The Americans came to an end this week, at long last. Six years of spying, sex and murder (which is apparently all that spying really is) culminated in a low key ending that left me feeling frankly, unsatisfied, despite the tact with which it was pulled off. A longtime favorite of mine, I do believe the show peaked in Seasons 3 and 4, where I was fooled into thinking that it was building towards something much more consequential than what ended up happening.
Not that there weren’t signs before this. Actually, the fifth season, considered a disappointment from most fans, was where I started picking up on the signals that the show actually may not want to do away with either of its two antiheroes, much akin to shows like The Sopranos and Justified before it. No, I started realizing that each season’s slow build was more about the tension itself rather than that tension actually leading to something. In past seasons, when characters like Martha (Alison Wright) and Paige (Holly Taylor) found out the truth about Philip and Elizabeth, it changed the status quo and led to realizations that felt dangerous and authentic, and I was tricked into thinking that the two of them couldn’t continue to lead these lives indefinitely, that something would happen to them, especially with Philip’s increasing existential crisis.
But Philip’s personal crisis was simply that. Personal. Now when I look back on it, I realize that finding out the truth didn’t lead to Martha’s ruin, or Pastor Tim’s for that matter. No, when it felt like they were in the most jeopardy, something always let Philip and Elizabeth skate in the end. So perhaps it was me, reading the show wrong all these years. Maybe I was spoiled by the apocalyptic ending of Breaking Bad, where Walt had to get what he deserved eventually.
The Americans was always about Phil and Elizabeth’s marriage, which was in as bad a place as it had ever been at the opening of this season. There was a time jump of three years since last season, and Philip had quit working for the KGB and was genuinely running the travel agency (which is a little weird, since I assume the KGB had set up that business as front to begin with, so how could Philip be having money problems?), while Elizabeth was working solo and sloppier than ever, having to murder someone new just about every week. There’s an absolutely idiotic subplot involving Elizabeth now training Paige to become a spy for the Soviet Union, which she inexplicably is into (has she grown stupider as she’s gotten older?), and then rogue KGB agents pull Elizabeth into their plot to take out Gorbachev before the 1987 summit in Washington, so Philip must get back in the game somewhat to prevent that from happening.
This could have been setup for a great final season and a permanent rift between the Jenningses, but as I began to suspect last year, the show never wanted to separate them in the first place. No matter how far apart they are, no matter how doomed their marriage seems to be, their connection is never severed completely. This could have been a terrific storyline for hapless Stan (the worst FBI agent in history, it turns out) to finally find out about his neighbors, trap Philip into turning on his wife in exchange for immunity for himself and the kids, and lead to a powerful, possibly fatal confrontation between husband and wife. At least, that’s what I would have done.
But obviously, I’m not the writer here. So what happens instead feels basically like another typical, not final, season of The Americans, with Elizabeth running her sources as usual and nothing coming to a head in any way until the last couple of episodes, where Philip is finally burned, Stan figures out the truth (after nothing more than one conversation with poor, clueless Henry) and our doomed couple must go on the run. Conveniently, true believer Elizabeth has a sudden change of heart in not wanting to follow the orders of the rogue KGB operatives, allowing Philip to stay allied with her, and Stan’s one confrontational scene with the family ends in a way that’s most unexpected, yet also totally anticlimactic. I couldn't help thinking, that’s it? After all this time? The series wraps up with the bare minimum of consequences for the Jenningses and very little payoff for their years of crimes, unless all you wanted was to see Stan find out, I guess. I wanted more. And there was so much story potential that I think it could have led to a lot more, unless creator Joe Weisberg really felt from the beginning that neither of them should have to pay for or even acknowledge their years of murdering innocent people (not even completely un-remorseful Elizabeth, apparently). Was I supposed to be on the side of the Soviet Union all along here? Silly me.