The Americans: A Retrospective

Author’s note: This retrospective goes through a great many spoilers for the series as a whole. Its intent is to look back on The Americans, as a viewer, and so the retrospective will ruin a lot of the larger arcs the show makes.

The Americans is a show about pawns in a game that spans the world. They know they are pawns, and perfectly capable and dependable pawns at that. Phillip Jennings, one-half of the pawn pieces, isn’t so certain about the work they are doing, however. He can feel the walls closing in, perhaps figuratively, perhaps literally. The other pawn is fiercely loyal and lethal at playing this game, maybe even to her detriment. Add in impeccable acting, perfect music choices from the 1980’s, and a whole lot of people dying, and you’ve got yourself The Americans, which ended its run during the summer of 2018.

The Americans, created by Joe Weisberg, began in January 2013 on FX with the promise of spy intrigue on a ground level, with Russian spies planted inside America as a couple in the travel agency business taking on the hard work that the Cold War demands. Over the course of six seasons and 75 episodes, the hard-fought journey comes to a close as dark and damaging as it opened. Now is as good a time as ever to go back through what made the series so special in its run and highlight some of its more memorable moments.

Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings appear on the surface as mild-mannered owners of a travel agency. They have two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and live in a nice neighborhood. But underneath that facade, they are Russian agents sent on missions by the Center back home to observe and report, and, when the time comes, manipulate and execute. Then the new neighbor moves in: Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent who just joined up with the counterintelligence branch. This is the set-up to the series, and it is a reminder that while the scope of the show and its characters expanded over time, these were the pieces that began the whole journey.

The Americans. FX.

The show focused on doing what is right, what someone believes to be right: patriotism and honor to country paramount over all else. At times, that circumvented over what was good, leading to some miserable murders that haunted Philip infinitely more than it fazed Elizabeth. His nearly dead stares into space and momentary outbursts at his children were reminders that the horrors of this work wore its people down to a nub, sacrificing their core well past the bone. Rhys played these scenes beautifully, a subtlety to even a harrowed glance to his partner in crime saying more than any word could. Philip’s resolve was a question that plagued most of the first season, leaving him to be far more bottled up and emotionless in the middle seasons before learning to open up and eventually let go of that life for good at the end of the fifth season.

It was in Elizabeth’s icy demeanor and endless determination that the show found its second way into that perspective. She would never flinch, would never look away from any work that the Center would ask of her, leaving her as sometimes a vulnerable monster who gave but small hints of humanity, but Russell would hold it back and play it like a burden rather than a trait.

The Americans. FX.

Beeman and the FBI were always at the cusp of something bigger, something that at times felt like it was on the fringes for most of the series’ run, always just at the edge of the Jennings’s vision. The early goings were closing in on what was dubbed “the couple,” and sketch artist renditions of Philip and Elizabeth in disguise, while also investigating the inner workings going on at the Rezidentura (the Russian embassy). Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru), a KGB officer working out of the Rezidentura, was part of this, as was Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), head of the technology and science intelligence for the KGB when we first meet him, who grew from secondary character to a large and important figure in the endgame of the series. There’s also the issue of Stan’s partner being murdered by Philip for catching him at Martha’s, left in the air for many seasons. The leads and efforts of the FBI led down avenues that could be frustrating due to their dead ends or labyrinthine manner that at times felt like they were not going anywhere, but that was because sometimes, that’s how investigations go. Not everything can be uncovered at the drop of a hat, and when looking back on it, that is a commendable move on the part of the writers.

Then there are the Jennings children. Paige and Henry are ostensibly Americans, born and raised knowing nothing of their parents and their hidden lives. They see the late-night excursions and the stress their parents go through, but the excuse of the travel agency and mystery clients are always at the ready to fix any discrepancies. Henry is almost an afterthought in most of the series, befriending Stan or at a friend’s house and missing for stretches of time. But, as the final season looms, he becomes more prominent and is used quite effectively. Paige, on the other hand, is a massive focus of the series. Her turn to religion and, in time, the revelation of the secret of her family and her piece-by-piece movement into the life of a spy is a fascinating development. This shatters her perception of her parents and all of the lies over her entire life up to that point, and the slow shift into seeing the world differently and eventually becoming part of that life was gradual and never forced.

THE AMERICANS -- Pictured: Costa Ronin as Oleg Burov. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX
The Americans. FX.

But that life would always have casualties; those of a near-silent war could be felt in every season. Nina was hit the hardest with her character arc. From officer to double agent and then to be sent to prison in Russia and killed, it was a process that left the possibility of hope, only for it to be dashed in a moment. Her importance to both Stan and Oleg would play out even beyond her death, as a scene in the final season proves.

