It’s been a week since “The Americans” drew to a close and I am still trying to process my feelings about this great but under-appreciated show. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as emotional about a single TV episode, which is doubly perplexing because the the ostensible heroes are a psychopath and her enabling husband.
Bringing any good TV series to a close is tough and rarely done well, but the problem faced by “The Americans” — namely that we know how history turns out — made their challenge even more difficult.
“The Americans” is a spy saga set in 1980s’ Washington DC and from day one we’ve known that the struggle of our Soviet spy protagonists is ultimately doomed because the USSR fell apart soon after the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989. It was inevitable that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings would either be caught, killed or forced to flee.
And then there’s this season’s story arc: there’s an element within the Soviet government that opposes Gorbachev and his “Perestroika” policies and they want to depose him before his next summit meeting with Ronald Reagan, which we know from history (or our own memories, if we’re old enough) went off as planned in December 1987 (see details here). In other words we also know how this story will end. The hardliners will not succeed. We just don’t know how they will get there.
On the day after the series finale I write on my Facebook page that “The Americans” was really about five things: 1. Identity 2. Loyalty, 3. Marriage 4. Family 5. Morality. For the sake of organizational expediency, indulge me in organizing my thoughts around those themes.
1. Identity: Who are we underneath all the disguises we wear? The show is called “The Americans” but the protagonists are not Americans at all. In fact they are enemies of America. The KGB recruited a young man and a woman, moved them to America under assumed names and told them to act like a typical married couple and even have kids. Then throughout the series they don wigs, glasses and mustaches to pose as other people — a Mary Kay saleswoman, a fashion buyer, or a government investigator.
Here’s the problem. In a lot of cases they end up becoming the people they are acting as. Philip in particular becomes more American. Probably the most poignant scene of the early season is when he’s in the country western bar line-dancing like he’s John Travolta in “Urban Cowboy.” He wants to be American. He loves the freedom and openness of the country as well as its easy living. And he comes to take on the identity of the people he impersonates. He eventually becomes “Clark,” the loving husband of Martha, the FBI agent he’s seduced and he actually does become a real travel agent entrepreneur.
Philip likes being an American
Elizabeth is a harder case. When Philip sees freedom and affluence in America, she sees decadence and moral weakness. She will not let go of her Russian identity and even tries to mold her daughter Paige — a 100% American girl –into a mini-me version of herself. Paige assumes various identities to find a way of belonging. She’s the good Christian teen, then a Russian-in-training, but nothing really takes. She abandons all those identities because they were never deeply felt.
And even Elizabeth, as hard-bitten as she is, occasionally becomes the identity she’s adopted. When she pretends to be a nurse to the dying wife of a high-level arms control negotiator she actually does become that nurse. At first she’s keeping the woman alive long so that the negotiator can keep going to secret meetings where he carries a bug she’s planted in his briefcase, but in the end, the fierce artistic humanity of her patient cracks Elizabeth’s hard exterior and she becomes a real angel of mercy.
But most important of all the Jennings disguised themselves as a married couple and they eventually fell in love and created a real marriage, where they put each other ahead of all others.
2. Loyalty: To whom do we really owe our loyalty? The Jennings are loyal to their country. And of the two, Philip’s loyalty is the more impressive because he no longer believes in the cause. But what does it mean to be loyal to your country? Gorbachev is the legitimate leader of the Soviet Union as well as the head of the Communist Party. As loyal party girls, Elizabeth and her handler Claudia should fall in line but they are more loyal to the hard-line faction that opposes him. It turns out that her loyalty is not to the government or party but to “her” people. If Claudia had told her to spy on the anti-Gorbachev plotters, she probably would have done that instead.
The decent and doomed Oleg and Stan also have complicated loyalties. Unlike Elizabeth, they will not fall in line and do whatever their superiors tell them to do. They are loyal to their values. Early in the series, Oleg gave state secrets to Stan to avoid a potential nuclear catastrophe and when the FBI brass tries to repay the favor by trying to turn him into a spy, Stan risks his career and threatens to expose his own culpability in an FBI assassination to get them to back off.
For his part, Oleg is safely out of the spy game and happily married but agrees to return to the U.S. and recruit Philip to spy on his wife. (When the season opens, Oleg, Stan and Philip are all retired from spying.) He becomes the true tragic hero of the series when he finally does get the proof of the hard-line plot he gets caught without a diplomatic passport and can’t be exchanged in a spy-for-spy swap (like other plot points on this episode, I’m not sure this is really true).
