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How Can ‘The Americans’ Possibly Last Two More Seasons?

And other thoughts on that depressing finale

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

It’s impossible to spoil last night’s Season 4 finale of The Americans — nothing that shocking and traumatic occurred, and anyway, if you’re a sackcloth-shoulder-pads-wearing devotee of FX’s Cold War superspy drama, you’ve doubtless already rewatched it twice already. But the only truly harmful spoiler was cheerfully revealed by the network itself last month: As showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields desired, the show will get two more seasons and then bow out, meaning we’ve now got 23 episodes left to go. Which is both fantastic news and, after that doomy finale, utterly preposterous. At the rate we’re going, nobody onscreen will be alive by then, and that includes Pastor Tim’s baby.

Sheesh. The only two jokes last night were “Would you like a Coke?” [dude infected with the Lassa virus laughs so hard he coughs up a lung] and “Shit happens” [goodhearted teenagers kiss, which on this show is somehow a huge problem]. Dylan Baker, as the crabby, bioweapons-hoarding Russian spy William Crandall, did indeed get a flashy Emmy-bait death scene in which he cursed his loneliness whilst coughing up blood. (Alas, Emmy voters don’t give a toss about this show, either.) This year’s Grim Montage was soundtracked by Leonard Cohen’s notably cheery “Who by Fire.” (Would prestige TV even exist without Leonard Cohen? Has any song in his catalog gone unused for this purpose? Can someone please green-light a David Milch series called Jazz Police?) And we end with the very real possibility that Philip and Elizabeth will have to flee with their kids back to Russia, which is an empty threat — Remember, this show is definitely going two more seasons! It is very unlikely one or both of those seasons will take place entirely in Russia! This is one scenario where a publicly announced endpoint was maybe not the best idea! — delivered with the ferocity of a promise.

This year was a magnificent bloodbath, less of people (R.I.P., Nina, though) than of plotlines, of escape routes, of distractions. The narrative is lean now to the point of emaciated, all the loose ends hacked off with a machete. Martha will possibly make some bonkers shock return someday, but possibly not, and her whole situation has quietly been the rawest thing airing on television for four years now; to have all that resolved so early is a mercy that somehow doesn’t feel like one. Oleg and Arkady are both heading back to Russia, which has an aura of finality even if that turns out to be classic season-finale misdirection waved off in the very next episode. This show is a jumbo jet dumping fuel, a browser clearing its history every 10 minutes, a jittery traveler packing his bags and leaving them all on the front porch just in case. Every episode feels like a potential series finale now; however exquisite the tension, it feels impossible to sustain another two-dozen times.

True, Breaking Bad trafficked in just this sort of Everything Can Go To Hell At Any Time dread, but with a pizzazz and coal-black whimsy that this show has no time for. Game of Thrones likewise delights in a familiar Anyone Could Die At Any Time nihilism, but has recently indulged in a variety of sci-fi contrivances — resurrection; time travel (or whatever) that can change the present and possibly the past; and Mission: Impossible face mask high jinks that, for example, allow for the possibility that Arya is not always really Arya, hmmm — that undercut the dread.

Whereas people who die on The Americans die harder than anyone. (Ask Agent Gaad, sheesh.) The meanest and somehow funniest thing that happened this season was the very brief return of Karen Pittman as Lisa, the troubled aerospace employee with the glowering husband who had a ton of scenes last year with Elizabeth, as they plotted to steal scraps of stealth technology. Lisa had one scene this season: She freaks out, falls off the wagon, and tells Elizabeth they should both turn themselves in, and gets bonked on the head and killed for her trouble. Whole thing takes a couple of minutes. There’s that plotline wrapped up. This show is like a punk band at a basement show playing all its good songs immediately and as fast as possible, before the cops show up to shut it all down. Savor it while it lasts, and marvel at how long that somehow turned out to be.