even know how they will be received; like heroes or with a bullet to the head?

Even Nina (Annet Mahendru) couldn’t get Stan to go against his country for love. It takes some convincing, but in “Start” we finally find out what will make Stan forgo patriotism: The fate of the world. In the parking garage, Stan very much has the upper-hand; he has the gun and the element of surprise. So after an unconvincing performance, Philip gives it all up. Well almost all of it. He doesn’t get down on the ground when asked, and instead appeals to Stan’s moral center. They deny any of the killings, but cop to being Russian. Philip notes that he doesn’t know why he did all this stuff, the ideology, which made him so certain has been lost after years of destroying countless lives. As Elizabeth emphasizes, “He’s a travel agent. That’s all.”

In another life, Stan would be getting beers with Philip and Oleg (Costa Ronin), but here Oleg’s arrest and the message that hasn’t made it back home becomes their bargaining chip. Despite Oleg insisting how important it is that Gorbachev stays in power, Stan still needs some convincing. This parking garage scene has been six seasons in the making and it doesn’t disappoint. There is so much sorrow and regret in Philip’s face, his voice cracks as he lays out his doubts. It’s a bitter resignation tinged with irony that the enemy in all of this is “a bunch of fucking Russians.” As a parting word, Philip tells Stan about his Renee (Laurie Holden) suspicions. It feels more like a curse than a gift, and it is the one storyline the show doesn’t wrap up. I have to laugh at this lack of confirmation either way — this is their Russian in the woods from The Sopranos.


Image via FX

The show’s final scene is a fitting close to a show that has never been predictable. I honestly had no idea what would take place or where these characters would end up. There is almost something peaceful about them completing their final mission in this way, even if I was on the edge of my seat throughout. Instead of paying with their lives, they have maybe paid a bigger price; their children. No one is in a body bag, but the family they fought so hard to protect is ripped apart.

As they look out at the Moscow skyline, it has changed since they left. But so have they. Pondering what their lives could have been if it hadn’t been for all of this, Elizabeth gives herself the role of Katerina (Vera Alentova) from Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears—the movie she watched with Paige in the season opener. They would have met each other, maybe on a bus. So mundane. Prior to this we see another version of the life Elizabeth could’ve had, in bed with Gregory (Derek Luke) mentioning how she doesn’t want kids while taking a drag on his cigarette. The life she was living before the Philip relationship became real. Before the baby in her belly was born.  

Ultimately, everything about The Americans comes down to a love story, a testament to marriage. Pitting Philip against Elizabeth for most of the season has upped the tension. Vows have been broken, and Elizabeth doesn’t trust easily; Philip betrayed her when he spoke to Oleg. And yet, they are very much a solid unit in this final episode. “For better, for worse.” Though they make it back to Russia together, the Jennings family as we know it, is no more. Henry finds out exactly who his parents are, Paige knocks back vodka by herself after getting off the train, and Philip and Elizabeth are alone, together.

Their kids are now the age they were when they left their families to join the KGB. Now their entire identity has been stripped away. No more wigs. No more honey traps. What they have is each other. The Berlin Wall will fall. The world will continue to spin. Their kids will not forget them. They will get used to this life. They have to.