Another prominent casualty, in an emotional sense, is that of Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), a secretary in the FBI’s counterintelligence program. Hers was incomprehensibly cruel, almost comically so, in how she was tricked into marrying one of Philip’s aliases (the wig-adorned Clark) and then forced to spy on her boss and colleagues. For multiple seasons she is oblivious to the goings-on, curious about some instances of his fake job but open and welcoming to them until the truth is revealed. Her shipping off to Russia, a foreign land she knows nothing of and having to acclimate is a punishment her character never deserves, though season five ends on a glimmer of hope for her, in the form of adopting a child, something she always wanted.

These are only two of the lives devastated by the moves of the characters in The Americans. But there are plenty more, and many of them are left dead. Every move led to catastrophe, all for the good of the mission. The cost of the work is something that does weigh on its characters, Philip more so than Elizabeth.

There were certainly bumps along the road. At times the Russian side of the story, with Oleg or the Rezidentura, would meander and not have the emotional impact the main story provided. A couple of storylines went on too long or did not feel as substantial, like the Kimmy side of things. But then, in the final season, it is used exceptionally, using that time and build-up effectively and making it all the more impactful. There are others, like Philip’s son from Russia or the food disbursement investigation that Oleg is part of, that in the end do not end up carrying the impact they could have.

The Americans. FX.

The thirteen episodes of season five ran into the issue of being the start of the two-season renewal that would close out the series, and wound up not quite moving the needle much for some in the plot. There is a good reason for that. The season was about character growth, setting these characters on a path that would lead them into the final ten episodes. There are times where threads were dragging, but those threads were about instilling some finality in these characters, giving them a pathway to what the final season had in store for them.

Season six managed to bring all of the pieces together in an effortless way. A lot of these pieces, at once thought of as separate threads, come together to form the end narrative.

The final season found Elizabeth producing a body count nearly every episode, the stress of the Reagan/Gorbachev summit in 1987 hanging overall, along with the disintegration of trust between Philip and herself. She smoked constantly, her appearance disheveled, her lack of sleep visible in the haggard look in her eyes, the weight of her country resting on her back. Elizabeth was brought to her wit’s end, all for something she finds out is being used negatively against her country. It is a reminder that their work will not always be for good.

There is a scene in the fifth episode of season six, “The Great Patriotic War”, where Oleg is confronted by Tatiana (Vera Cherny), a co-worker from past seasons whom he had wronged. “The only thing that’s done any good for me is moving on,” he proclaims, when clearly he has not. “You moved on? That’s nice,” she says with disgust. “But maybe you should look behind you sometime and think about all the things you destroyed on the way.” It’s the perfect encapsulation of every character’s journey through the six seasons, a reminder that everything that came before came at a cost, one they would one day have to face.

The Americans. FX.

Paige’s descent into the world of spies turned out to be a tumultuous and confusing one for her, making rookie mistakes and facing backlash from Elizabeth in the process. She ended up seeing her mother covered in the brains of an army general, leading Philip to say, upon finding out, “well, now she has seen everything.” Her mixing of intelligence and relationship with an intern of a senator led Elizabeth to chastise her, but when finding out through hearsay of her mother doing the same and ruining the life of a young man, their closeness and relationship are left in tatters.

The aforementioned Kimmy subplot became part of the main plot as Philip faced a moral dilemma of Elizabeth’s request to plant drugs on her and use the threat of prison to blackmail her father, a man with compelling information. The turmoil and damage it does to Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship made it all the more interesting. His choice of not committing to the plan, and Elizabeth’s retort that he never was going to anyway, is a great scene for both characters. It shows her view of his softness in a cold light, while his side of the coin is that of compassion and kindness to a young woman over potentially ruining her life.

But there is another factor in Philip’s actions that rise up among the acts of good. Spying on Elizabeth for Oleg, at first reluctantly and then willingly as he realizes the dark path she is going down, leads to a further breakdown in communication between the two. Her stress and tiredness and betrayal that he would leave that life behind factor into her becoming uneasy with filling in the whole picture for him, leading them to practically becoming strangers. It also leads to testing Paige, and in a way testing Elizabeth. He demands that Paige hit him, to show what she has learned, and when she tries, he pins her to the wall, never giving her a chance to escape. It’s a sign that despite all of the training with Elizabeth and three years have passed, Elizabeth did not train Paige enough, or was perhaps soft herself, to protect herself from a larger physical threat (other than some unsuspecting college bar kids). While he may have some form of kindness in him somewhere, there are hints that with those close to him, he holds some resentment or a need for them to be better than they are.

Philip visiting a longstanding employee of the now failing travel agency that he had fired previously, guilt eating away at him, gave another hint that the grand facade was never quite as perfect as their carefulness let on. He is told that over all the years, whatever was going on in that back room was noticed, but out of loyalty was never mentioned. Those many meetings between Philip and Elizabeth, quietly speaking of their missions, was indeed noticed all along, even if the context was never there. It was a good grounding moment, hitting home that the cracks of this final season were always there, but perhaps not as exposed as they are now.

