With one sweeping U2 song, The Americans came to an end on Wednesday night after six seasons. A lot happened, and so after the episode aired, The Ringer’s devoted Americans fans (we call them communists) were asked to answer a series of questions, with the most important being: U mad?
1. Did The Americans series finale satisfy you? Or was the whole point of the show that “satisfaction” is a fake idea?
Claire McNear: Uh. Hm. No? No. The show seemed to hope that We, The Audience, might be amenable to grand and tidily articulated messages in its closing act—all those years of suburban snooping were futile, just like the Cold War!—but for a show that often did so well grappling with complexities of love, pain, and doubt, I’m not sure it was enough to tie everything up with a bow made up of jarringly heavy-handed imagery. (Philip looking at Elizabeth through the reflected lights of McDonald’s, anyone?)
Ben Lindbergh: I wouldn’t say it excited me, but it didn’t disappoint me, either. As I wrote elsewhere, the finale felt true to what the show always was—an understated character study in which most of the characters were miserable most of the time.
Miles Surrey: “Satisfaction” is different from having a “happy” ending. To paraphrase Game of Thrones’ awful bastard Ramsay Bolton, if someone watched The Americans expecting a happy ending, they weren’t paying attention. But The Americans finale is satisfying.
The show stuck to its proverbial guns; it was always a slow, brooding rumination on marriage, relationships, what defines someone’s home—and yes, the tedious and occasionally gruesome toils of spycraft. The final season resisted the urge to blow things up, Walter White–versus-neo-Nazis style, which would’ve been antithetical to everything Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields built for six years. Ultimately, the marriage did survive, and while Philip and Elizabeth successfully returned to Russia, they lost their children in the process under very different circumstances (Henry devastated and betrayed by the truth; Paige presumably continuing on as a spy in their stead). That, to me, is even more crushing than the violent ends of Walter White and Tony Soprano from TV’s antihero Golden Age.
Zach Kram: The finale was certainly befitting of a show that so often prized quiet moments—save a gaggle of gargles and other mouth sounds—and rarely, for a spy show, descended into actual shootouts. There is scant dialogue after the garage showdown, and the characters convey their most powerful emotions through facial expressions rather than speech. Is that imbalance unsatisfying, and are the unresolved mysteries a now-forever-unresolved set of frustrations? Yes. But that just means the finale was a true Americans finale.
And the USSR will dissolve in a few years anyway, so maybe the Jennings family will still reunite at some point. Henry’s parents might even be able to attend his college graduation.
Rob Harvilla: I imagine the show is very proud that it delivered a series finale without a shot fired—without any violence at all, really. The Americans was always very specifically about withholding satisfaction, about telling a story about sexy Russian spies but casting the sex and violence in as bleak and despairing a light as possible. A conventionally pleasing series finale would’ve constituted a huge self-betrayal; “Philip looking extra-sad in a McDonald’s” was the best we could hope for, in terms of catharsis. Relatedly, I am glad the show’s over, because I really liked it a lot, and everything I ever said about it, including what I’m saying right now, made it sound terrible.
2. What was your favorite moment from the finale? What was your least favorite?
Surrey: The best: Stan’s parking-garage confrontation felt like it lasted a good hour, and I soaked up every minute of it. The Americans has often been ignored by the Emmys, but it would be downright criminal if Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich didn’t get serious consideration here.
The most aggravating: We will never truly know if Stan’s wife, Renee, was a Russian spy. I get why it was left ambiguous, but it’s still gnawing at me. Whatever notes were given to Laurie Holden for that character worked: It’s really hard to get a read on her. My gut is telling me she’s just Stan’s wife, and Philip’s well-intentioned comment that she might be a spy just totally screws up their marriage. Great job!
Harvilla: Elizabeth’s quick dream sequence was extremely effective: Gregory (RIP) as her soulmate, “I don’t want a kid anyway,” and the callbacks to the dying woman’s art—a gut punch that more than justified the time we’d spent listening to the dying woman talk about art. The show, to the end, was not always willing to provide that sort of payoff.
As for least favorite, I was resigned to the finale resolving the “Is Renee a Spy” question in as vague and maddening a fashion as possible; that Oleg got such a raw deal was more surprising, and harder to swallow. I get this show’s commitment to performative bleakness, but in the big parking-garage confrontation, why bring Oleg into it, or let the Jenningses’ “we’re the Good Russians, we swear” argument lightly sway Stan, if the show’s just going to abandon him? They should’ve sent him back to Russia to investigate more grocery-store fraud.
Kram: The obvious favorite is the garage scene with Stan, which we’ve been waiting six seasons to see. But the finale’s “wow” moment came at the Canadian border. I expected Elizabeth to encounter trouble with the patrolman, but her fake passport clears, and U2 swells once again—and then Paige is outside on the platform, and Elizabeth and Philip are panicking but trying to mask that panic because they need to remain safe, and Paige, just as her mother taught her, is stoic and resolved. It’s a surprise and a gut punch all at once.
