clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘The Americans’ Goes Out Without a Bang

A show defined by restraint and subtlety stays true to form down to the last frame

FX/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

On Wednesday night, six seasons of subterfuge and suspicion on The Americans culminated with a conversation in an empty garage, where so many memorable movie and TV scenes seem to take place. With their cover about to be blown, the three Jennings family members who matter—Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige—are on the run, ready to drive a stolen car with fake plates out of D.C. so that they can literally and symbolically bury their old identities, board a train, cross the Canadian border, and return to Russia. But before they can enter the vehicle, they’re intercepted by Stan, their FBI agent neighbor. Spy-dey sense tingling, he’s staked out Paige’s apartment, spotted the trio, and tailed them to their car. “It’s over,” he says somberly, the hidden hand in his pocket holding a gun. “It’s all over.” He’s referring not only to the spying, but also to the friendship they’ve shared.

On most movies and shows, that gun would have fired, or at least played a part in some sort of struggle. “You should probably shoot me,” Philip says. On The Americans, though, the pistol stays in Stan’s hand, trigger untouched. For the rest of the scene, the former friends and almost-enemies recriminate and confess and cajole. Stan demands that the Jenningses get down on the ground. Instead, they stay standing and fight for their freedom with words. After 11 ½ minutes, Stan silently steps aside, and the Jenningses (or whatever they’re named now) drive away. Stan lets them go not because they’re trying to prevent a KGB coup, but because of their innocent son, the memory of the meals that they’ve eaten together, and his hard-earned and intimate knowledge of how working for one’s country can corrupt good people and twist the best intentions.

“I feel like it’s about humanity trumping politics, humanity trumping the job, which in a way, to me, is what the show has always been about,” says actor Noah Emmerich, who played Stan since the series began in 2013. “[It’s about] the notion that inside all these roles are people with the full complexity of the human condition, and it’s really hard to categorize things as good or bad or evil, or heroes or antiheroes.”

By the end of the episode, Philip and Elizabeth have escaped, but survival has cost them all contact with their kids, who stay in the States. It’s a stark contrast to the all-American family that chows down on Big Macs and Happy Meals during Philip’s fast-food pit stop. The only way that the Jennings clan can keep breathing is to stay separated, as they do on the train.

Years of artifice have taken their toll on nearly everyone. Oleg, the ex-KGB officer who’s fighting for glasnost, is just as far away from his family as he sits in jail awaiting trial for espionage. Stan has lost both his best friend and his trust in his wife, Renee, whom Philip, in a devastating side note, confides may also be a Soviet agent. Paige, alone in an empty apartment, pounds a bottle of vodka, the only remnant of her cultural education by Claudia, although at least she looks like herself, having shed the Elizabethesque disguise she had donned for the train trip. And Henry—well, Henry may be better off with Stan. His new surrogate father can probably afford those last two semesters at Saint Edward’s, and his real family never knew where he was. No one goes out in a hail of bullets, like the fellow undercover mother, father, and daughter from the Season 2 premiere, “Comrades,” who were gunned down in a hotel room, leaving their Henry equivalent to the traumatic discovery of their bloody bodies. But this fracturing of families and friends is agonizing in its own way, if considerably less exciting and watercooler-worthy.

In its broad strokes, The Americans’ swan song, “Start,” is a little like “Ozymandias,” the pre-finale finale of Breaking Bad, in which Walt bids farewell to his family, ditches his old identity, and embarks on an uncertain future. But Breaking Bad also gave us “Felina,” the show’s actual last episode, in which Walt reclaims his cash and slaughters his enemies before catching a bullet himself. Some people preferred the open-ended “Ozymandias” to the finality of “Felina,” but Walter White watchers didn’t need to resign themselves to one or the other; Breaking Bad gave them both.

The Americans doesn’t do “Felina,” which is one reason Breaking Bad’s last season was a sensation and The Americans was almost an afterthought, even among many of the critics whose praise helped sustain the low-rated series in earlier years. “We don’t want what we’re doing to be driven by other shows or what has or hasn’t happened in them,” co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields told me last year, and they stuck to their guns—or, rather, stuck to not needing them. In the absence of any action set pieces, the priciest part of the finale was probably licensing songs from U2 and Dire Straits. (Speaking of things that other shows have done, “Brothers in Arms” should be off-limits for all future finales.) It wasn’t the neatest or flashiest bow to place on a series, but for better or worse, it’s one that’s true to what The Americans always was.

