The Best Thing on TV This Year Was: 'The Americans'

The series finale of this smart show about undercover Russian spies in the 1980s surpassed all expectations.

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Dec 19 2018, 8:10pm

Photo Courtesy of FX

The Americans was one of those TV shows that haunted my real life. You know when you see a scary movie that really gets in your head, and you’re jumpy afterward? Or you watch something really surreal—this happened to me with Sorry to Bother You—and the world seems off-kilter for a while? This was me and The Americans. I’d get so invested in the exploits of Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), Russian spies undercover in 1980s Washington, DC, that I’d dream about them sometimes. In 2018-speak, I guess I stan. Or ship.

Now before we jump into singing the praises of the series finale of The Americans—the excellent “START” that aired in May—I’d like you to cue up Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms.”

The music was always such a potent and pitch-perfect part of the show, to the point where I can’t imagine those car chase scenes scored by anything other than Fleetwood Mac now. The songs in the finale were no exception, but the first musical cue didn’t occur until more than halfway through the 90-minute episode. When the mournful guitar strain at the beginning of “Brothers In Arms” finally came in, after that pivotal scene in the parking garage, it was devastating. That’s probably the first moment that made me cry during “START,” though I ended up watching the last episode twice and choked up both times.

As we all know, or at least should know after six seasons of spy shenanigans, there’s really only one way The Americans could end: the Jenningses had to get caught. That’s exactly what has happened when “START” picks up. The FBI is hot on their trail, so Philip and Elizabeth are making a mad-dash for the USSR by way of the Canadian border, and they’ve made the heart-wrenching choice, as spies who are also parents, to take one kid with them (their eldest, Paige, who they’re grooming for espionage herself) and leave one kid in America (their youngest, Henry, who’s in boarding school anyway).

They swing by Paige’s apartment building to scoop her up, and that’s when the episode’s most pivotal scene happens: the Jennings family runs into their neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman, in the parking garage. By this point, Stan has figured things out and he’s tailed Philip and Elizabeth here expressly to confront them. If it were any other prestige TV series, the scene might go the way you’d expect: with a gruesome, bloody shootout. Or at the very least, a SWAT team ambush that leads to serious prison time. Instead, the parking garage scene is an 11-minute acting masterclass. Matthew Rhys essentially monologues his scene partner into submission, which feels like a feat of spy- and stagecraft delivered with such raw precision that it’s dazzling. By the time the Russian spies get in their car and simply drive away, Stan is stupefied. Philip’s mind games are like a psychological magician’s final act; you blink, and poof, he’s gone.

The other devastating scene in the finale comes after, scored to U2’s “With or Without You.” Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige are on a train bound for Canada, one stop from the border, and the only thing standing between them and getting away with it all is border patrol checking their passport photos against sketches of the “wanted” Russian spies. The writers set us up to think this is the central drama of the scene. Will they get caught? But the officers let them through, the train slides away from the platform, and there is Paige, choosing to stay behind in America and say goodbye to her parents forever. The look on Russell’s face as she stares, agape, out the window had me weeping.

There are a lot of other amazing moments in “START.” The final scene, with Philip and Elizabeth looking out over a glittering city skyline back in Russia, reassuring each other in their native tongue that together they’ll handle whatever comes next, felt Chekhovian. Paige’s last scene, after the train goodbye, is her at a safehouse back in DC doing vodka shots—which birthed one of my favorite GIFs. (Though speaking of which, hers is the one storyline that doesn’t quite resolve. Wouldn’t the FBI send her to prison for being a spy-in-training?)

But all in all, the way The Americans ended, without a single instance of physical violence but plenty of emotional carnage, was perfect. It didn’t need to be bloody to be brutal. I really mourned the end of this show. The characters felt like friends, which is a testament to its good writing, and becomes particularly funny and kind of sad when you remember they’re murderous sociopaths.

On the bright side, there is still awards season to look forward to, where Rhys and Russell have a last chance to get the accolades they deserve for six seasons of brilliant work on The Americans (though they've both been nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes, only Rhys has won, in the former category). At the very least, fans can look forward to the two of them looking adorable together on the red carpet.

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