I could’ve done without the dream, though, as The Americans was never prone to flights of fancy. The main characters once spent 15 minutes of screen time digging a hole; that’s the show’s proper ethos.
Lindbergh: Stan stole the episode during the garage showdown and his two snippets of scenes with Renee. When I interviewed Noah Emmerich last week, I asked him about the origins of the subtle twitch that gives us a window into impassive Stan’s soul. “I just think we’re all very emotional creatures, whether we show it or not,” he said. “And I think Stan, as a federal officer in this line of work, having done undercover work before, having to hide within layers within layers, he’s very buttoned up. But I do think sometimes beyond our control, those emotions bubble up and express themselves in unexpected ways, and I just thought it was an interesting idea for Stan to have sort of an eye twitch that when things get extremely disturbing or upsetting for him emotionally, you can’t really see it, but he does have that tell.” I love that tell, and I already miss Stan more than I miss the Jenningses.
My least-favorite moment was Oleg’s two seconds of screen time. I’m pretty bummed about how his arc ended.
McNear: Favorite moment: Please place “I don’t know how to say this, but I think there’s a chance Renee might be one of us. [tiny shrug] I’m not sure.” on my gravestone. Put the shrug in GIF form on a video monitor. Whatever works.
Least favorite moment: As a rule, I’m not fond of codas; I’m of the leave-the-last-five-pages-unread brand of psychopathy. I recognize, therefore, that there weren’t a lot of potential final scenes that could have kept me from frantically fast-forwarding through the credits in disbelief that that was really it. But Philip and Elizabeth’s skyline chitchat about all the big questions—Was it all worth it? Is our love authentic? Do the Seven Sisters need to remain if Gorbachev sticks around?—was both exhaustive and exhausting, a parade of explicit contemplations of the things a more trusting show might have left its viewers to wonder about on their own after the curtain fell.
3. Did everyone behave in a “believable” way for you? Would Philip and Elizabeth really have done that? Would Paige really have done that? Would Stan really have done that?
Lindbergh: The only thing I didn’t buy about the finale were the border guards who had sketches of Philip and Elizabeth and were warned to watch out for them but still couldn’t spot them. The wigs weren’t that good!
Harvilla: Your feelings about the finale overall probably hinge on whether you believe Stan would actually let them go, which I bought at first due to his general shookness, though it’s bothering me the more I think about it. I realize he’s processing all this in real time, but Russian spies killed his partner and married his secretary. I am legitimately glad that this show didn’t end with a corny slo-mo shootout, but turning a six-years-in-the-making confrontation into a passive shrug is never gonna qualify as “satisfying.”
My bigger believability issue actually stems from the second-to-last episode: I don’t get Paige blowing up and calling her mom a whore because her mom made a congressional intern sad. If Paige’s arc this season was from Elizabeth’s total determination to Philip’s total sadness and disgust, that’s far too abrupt a turn over far too insignificant an act. And if sex, specifically, was some sort of disproportionate red line for Paige—perhaps related to the fact she used to be very religious, which probably deserved a callback more than Pastor Tim himself did—the show needed to explain that better, because as it stands, she just looks hopelessly naive. (It’s even more worrisome if the show believes that we believe that Paige actually believes that her parents have never killed anyone. Paige in Therapy is an excellent spinoff idea that I’m glad will never happen.) I totally believe her on the train platform, but a lot of her confusion was simply confusing.
Surrey: I don’t question Stan’s decision to let the Jenningses leave the parking lot. There might’ve been a time when Philip befriended Stan out of operational necessity, but the bromance that blossomed was undeniably genuine, which both of them openly acknowledged.
I gotta say, though: I was shocked that Paige abandoned her parents at the last minute to stick around in the States, and that it was because she wanted to remain a covert spy—at least, that’s how I’m reading her taking a goddamn vodka shot in her final scene. Paige learned enough about the actual horrors of her parents’ responsibilities this season; I assumed it would turn her off the spy game forever. But maybe Pastor Tim was right: Philip and Elizabeth destroyed her soul.
McNear: I really wish Stan’s evolution—from proselytizer of us versus monolithic, communist, decisively evil them in a Thanksgiving speech just four episodes ago to a more nuanced interpreter of comparative good and evil in his parking-garage stand-down in the finale—had been given more time. It’s not that I don’t believe it could have happened, it’s just that it would have been nice to see more of it, given Oleg Burov inceptioned him with the “no, seriously, the leader of the USSR matters” juju just last week.
As for the rest of them: Paige, a shithead teen till the end? Yeah, that makes sense. Philip and Elizabeth’s retreat to the motherland is a little more confusing, given they spent most of this season disavowing significant factions of the KGB and, well, Russia. But I’m willing to buy—if not exactly stop myself from wishing there’d been a little more explanation of—the departure: These two sure do like finishing a job, and it’s not like they had much in the way of options.
Kram: Yes to all of the above, and an additional yes to Renee, who continued to behave like she always has by gazing cryptically after Stan and offering no further clues about her identity.
4. Please share your thoughts about U2’s “With or Without You.”
Surrey: Absolute banger.