Emmerich was surprised when he first saw the script. “I thought it was a really great ending,” he says. “I thought it was really poetic and beautiful and human, and I really was grateful for it, but I had not predicted it at all.” Throughout its run, and especially in its last two seasons, The Americans had teased a more climactic denouement, one in which Stan and his neighbors would fight to the death, the Moscow Center would try to wipe out its own agents or, most intriguing of all, Philip and Elizabeth would turn on each other. Eventually, Stan does catch on to the spies next door; Elizabeth does defy Claudia; and Philip even engages in a little light spying on his spouse.

Ultimately, though, the consequences are emotional: Everyone feels terribly betrayed, but they all live to frown another day. As my colleague Rob Harvilla wrote after an aggressively inessential Season 5 that squandered much of The Americans’ accumulated critical goodwill, “This is not a show of wild shootouts.” If anything, it’s a show of shame, which Emmerich cites as the overriding emotion that makes the garage confrontation so subdued. “I think [shame] has a profound impact on the availability of our emotions to ourselves and to those around us,” he says.

Shame doesn’t make for many fireworks. In the finale eyes water, but no fully formed tears fall. Stan yells a single sentence, but otherwise, no one really raises their voice. Jaws clench; Adam’s apples bob; voices falter, mouths make noises. “Stan was pretty well established at this point in terms of how he reveals his emotions or not, how he holds things pretty close to the vest,” Emmerich says. “I have great faith that if the character is feeling something and you’re able to connect to that feeling, the audience will see it, so you never really need to show anything.” The series’ restraint, too, was well established: The Americans, which resisted the urge to make obvious allusions to Putin or Trump, also asked its viewers to assume some of the storytelling labor by imagining for themselves the full extent of the turmoil that must be burning beneath its protagonists’ expressionless exteriors. By necessity, these were buttoned-up people leading low-affect lives.

In its latter years, The Americans took its commitment to conveying the tedious side of spying too seriously. Two glacially slow and anticlimactic Season 5 story lines centered on wheat and grocery stores. When I joked to the showrunners last year that I was waiting for an episode about the inner workings of the Jenningses’ travel agency, Weisberg laughed and said, “Be careful what you wish for.” Season 6, which begins with a three-year time jump, goes all in on travel-agency economics: Calculators and balance sheets become near-constant companions for Philip, who wrinkles his brow amid arithmetic montages about budgets and payroll.

The drudgery the series depicted was illuminating at times—the search for super-wheat and the grocery-store scrutiny reminded us what Philip, Elizabeth, and Oleg were working toward, as well as the conditions that created them—but it wasn’t what most of the world wants from its televised entertainment, and the show couldn’t build on the breakthrough Emmy nominations it received for Season 4. Even though audiences knew in advance that the Jennings saga would end in Season 6, pre-finale ratings fell at least 15 percent, on average, relative to Season 5’s, which were already down from the previous year’s.

That’s not to say that the series never got gory: The Americans wasn’t averse to violence. This is, after all, the show that taught us how to stuff a body inside a suitcase, and a few episodes before the finale, in another garage, Philip and Elizabeth demonstrated how to hack the head and hands off a corpse. But on The Americans, killing was always supposed to seem sickening, an act that carried the risk of exposure, strained relationships, and poisoned consciences. The psychological fallout that Philip and (less obviously) Elizabeth suffered after each assassination or operation gone wrong made it difficult for fans to feel a “Fuck yeah!” coming on whenever our heroes snapped a neck or eluded capture. Similarly, while the show’s sex scenes broke basic-cable boundaries, Philip and/or Elizabeth lying awake, weighed down by what they’d done, was the more common bedroom behavior. Most of the cigarette-smoking wasn’t postcoital, but a response to pervasive stress.

Thanks to its period setting, The Americans didn’t generate much suspense from external events. We weren’t watching because of the Cold War; we were watching because we needed to know the fates of the two people on the poster. For six seasons, we wondered: Will they get away with it? In the end, the answer was “sort of”: They survive, but not nearly unscathed. “Start” maintains a modicum of tension until the last scene; maybe, we think, Philip and Elizabeth know too much to be allowed to live out their retirements in Moscow, where they can keep busy by trying to suppress their American accents or, maybe, meeting up with Martha (remember her?) or Mischa (remember him?). They don’t receive a heroes’ welcome, but nor are they treated as hostiles.

“It feels strange,” Philip says in English as he and his wife, wearing their real rings, gaze at a skyline that no longer looks familiar. “We’ll get used to it,” Elizabeth responds in her native tongue. Now we need subtitles to understand what she’s saying, but even when we didn’t, we never knew her that well. It’s been so long since their odyssey started that Philip can’t remember the name of the colonel who recruited him; all he knows is that the man “didn’t want me to think it’d be some big adventure.” The Americans never tried to make it look like one.