By JIM SABATASO
When “The Americans” premiered in 2013, it was a thrilling drama that recalled a bygone time when Soviet spies still meddled in domestic affairs and plotted against the U.S. government from within and without. Now, in 2018, that premise feels less like a fun throwback than a timely and chilling reminder of our current political climate. It’s funny how a cultural text sometimes becomes more relevant as it ages (see also: “The Handmaid’s Tale”).
At the show’s core were Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a typical American family with two typical American kids, living the typical American dream. Except for one impossible secret: they are Soviet sleeper agents whose entire lives are a lie.
Across six seasons, we followed the Jennings’ story as they maintained their cover. They ran their missions, juggling multiple identities — and many, many wigs — and navigating a shifting political map, all while raising a real family.
Indeed, for all its political thrills and chills, “The Americans” was a family drama above anything else. Living in what was essentially an arranged marriage, Philip and Elizabeth grew to love each other, a fact that showrunner Joe Weisberg teased out over the course of the series — from the couple’s feigned affection in season one to the recommitment of their love in the middle seasons to Elizabeth’s bitter contempt for Philip after he retires from the spy game in season six.
Like any marriage, there are ups and downs; the stakes are just higher in the Jennings’ case. And the final season, which jumps ahead to 1987, raises those stakes while keeping the show grounded in a historical context. With the Soviet Union in its final years, Philip and Elizabeth’s bosses at the KGB are threatened by Gorbachev’s moderate tone with the West and his promotion of perestroika policy.
Just as the Cold War ended on a relatively nonviolent note, “The Americans” doesn’t conclude with a bang or a high body count or an action-packed climax. Weisberg fights that temptation; instead, he delivers hard emotional beats that leave each character in a new place as Philip, Elizabeth, Paige and Stan make a series of devastating and surprising decisions that shatter the viewer as wholly as the Jennings family itself.
Real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell continue to have electric chemistry with each other onscreen as Philip and Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s resentment of Philip for not only abandoning the cause but also abandoning her when he lost his nerve for the work is painful to watch — especially when you remember how good a team they are.
Whether Elizabeth would choose country over family has been a lingering question for the duration of the series. Weisberg raises those stakes in season six, and keeps you guessing until almost the very end.
Holly Taylor’s Paige has grown over the course of the series from a clueless teenager to an eager spy in training. Taylor has deftly navigated the often difficult transition from child to adult onscreen. Her quiet closing scene demonstrates how much she has matured and been forced to grow up as she chooses a difficult new direction for her life.
Henry (Keidrich Sellati), the younger Jennings child, gets a brief moment toward the end of the finale. The show hasn’t been sure what to do with the character — he’s been away at prep school for the last two seasons — who’s remained in the dark about his family’s double life for the duration of the series. While he’s been underserved, he pops up here long enough to bring tears to the eyes of any parent watching.
FBI agent Stan Beeman, meanwhile, gets a tense exit as he and Philip lay their cards on the table. Anyone expecting a violent “Breaking Bad”-style resolution to the confrontation is in for a letdown. What we get, however, is far more moving. Philip’s admission that Stan is his best friend, and the only friend he’s ever had, is a tragic bit of honesty that resonates with Stan. Noah Emmerich’s performance — a mix of rage and embarrassment for not figuring it out sooner — further twists the knife as he weighs his own loyalties.
Finales are a tricky thing. A successful finale must be true to the characters and story while meeting fan expectations. The latter is a tall order; fans often invest too much in a show and expect more than it can possibly deliver. “The Americans” has always been tense, thrilling and grounded — a show that preferred a long burn to pyrotechnics. In its final season, the series expertly hit its mark and delivered a final episode that both satisfied and saddened.