The following contains spoilers about “The Americans” series finale.
“The Americans” resisted any temptation to do a “cute” finale, to somehow link this Cold War-era drama to the Russian controversies of today. The result was an understated but gripping extended episode, one that brought home the price paid by these Soviet spies hiding in plain view, while testing the bonds of loyalty and friendship.
The FX series has always seemed to come with a natural expiration date. The fall of the Berlin Wall loomed over the activities of these Reagan-era Russians, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), whose two children grew up unaware of their origins, before daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) was gradually brought into the family business.
Moreover, a collision appeared inevitable between the couple and their neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), a generally capable FBI agent who had managed to remain oblivious, until the closing flurry of episodes, to the espionage transpiring right under his nose.
Series creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields paid off on that promise, and then some, in a remarkable tense garage scene in which Stan confronted the trio, expressing understandable feelings of anger, hurt and betrayal. “I would have done anything for you, Philip,” he said, before finally choosing to let them go.
That decision, however, didn’t solve the Jennings’ problems. For starters, they were forced to abandon their son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), a devastating if unavoidable consequence of having to flee the country.
“We’re going to Russia,” Philip said. “What would he do there?”
Still, the sacrifices didn’t end with that. In a genuinely stunning moment, Paige opted to stay behind, in a sequence that silently played out in devastating fashion, as she disembarked the train on which her parents were fleeing.
Making savvy use of period music (most notably U2’s “With or Without You”), the episode left certain loose ends untied – Stan’s marriage among them – but satisfyingly brought the Jennings’ back home, returning to a country to which they no longer wholly belonged.
During a conference call with reporters, Weisberg and Fields said they wanted viewers to draw their own conclusions about many of the potentially ambivalent moments. Weisberg did note that the notion of the tragedy ultimately playing out in the breakup of the family “felt exactly right to us,” and in terms of the Jennings’ paying a toll for their misdeeds, “the most painful thing that could happen to anybody.”
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The producers of “The Americans” had two seasons to arc and construct the finish, a bit of creative latitude that hasn’t always produced the results it should in similar situations. But for all the paths that might have been pursued, there was a quiet elegance to the one chosen.
Fields said the producers “test drove” a number of possible endings before settling on one. As for the current chill in U.S.-Russia relations – which has prompted jokes about whether this period drama began to look like a documentary – Weisberg emphasized that they have been “writing in a bubble,” determined to separate current events from their creative process.
“We had a job to do,” Philip told Stan during their final exchange, an explanation that also served as a kind of apology. Once home, Elizabeth said of the kids, “They’ll be OK,” a statement seemingly designed to reassure herself as much as her husband.
As finales go, “The Americans” got the job done, in manner that was more than just OK. It was, rather, an especially thought-provoking and poignant payoff – one deserving of a vodka toast, and worthy of the best that this acclaimed FX drama had to offer.