And now we come to the central question of this episode. Why does Stan let the Jennings escape? The 12-minute scene in the garage when he confronts them will go down as one of the great scenes in TV history, as Stan cycles through his hurt at being betrayed by his best friend and Philip pleads for understanding. As a loyal FBI agent, Stan should turn them in but he lets them go. Most of the analysis I read, including an interview with the actor who plays Stan, suggest that he was motivated by love for Philip and Henry. Well, yes, he does feel that, but he only acts when he learns that the jailed Oleg was telling him the truth about the anti-Gorbachev plot. In a way, he doesn’t really care which faction wins out in the Kremlin but he needs to let Elizabeth return to Russia to tell her story so that Oleg’s sacrifice will not be in vain. One last time he puts his job and self-image on the line for Oleg.
Our two tragic heros
3. Marriage: How do couples sustain love and commitment when they have differing values? Elizabeth and Philip were set up on the ultimate blind date — told by their handlers to marry and infiltrate Washington. But eventually they do fall in love and they even go through a real wedding with a Russian Orthodox priest. In other poignant scene from this final episode, when they are literally burying their old identities they throw away their American wedding rings and put on the rings from their “real” wedding.
This marriage has its ups and downs, though. Philip has lost his faith in the mission, to Elizabeth’s occasional disgust. Like many wives, she feels she’s shouldering too much of the load, although in this case it doesn’t mean laundry and child care, it means spying, murdering and blackmailing. Damn it, he’s not pulling his weight!
For most of this season, Philip and Elizabeth are living separate lives and barely talking. When he tries to warn her that he was approached by Oleg to spy on her she shuts him down and says she’s “too tired” to talk. When they finally do have hot sex about half-way through the season it’s because she wants to ask him to pull off a plan to kidnap Kimmy, the CIA agent daughter, which he begins to implement before pulling out in self-loathing.
“The Americans” presents a very unromantic view of what marriage actually is. It’s not sustaining a feeling of infatuation and making goo-goo eyes for 50 years. It’s slowly and methodically building trust and equity day after day. In the end, Philip betrays his own values for her. When she’s in trouble during her Chicago mission he leaves his family at Thanksgiving and gets back into the murder game. And then, when the mission goes horribly wrong, he grabs an ax and chops off the head and hands of the dead agent they were trying to rescue so the corpse can’t be identified. He does it for her. Now THAT’S romantic.
In the final scene of the whole series, Elizabeth muses that if they hadn’t become spies she would have probably became a factory manager and he would have been — something or other — and maybe they would have met on a bus. Never one for expressing her feelings, this is her way of saying she would have wanted to be married to him even if they hadn’t been set-up.
4. The Family –– What’s really a family and how important is it to you? In many ways the Jennings family is the ultimate American family. They are untethered by traditional obligations and on their own. No nagging in-laws or annoying cousins. The kids think it’s a little weird. Paige reacts by asking a million questions until Elizabeth finally breaks and spills the truth. Henry reacts more like a son — closing down emotionally and not questioning anything. He can’t wait to get out of there and go someplace where the people will really pay attention to him.
The parents love their children in an historically accurate way. The 1980s were the last blissful tears of free-range parenting and kids could still roam reasonably free without parental anxiety. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the first great kidnapping scare happened, with photos of young kidnap victims on milk cartons.
Philip and Elizabeth are also typical of ambitious Americans, putting their careers ahead of the family. It’s ultimately their undoing when Elizabeth heads out of town on Thanksgiving, just after Henry gets home from school. This is an appalling betrayal for a parent and it tips Stan off that something’s amiss.
As the series headed to a close it soon became apparent that the most heart-breaking element was the Henry story. I could never understand why the Jennings thought (going back to last season) they could take him to Russia — what a fate for a typical American boy! But my heart did break when Philip tells Elizabeth that they’ll have to leave him behind for his own good. Throughout the entire season Elizabeth is never shown interacting with Henry. She and Philip have made a deal that Paige is hers and Henry’s is his to raise as he sees fit, but at least Philip still plays Dad to Paige, while Elizabeth is a no show to her youngest.
