Identity And The End Of 'The Americans'

May 30, 2018

This post gives away in great detail the events of the series finale of FX's The Americans. If you are reading it and you have not yet watched the finale, you are about to find out everything that happens. Are we clear? OK, then.

The Americans is the kind of show you should never have watched in the hopes that the ending would spring up like a jack-in-the-box, justifying six seasons of slow-burn spy drama and marital evolution with some grand finale that tied everything together. You should never have watched it expecting some explosive ending to come galloping out with 12 minutes to go, the way it would happen on a lot of shows.

Nevertheless, I really thought one of them was going to kill the other. I thought so for years.

But it didn't happen. They both lived. As did their kids. As did Stan. Literally no one died in the finale. No one. Would you have believed that the finale of The Americans wouldn't draw a drop of blood? That the Jenningses' final reckoning with everyone from their children to Stan to the rest of the FBI would occur without violence?

Let's step back.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) have killed a lot of people in their work as Russian spies posing as an American married couple. That has included some nasty characters, but a good many perfectly innocent ones, too. And that's on top of the many victims whose lives they have ruined (here, we pour one out for poor Martha). This is all weight that they've stacked on the groaning frame of patriotic duty.

But as the series finale opens, it has all caught up with them. They are busted — or about to be busted — and it's time to run while there's still time. Things move fast: Five minutes into the episode, Philip and Elizabeth argue over whether to take their teenage son, Henry — who has no idea they are spies — with them when they bolt for Canada, or to leave him behind. They will take their older daughter, Paige, who has already been brought into the family business. But they decide to leave Henry. He deserves to keep his American life, they decide, because while they began it for him fraudulently, he has now built it for himself legitimately. It means losing him, probably forever. Elizabeth fights it at first, but she knows Philip is right. Henry has a right to his identity. He has the right to remain the person he has become. And Elizabeth is the one who wasn't ready. She may be the brutal realist in her own mind, the one who understands what unthinkable deeds may be required of her. But she has been fooling herself that when she had to, she would be able to leave her American identity and keep her American children.

The kids are not the only ones Philip and Elizabeth need to worry about. The FBI's own Stan Beeman, who has lived across the street for years, who has been their close friend but has begun to figure out who they really are, is now nipping at their heels. Season after season, Stan has failed to see what's literally right in front of his face — he has missed the duplicity of his neighbors (and thus, a theme of the show). But once he begins to understand, he is furious, and he wants to be the one to catch up to them. Once he's sure. And he's not quite sure.

So Stan watches from a window as Paige's parents pick her up from her apartment. Inside, they tell her they're going "home." And they're not taking Henry. Paige takes neither idea very well. "He'll hate you," she says. "We know that," her father answers. And then they go.

And Stan watches.

The closest thing the entire series has to a climactic moment of reckoning for Philip and Elizabeth happens in the garage of Paige's apartment building, so every bit of it is important. They're hustling her to the car when suddenly, Stan is upon them. "Hey," he says in a voice everyone instantly knows isn't really friendly. They all turn around.

Stan knows they shouldn't be there. They know Stan shouldn't be there. It's one of those situations — he knows, and really, they know he knows. And he knows they know he knows. There are no more secrets, but no one wants to be the first to say so. Everyone wants the other guy to say it first.

Stan asks what's going on. Why are they all here in the apartment garage at night? Philip plays dumb. Elizabeth makes excuses. Paige improvs that her parents are taking her home because she is sick. Stan isn't buying. Philip tries indignation at Stan's behavior. Stan still isn't buying. Steely, he asks more questions. Philip begins to approach, and that's when Stan's gun comes out. He points it at Philip. "Stop moving, you [blanking] piece of [blank]."

When you see a gun, and it's pointed at you, then the bulk of the charade is over.