But it was in Philip’s return to the life of a spy, in order to help Elizabeth complete a near-impossible mission, that was the larger turning point for them both. The mission was executed well, but the fallout of losing a long-standing acquaintance and the extraction goal (another spy who had been giving up significant information) led to Philip having to chop off the identifying features of their acquaintance, someone who had served with them for years. His thousand-yard stare and the possibility of being caught at any moment in the parking garage made the scene endlessly tense, and was the real breaking point for him. This return only broke him more, and the consequences of his mental health irreparable.

THE AMERICANS -- Pictured: Margo Martindale as Claudia. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX
The Americans. FX.

Elizabeth’s acceptance of a painting from the dying artist wife of one of her marks was a perfect character moment. She lays the painting flat on the garage floor, lighter hanging right over the corner, but she falters and folds it up, placing it inside the storage locker. There’s a hint of sentimentality, that this painting she has regarded for months while taking care of this woman during her final days while spying on her husband brought her some humanity. Perhaps she truly does care. But that moment is only a moment, as she tears it from that locker and lights each corner and watches it disappear, what felt like that last bit of humanity turning to ash. Also in that time, she lets an intern to a United States senator live even after he discovered he had bugged a meeting for her, another sign that her compassion was always there, but buried far deeper than Philip’s ever was.

This makes that turn in the eighth and ninth episodes a very smart change to Elizabeth’s direction. She is told of her use as a pawn in a political game of regime change, confirming Philip’s warning before. Her final scene with Claudia (Margo Martindale) was a wonderful endpoint for their respective relationship, always an uneasy one and one that at least during the sixth season felt closer than ever before. The times spent between them and Paige, teaching her the history of their country felt like a bond was forming. But Claudia lets that all fall away, showing Elizabeth it was always a transactional relationship after all. It was also a reminder that despite her lasting damage to their plan and stopping the assassination of their lynchpin to overthrowing Gorbachev, the Center and its loyal members would always find a way to take their country back.

The series finale found the Jennings on the run, setting up the pieces to flee the lives they had held for several decades. It is in this episode where, in a parking garage, the Jennings, Paige included, come face to face with a Stan that knows everything. This moment has been a long time coming, full of six seasons of tension and almost heartbreak over a closeness that has hinged on lies, deceit, and near-cruelty. Stan, gun trained on best friend Philip, says as much, comparing his life to a “joke” for what they have done to him. He calls them killers, to which Elizabeth scoffs and says that they never partook in such things, something all parties knew was a complete lie. Philip, in this instance, has the look of a person at their end, begging not for himself but for the sake of his family. Stan’s decision, or lack of a decision, allows them to pass by him and escape, completely dumbfounded over his entire life cratered and destroyed, along with the information that his new love could also possibly be a spy. Stan will never be able to trust a single soul for the remainder of his days, a cruel punishment for a man trying to do the best thing possible.

The escape to Canada and eventually Russia culminated with Paige deciding to stick behind, much to her parents’ shock, with them watching her standing at the train station as their train passes her by. Elizabeth’s utter shock and devastation to this deserves Keri Russell any award she is eligible for, as a mother knowing she will never see her child again in a single moment. Henry, too, is lost to them, left at his school and to be told by Stan at hockey practice of what his parents truly are. In the plane ride across continents, the touchstone of art and life comes to Elizabeth again in the form of a dream, waking up surrounded by art, but her focus falls on a picture of Paige and Henry, to which she wakes up suddenly.

The final moment, Philip and Elizabeth finally in Russia and looking out over the city and wondering about choices that they made in life and that life made for them, is a wonderful end to the series. “Maybe we would have met… on a bus,” Elizabeth considers that different path. But their minds turn back to their children again, the Americans, and how they are no longer children. They have grown up. It’s a painful reminder that the show had both children grow up amidst all of their tensions and dangers, and are now abandoned forever. Whatever fate awaited the pair in Russia is anyone’s guess, especially after defying the Center, and it is left a mystery. Their loss of family is an important factor, and while it is endlessly depressing, everyone ended up alive, even if dead inside.

The Americans. FX.

It would be a crime to miss out on speaking about an unsung hero of the series: the mail robot. It survived through thick and thin, kicks and thrashes, comments of dismissiveness and even being used as a recording device and getting a sweet old lady killed with her heart medicine. It served the FBI well through the ’80s and should be congratulated on its service.

The Americans gave FX a prestige drama that may have flown under the radar almost every year when it came to awards (though it has won a Peabody Award, multiple Television Critics Association awards, and multiple wins for Martindale at the Emmys, to name a few), but was critically received with glowing, nearly rave reviews. The show pitted its characters in a battle of two nations, while the world around them went on with its life without much knowledge of what lies just beneath the surface. The show took its time and planted the seeds that would bloom in its sixth season, and gave its characters the room to breathe and become some of the best television has to offer.

The Americans aired on FX. It ended on May 30th, 2018.

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