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The Americans - START - Review: "A perfect ending"



In season two, while discussing Jared’s future, Philip says: “He’ll make it.” Seconds later, when Elizabeth puts it to him that their own children wouldn’t be able to survive in Jared’s situation, he adds: “Paige is smarter than anyone. She can talk people in circles, she can think people in circles. And Henry-- yeah, he's a kid, but in a couple of years, who knows?”

Come the final scene of The Americans, and Philip is again making astute observations: “They’ll remember us. And… they’re not kids anymore. We raised them.”

This is truly the thing to remember.

As the curtain comes down on the series, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — Mikhail and Nadezhda — return home for the first time in two decades, arriving in Russia with no less than they had when they left. But they have so much more with them. Namely, the baggage that comes from a false life lived too long, the baggage that comes from knowing their two children — the two people this couple would do anything to protect — are 5,000 miles away, never to see their parents again.

Past debates over how Paige and particularly Henry would cope in Mother Russia seem almost irrelevant in retrospect, because was that ever going to come to fruition? Or was it just a way to avoid facing the thought of leaving him or both of them in America? Philip establishes even before the opening titles that it would be better to leave their son behind. It’s the first of many heartbreakers. No outcome here is a good one, but Philip is right to suggest this is the best thing for Henry, even if it’s completely gutting to Elizabeth. Watching Keri Russell’s reaction here feels as though someone is ripping out your heart.

In this moment, something becomes clear: The Americans isn’t a drama. It’s a horror. It’s every ordinary person’s worst nightmare imaginable strung up in lights, paraded to cause as much misery and fear as humanly possible. “START” is relentless in making you want to hide behind something as you watch because fully facing the reality of this finale is so much to bear.

The emotional peak comes with half-an-hour to go, as Henry speaks to his parents for the last time. Right here is the climax of everything that this show has ever been. It’s a spy show, sure, but the family aspect has always been the starting point, what grounded the series in the world. So when Philip and Elizabeth have that conversation, which lasts two minutes and three seconds, it feels like an eternity passes, but that it also takes no time at all. Henry’s obliviousness to the situation only makes it worse. To him, nothing is wrong.

“I’ll see you next week. Okay, bye, dad.”

Those are the last eight words Henry Jennings will ever say to his father, or his mother, or his sister. It’s unfathomable. And yet his knowledge would have probably removed some of the sting from the call, because it would have turned into an unnecessary tear-fest. As we see Philip and Elizabeth’s pain in saying goodbye without saying goodbye, we’re reminded just how much weight this scene has. The worst part may be that Philip knew all along that this would be the best way. It’s horrible to leave him behind but, long-term, this is the best thing for him. But it’s hard to remember that when abandoning your son and speaking to him for the final time.

Paige, having had the idea, cannot bring herself to speak to her brother. It’s partly because she’s overwhelmed and partly because she’s worried she won’t hold it together. The two are closely linked, of course, and who can blame her? For all that she has been trained to keep control of her emotions, this is an unprecedented situation. It’s one thing to stay level-headed with Pastor Tim and Alice; quite another to do so saying goodbye to Henry. She’d blow the cover, and she knows it.

The Americans has always lived on a knife edge. At every turn, there’s the potential for something to go wrong, for any given scene to become the most uncomfortable in the show’s history. But nothing compares to the final encounter between Stan and the Jennings family.

“We had a job to do.”

After years of deception, of working against his best friend next door, this is the explanation Philip offers up. There’s a palpable sense of relief that comes with his confession; it very much feels as though the burden is lifted and finally Philip and Elizabeth can breathe again. It’s ironic that it happens in a scene designed to make the audience forget to breathe — because oh boy, does this make you forget to breathe.

Even as Stan watches from Paige’s apartment afar to confirm his suspicions, you just know that something tense is coming. Though the backing score is calm and hits on the emotional beats, it could just have easily been loud and abrasive to accompany a scene with such gravity. Director Chris Long’s choice to end the act on a shot from outside the garage, as if to suggest Stan was about to tail the Jennings, was a nice misdirect.

But this is the culmination of it all. Every dramatic moment across 75 episodes has led to this point, this confrontation. While it would have been easy to have the Jennings escape without encountering Stan, it would have been a cop-out of the most important interaction the series could have ever had. This is incredibly painful but utterly necessary.

At no stage is it certain that Stan won’t just simply shoot Philip. By now, anything is possible, and with Stan so hurt and betrayed, daring even to throw in a couple of f-bombs, killing his best friend is on the table. The longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes that Stan will let them go — which he duly does — maybe through acceptance, maybe through compassion, maybe because he simply can’t bring himself to hurt Philip. Maybe it’s a combination of those. Whatever the reason, he does it, leaving himself a greater burden than ever before, and potentially filling himself with regret. He chased these two for nearly a decade. Now he must lie about not catching them for the rest of his life, or face charges of treason. It’s the worst choice of his life, and there is no good answer. In light of all that happened, arresting them was probably the best option.