Stan wants them to lie on the ground. Elizabeth says no. They will not lie on the ground with a gun pointed at them. Stan is not safe yet. Stan knows, among other things, that there are two of them — no, three of them — and one of him. But this is where Philip changes his approach. His hands, which he had raised in feigned shock when he saw Stan's gun, relax. "We had a job to do," he says. Now is the time for pleading, it seems.

Stan says Philip was his best friend; Philip says Stan was his only friend. Stan begins to ask questions: In their friendship, what was part of the spying? What was real? "Gennadi and Sofia, that was you?" he asks, referring to two people Elizabeth killed. But Philip keeps lying, denying they had anything to do with it. Elizabeth insists they wouldn't kill people. Philip looks offended at the very thought. So while this is a surrender, it is also still utter bullfeathers. Philip is calling upon the sympathy of a friend while betraying him even more than he already has. And maybe Stan knows, but he doesn't want to.

Stan tells them again to get down on the ground. But they don't, for what can be only one reason: They don't really believe Stan will shoot them, but they know he'll arrest them if they get on the ground. So they risk it. Philip goes back to explaining how he just did it for his country, until he quit. And he and Elizabeth keep telling partial truths: They explain (accurately) that they're now battling people inside their own government who are trying to get rid of Gorbachev. They say this is why they have to get home — it's necessary for the survival of the world. So they are going, and Stan will have to shoot them if he wants to stop them.

Philip leaves Stan with one more thing: He suspects that Stan's new wife, Renee, is a Russian spy. But he is not sure. And then he gets in the car, and Stan steps aside, and the family drives away. They have humiliated Stan one last time on their way out of town, proving that he isn't faithful enough to his job to arrest, or to shoot, a family of Russian spies if the family happens to be one he cares about. And they've planted an explosive inside his marriage that may or may not ever go off, but he will always know it's there.

Even with the people the Jenningses have killed and the lives they've destroyed, the show excruciatingly draws out their destruction of Stan's identity to the point where it seems like one of the most merciless things they've ever done. In his own mind, he is a loyal American. He is FBI, he is tough, he is unsentimental. He hates the Russians, he hates the KGB, he will do anything for his country. He is honest with his own government. He puts his job first. He is bound, first, by duty — just as Philip and Elizabeth are telling him that they are.

But while Philip and Elizabeth — she, especially — really are willing to do anything for their country, it turns out that Stan is not. And now he knows he is not. While it might be a victory for one part of his humanity, it's a defeat for his sense of self.

And so Stan, devastated, is left behind to mourn the picture of himself he has held in his head for decades, while Philip and Elizabeth and Paige burn their belongings — including the documents that were ready for Henry that he won't be using — and assume new identities before they get the train to Canada. Oh, and the music is Dire Straits' "Brothers In Arms," as it should be. They give Henry a call, say goodbye without telling him it's goodbye, and then they're off. They are changing identities, too. But while they're really just trading one set of falsehoods for another, it's hard not to feel like the true Philip and Elizabeth Jennings began, at some point, to exist. People who are so far removed from a couple of young Russians who married each other for work, people who have had enough sex and children and arguments and reconciliations that now, they are real — which they realize as they abandon and bury those identities.

When the Jennings family stops off, now in disguise, for (presumably) a bathroom break at a McDonald's, Philip and Elizabeth talk about whether he might stay behind to try to remain in contact with Henry. But after he goes inside, picks up some food, and throws a glance at a happy American family of the kind he sort of wishes he could have had, he goes back outside and gets in the car with his wife and daughter, and they leave. The music now: U2's "With Or Without You," which has been heard so much, in so many places, so many times, that ... can it still work?

We follow the three Jenningses onto the train, where they are in disguise and carefully not sitting together.

But at least they can trust each other. Back in Virginia, in the light of day as the FBI raids the Jennings house, Stan hugs his wife, not knowing anymore whether he can trust her, and not trusting her with the secret he is carrying about the neighbors he allowed to escape.