So it’s surprising, but not really, when Elizabeth gets choked up at the thought of leaving him alone in the U.S. Their final call to him from the pay phone is devastating. After having promised each other to be normal on the phone Philip tells Henry he loves him and that he should be true to himself. The emotionally barren Elizabeth goes so far as to tell him, “What you father said.” Thanks for the warmth Mom.
Having left Henry behind, the Jennings are shocked when Paige abandons them too. We don’t know why — does she stay behind to help Henry? Maybe – she fights for him hard. She might also be thinking of how rough it will be living in poor, repressive Russia. My guess is that she’s disillusioned by all the lies she’s been told and comes to see the cause as immoral. Her parents never put the family first and eventually she doesn’t either.
Try and watch this without crying!
Like many viewers, I was disappointed that Philip and Elizabeth do not get caught and punished for their crimes. But they are seriously punished. They have no family now, and they really don’t have a country. The place they are returning to after 25 years is not the place they left and they will be viewing it through an American perspective. The punishment does not fit the crime but it’s a punishment all the same.
And to layer on the punishment, we know that in a couple of years everything they’ve been fighting for will fall apart. The Soviet Union will end up on the ash heap of history and Russia will be a humiliated state that will eventually make a former KGB agent its president and evolve into a gangster society. So all their sacrifices will have been for naught.
5. Morality — Can you justify doing anything for what you believe is a just cause? And how do you know if your cause is just? Philip and Elizabeth have done monstrous things. The murders are just for starters. They’re ruined lives and marriages to get an edge, all in the name of the greater good.
Of course their greater good is also an evil empire. There were people who didn’t believe this in the 1980s but the old Soviet Union has few fellow traveler defenders today. But to look at it through Philip and Elizabeth’s eyes, they think their cause is just. But does that justify the means? Philip eventually comes to think the answer is no. He has empathy for his victims. Elizabeth at most feels a twinge and justifies everything. It will be interesting to see what happens when they get to Moscow and have time to reflect on what they did.
Some odds and ends:
— I lived in Washington DC in the 1980s, during the same years that the Jennings were on the warpath. But unlike “Mad Men,” which constantly reminded me of my childhood during the 1960s, I rarely had a jolt of recognition watching this show. Part of the problem is that it was shot in Brooklyn, not Washington, so in scene after scene I’m trying to figure out where they are before remembering, oh yeah, Brooklyn. The one thing that did remind me of those days, though, was the phones. Their houses and offices have those old landlines with phone cords and big bodies. No cell phones at all. And in the very last episode I did have one little shock of recognition when Stan goes into a phone booth and looks up the Jennings’ number in a thick phone book that is dangling unmolested from the receiver.
— Speaking of unreality,– S couldn’t they have spent a few extra bucks to film that train scene in a real AmTrak train? We are supposed to believe they are fleeing to Canada on a Metro North train. I’ve spent 20 years on those trains so I recognize them. Also, the subway — the Washington Metro is very distinctive and it was distracting in the extreme that they filmed in in the New York City subway.
This is definitely an old Metro North train!
— The money they saved on cheapo locations was well-spent on background music, especially that last montage to U2’s “With of Without You,” which just tore our heart out.
— Is Stan’s wife Renee a spy? This was a lingering question at the end — supposedly Philip, probably well-intentioned, completely ruined Stan’s life by saying that she might be one of them. While this does plant a seed of doubt I don’t think it needs to be a permanent one. After all, Stan is an employee of the FBI! He has his ways of finding out. He can go to her hometown and look at her school records, for example. Does she have no family at all to verify her claims? Come on — within six weeks she’ll be exposed. Personally I don’t think so. She’s applying for a job at the FBI and will undergo a vigorous security clearance. I’ve done this myself and trust me they pry into every part of your life. An illegal would be crazy to do this.
— I don’t know if there’s anyone else out there who also watched “Twin Peaks,” the best show of last year, but they did have similar endings, with a man and a woman on a long, seemingly endless car ride who arrive at an ambiguous destination.
— The various wigs on the show became a running joke on Twitter but doesn’t it seem unlikely that in all the time the Jennings seduced someone, no one every grabbed their heads in the throes of passion. Martha in particular is not very observant. She’s married to someone and doesn’t know he has a wig?
So, to wrap up. Great show. In the Pantheon. Completely unbelievable plot-wise. Completely believable emotionally.