The scene is a wonderful acting back-and-forth between Noah Emmerich and Matthew Rhys. Emmerich’s rage is terrifying before Rhys takes control, apologetic and melancholy, employing the same depressed look Philip so often gives as Stan can do little more than stand, watch, and gulp. Stan’s eyes are simultaneously furious and empty, as though everything has been ripped away from him and this is his revenge. It’s not entirely false, given how big a part of his life the Jennings family are, and given that this could sink his career. Emmerich is doing nothing complex, but it’s so effective.

His emptiness only gets worse in the montage that follows, set to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”, where he looks a man robbed of his soul. He’s lethargic, pensive. This conflict was always going to end badly for viewers because The Americans has done such a remarkable job of making us empathise with both sides. To see him like this is truly saddening, but it was never going to be any different.

With him comes the only thread you could argue isn’t neatly tied up. Since her introduction, Renee’s allegiances have been in question and, by the end of the finale, it isn’t confirmed either way. Philip’s departing words to Stan — words that are probably the biggest risk of the entire episode — are to suggest she might be a Soviet spy. But while the lack of a definitive answer could be seen as leaving things open, this isn’t something to be critical of. Instead, Stan’s dilemma is a reminder that not seeing through the Jennings family is acceptable because even they can’t see through her. It’s a reminder, too, that even with them gone, there are still plenty of illegals remaining in D.C. and across the country, all of whom need to be dealt with.

Would it have been nice to know? Sure. But the only way to know for certain is if she is actually KGB, and in an episode full of emotional destruction for Stan, that might have been one step too far.

Once Stan was no longer a problem, all the Jennings family had to do was get past border security, and a one-way journey to Moscow beckoned.

In the moment, Paige’s U-turn is a stunning twist, one with such magnitude that it drastically changes the lives of the characters involved. Many fans will have gone into this episode expecting death, such has been The Americans’ status quo in these six seasons. But there’s something more crushing about this twist than there would be for a death.

Philip and Elizabeth chose not to take Henry. They made a conscious decision to abandon him — a word Philip uses with Stan and it is not an overreaction. Henry gets no say in whether he wants to be left without parents.

Paige does.

And, after everything, Paige decides to stay.

It’s interesting to note the conversation Philip and Elizabeth have earlier in the episode about leaving Henry:

“It’s the best thing for him.”

“To be alone? Away from us? That is not the best thing for him.”

“He belongs here.”

“He belongs with us.”

Last week, Paige criticised her mother, suggesting that it was better that Henry got as far from them as possible. Here, we see her follow through on that outburst, electing to remain in a country that now will now treat her as an enemy. A foreign citizen. A criminal. It’s easy to understand her decision even without her anger at learning the truth of this work. Two seasons ago, she was aghast at the idea of leaving the United States if something went wrong, and while her commitment to this work would have made her more inclined to go to Moscow — the videos she, Claudia and Elizabeth watched together helped with that too — it was still too big a change for her to follow through with. And so she does what Philip wanted to do and stays behind.

But the question becomes: what now? As she returns to Claudia’s empty apartment and takes a shot of vodka, she’s left with nothing. Henry is still in New Hampshire, but it will take an awful lot of skill and planning to ever be able to see him again. The Jennings operation is blown, meaning she won’t be doing anything more for the Center. Her best bet now seems to be moving to some other place across the country, finding a low-key job, and living out the rest of her days as someone new — and the logistics of that aren’t even simple. With her Canadian passport, she could technically try and become a legal U.S. citizen under the presumption that she is a Canadian citizen, but scrutiny there could see her exposed.

So Mikhail and Nadezhda arrive home by themselves, greeted by Arkady Ivanovich, to start their life anew for the second time. For the first time in “so many years,” they can be themselves again. But they will be themselves alone. When they arrived in the U.S., 22 years before, neither remarked on how different West Virginia is to home. But looking out at Moscow in 1987?

“It feels strange,” Mikhail observes.

“We’ll get used to it,” Nadezhda replies in Russian, with the final line of the series.

A simple ending. A beautiful ending. A perfect ending.

Notes:

U2’s “With or Without You” has long been associated with Friends for me, but after a haunting eight-minute sequence here, that may now change. And it was superb work from editor Daniel Valverde to bring in Bono’s open-throated vocals at the exact moment Elizabeth sees Paige standing on the platform.

Oleg, it would seem, has no chance of getting away with his crimes and looks set to spend the next 20 years — at least — in an American jail cell. It’s a really sad ending for him, particularly with a wife and young baby now alone at home, but he knew the risks, and he seems resigned to his fate during the brief glimpse we get of him.

Paige’s questions about Henry are right, most importantly the question over how he pays for school. But her point about how he’ll hate them is probably irrelevant, because — as Philip and Elizabeth discussed two seasons ago — he would hate them for taking him to Russia too. It’s a lose-lose situation for them.

That’s it for the series. Thank you to everyone who’s read my reviews throughout the past three seasons. It’s been so much fun to write about one of the best shows on television, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed the ride as much as I have. Make sure to hit the comments with your thoughts on the series finale, the season, and the show.

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