McNear: I am, for at least the early stuff, a U2 defender. I’m sorry; they had some jams, all of which felt very important to me when I sang them alone in my ’98 Camry on the freeway in high school, and I revere them accordingly. But The Americans’ “With or Without You” literalism—did you know the people onscreen are being pulled in different directions and also [synth trill] it’s the late ’80s?—was a bridge (see what I did there?) too far. “Tusk,” in the pilot, felt timely and rejuvenating. This just made me feel tired.
Lindbergh: Thematically and lyrically, it was a little on the nose for the finale, but musically it worked well with the montage. A few days after I saw the screener, I felt the urge to listen to this song in a non-soundtrack setting. It was the first time in years that I’d spontaneously played U2.
Kram: A bit on the nose, sure, but The Americans was always shrewd with its song choices, and it ended in kind. On that note, the finale’s other big musical cue, Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms,” was a fitting backdrop for the Jennings’ burial scene—but “Brothers in Arms” should be off-limits for TV season finales at this point. I half-expected Allison Janney to pop up with a lectern in that abandoned stretch of woods.
Harvilla: That’s a killer song, obviously, and a killer moment, but it was bizarrely executed: Why play the whole song uninterrupted, but then dilute the rad whoa-oh-oh-oh climax by chopping off just that part and repeating it multiple times afterward? The whole point of “With or Without You” is that it’s a perfect slow burn: Just play it once, undoctored, with Paige on the train platform when Bono starts wailing. I feel super uncool even typing this.
5. Did Season 6 do it for you overall? Is The Americans still in the conversation as one of the best shows of the past 10 years? Or was the relative disaster of Season 5 insurmountable?
Lindbergh: I generally liked Season 6. I don’t think enough people were watching at the end for The Americans to occupy a prominent place in a “best shows” debate, though—unless it’s a debate only among TV critics, who lately may have made up most of the show’s audience. But not many recent series have set out to tell as ambitious a story and succeeded with so much emotion.
McNear: I enjoyed Season 6, but on the whole it felt desperately rushed, and I so wish the show could have stretched backward into all that lost Season 5 midge time. As cathartic as the final confrontation was, what a profound bummer that Stan grasped the betrayal of his one-time best friend—and hunted him accordingly—for all of a half-episode. Elizabeth’s turnaround, too, from wrathful, love-of-country-crazed serial killer at the start of Season 6 to chastened, I-wish-we-could-both-stay-in-New-York-and-be-a-family relativist in the finale, felt disappointingly hurried. We had whole seasons to watch Philip struggle with his own journey between those poles, which only made his excruciating return to his old secret-agent life earlier this season that much more visceral (though some of that might have had to do with the ax swings). We were told that Elizabeth had shifted rather than getting to see it, and what a shame.
Still: The Americans reached emotional highs and lows that few shows have, and did so regularly, from the crushing Martha saga to Kimmy and everything in between. Occasional stints in the weeds and an on-the-nose finale aside, it remains a first-balloter for me. As is, probably, the next program to give me a weekly chance to see Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys alternate between cheerful whispers and murderous shouting matches.
Surrey: Season 6 was excellent, and if I may be so bold, the fifth season isn’t as bad as some make it out to be—call me an Oleg Grocery Store Apologist.
But it’s not really a question whether The Americans is one of the greatest shows of the past decade, because it is. Frankly, there’s been so many all-time great shows in the past decade (The Americans, Halt and Catch Fire, Twin Peaks: The Return, The Leftovers, Breaking Bad, Mad Men) that the “best” show is just a matter of personal preference. And when it comes to The Americans, it’s special for me—not because my parents worked for the CIA, but because few shows have grappled with the tenuous nature of identity, home, and how those two correlate. I lived overseas a lot growing up; nothing was ever really a “home” in the traditional sense. The Americans, in all its messiness, expressed what that means in 2018, by way of Soviet-era Russia.
Kram: On a week-to-week basis, the show never really recovered from losing Nina and Martha or sending Oleg to count groceries. Not until the stellar back half of Season 6, which crackled with the excitement of a climax as danger finally reemerged for the Jenningses, did The Americans pop once again like it had early in its run. But faltering between the peak and the denouement is no reason for show shaming (see: Game of Thrones Season 7, The Office post-Carell, etc.). The Americans was subtle and tense and smart, and on a rewatch, one can always imitate Philip with a dead comrade’s hands and chop the grain-field detours off.
Harvilla: In retrospect, Season 5, which was terrible and bizarrely, audaciously boring, did help set the bar very low here, and Season 6 did indeed clear it easily. Actual pathos, actual payoffs, actual action. The Americans as a whole peaked for me somewhere in the middle: It’s less that the show never replaced Nina or Martha as compelling characters than it made a big show of not even trying. I think sustaining that specific tone of Total Bleakness for six full seasons is legitimately impressive, and the fact the show’s real-world legacy is gifting the world with a Top 5 Cutest Real-Life Hollywood Couple is super hilarious. Justified was better.