And then, the second moment of peril of the episode comes, almost all the way to the Canadian border. There's minimal dialogue, and the music fades away. When the train stops at a station, officers carrying FBI bulletins on Philip and Elizabeth board and begin checking passports. One more time, Philip's wig gets him out of a jam. One more time, Elizabeth hides behind her big glasses. They are safe. They are actually safe. They will get out of the country.

The train pulls out, and as it does, the music kicks back in, and a relieved Philip and Elizabeth Jennings breathe a sigh of relief. But then.

But then.

But then, as Bono launches into his holler, Elizabeth sees out the window of the moving train that her daughter is on the platform. Paige has gotten off the train. Paige has decided not to go to Russia, and her parents cannot chase her down. Elizabeth watches from the window in shock. Philip then sees Paige too, and he can only go and sit with his wife and endure their probably permanent separation from their daughter. They have lost both of their children, but at least now that they are almost to Canada, they can sit together. They have gotten out alive and together, but that is all they've gotten. Elizabeth's mouth hangs open. Shock, despair, relief.

Meanwhile, Stan finds Henry at hockey practice and tells him about his family: that they're spies. And that they're gone.

The music of Tchaikovsky — perhaps inevitably — brings Philip and Elizabeth home to Russia, where they have apparently decided to stay together, despite the fact that their marriage was originally a sham. They wind up standing side by side in the dark, looking out over what was once home and does not feel like home anymore. They speak of alternate lives in which they might have met under other circumstances. They worry about their children but conclude that they're old enough to get on without their parents. Philip says, in English, that it's strange. Elizabeth replies, in Russian, "We'll get used to it."

The neatly concluded series finale has fallen out of favor. Perhaps since the black screen that ended The Sopranos -- and the subsequent cultural accusations that it was unsophisticated to find it unsatisfying — it has been understood that to leave questions unanswered is to respect your audience. Certainly, The Americans leaves plenty of questions unanswered: Will Stan ever find out whether Renee is, indeed, a Russian spy? Will Paige be able to talk her way through her parents' disappearance and emerge unscathed as an American, since Stan presumably doesn't plan to bust her? Will Philip and Elizabeth stay together in Russia?

What didn't happen was any real punishment, in the traditional and governmental sense, for the people they killed and the damage they did. They got away. Yes, they had to leave their children, but those were children they had as Americans. Everything they came with from Russia, they got to leave with — including a marriage that now feels genuine.

The show is called The Americans; it's hardly surprising that it turns out to be about identity more than spycraft. Or, at least, about spycraft as a play on identity. Philip often seemed — as he was at McDonald's — wistful about losing out on parts of life as an American, and Elizabeth always considered herself a duty-bound Russian. But now that they are back in Russia, who are they? Are they really repatriated Russians, or are they expatriated Americans? Not legally, but personally?

They left widows and orphans and grieving parents behind as they knocked off everyone who got in the way, but none of the damage they did seems any more wrenching in retrospect than the people they robbed of their identities — not just Stan, but also Martha, who lost her entire life in the United States. Young Hee and Don, whose family they destroyed.

While Paige's story often seemed — to put it politely — unnecessary in the beginning, it wound up being central to this theme. Because Paige was caught at the moment in which her identity as an American college student still felt more developed than her identity as a spy. Her mother could call Russia "home"; that sounded bizarre to her. Elizabeth discovered that she could make Paige a spy, but she couldn't make her a Russian. And Paige knew enough not to ask her parents, because she knew what they'd say. She had to deal with them the way they dealt with others: on a need-to-know basis.

So as Elizabeth and Philip stand at that overlook, in one sense, they've paid a very high price by being separated from their children. In another, they got away with murder many times over. But when she says to him, "We'll get used to it" — nudging him back to Russian — Elizabeth is putting her finger on the most haunting question that faces her and her husband: Can they go back? Can they become Russian again? They made new lives and abandoned them. They made children and abandoned them. They are not without country, but they are without identity.

Can they go back?

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