Questions We Still Have After the Series Finale of 'The Americans'
The series finale of The Americans was always going to be bittersweet. For 75 episodes spread over six seasons, the FX show did its best to avoid television convention, favoring methodical and realistic storytelling over spectacle and fan service. That slow-burn approach took a toll on viewership, but those who stuck with the saga about the Jennings, a seemingly all-American suburban family who also happen to be undercover KGB spies, could claim (and very often did, to whoever would listen) that they were witnessing one of the finest dramas in TV history play out.
While no series' legacy is secured until its last episode has aired, it would have taken a true stinker of a finale to tarnish a program that's been this consistently great throughout its run. The incisive performances from Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, the incredible soundtrack, the allure of espionage and sexual betrayal, the oddly timely political aspects, the scene-stealers (e.g., Martha, the mail robot) -- The Americans rarely disappointed. And I'm relieved to report that "START," the extra-long episode that capped off the Jennings' story, leaves the air with as much oomph as it has sustained since day one.
The nail-biting finale was as riveting as the pilot back in 2013, with loose ends coming together and new strands fraying into the unknown. It didn't opt for a polarizing or provocative ending, but rather focused on the intimacy fans came to expect from The Americans, with all of the melancholy, anxiety, and drama that comes with those expectations. But a lot happened in "START," so we're breaking the episode down, moment by moment, to discuss what happened and what it might mean for these characters going forward.
Why did Stan let the Jennings go?For six seasons, we've awaited the confrontation between FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his across-the-street neighbors and best friends, the Jennings. Poor Stan, oblivious to the goings on in front of his nose; unaware that the family he came to love, the people he respected most of all, were his secret enemies. But as was inevitable, Stan starting catching on. When Philip and Elizabeth left town on Thanksgiving, blaming the failings of their travel agency, he found the excuse suspicious. Who leaves their family behind on such an important American holiday? And after a botched KGB mission in Chicago, Stan's spidey sense went into overdrive.
There were many ways this confrontation might have played out. Stan, occasionally prone to outbursts, might have killed them. Elizabeth, with all of her fire and drive, might have killed him. Or Philip, in an attempt to save his wife or friend, could have turned on either. But what actually happened was totally unpredictable and completely perfect: Stan let them go, and they went.
The scene takes place in a parking garage near Paige's school. Philip and Elizabeth, aware that their time is up, collect their daughter and try to make a run for it. But Stan tracks them and approaches them in the concrete fortress, clutching his gun and demanding answers. After a brief moment of keeping up a lie -- that they were bringing a sick Paige back home -- Philip relaxed his shoulders and finally confessed: "We had a job to do."
After a back-and-forth, a gobsmacked and broken-hearted Stan stands frozen as his best friend, Philip, tells him everything, and admits they're leaving behind their son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and needs Stan to protect him. Philip's tearful confession, straight from the gut, is the reason why Stan does nothing. He watches as the Jennings flee in their car and he just stands there, out of things to say, lost in thought. These were his friends, practically his family, and even though he caught them, he can't break them apart. Not after all that they've given to each other as human beings -- outside of their jobs, beyond their service to their respective countries. Stan is probably thinking of Henry, the boy he's come to love like he was his own, and how his role in the Jennings' incarceration would destroy that foundation.
In the end, he makes the choice never to speak of the encounter, at least not to his employers at the FBI or to his partner, Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden). When Aderholt reveals that Stan was right, that it was the Jennings all along, Stan says nothing of the pivotal confrontation, and acts like it never happened. "I'm gonna kill him," he says, knowing full well that he didn't, and that his heart won out instead.
How will Stan protect Henry?After the Jennings flee, their house is torn apart by the FBI, and Stan confronts Henry at one of his hockey games. We don't hear what they say to each other, since it plays out over one of The Americans' trademark musical montages (set to U2's "With or Without You"), but we see Henry's reaction to the news, a mix of disappointment and anger.
For seasons now, the relationship between Stan and Henry has developed into something of a father-son dynamic. Stan's real son, Matthew, was always cold to him, with very different interests. But Henry liked sports, could talk to Stan about girls, loved playing video games on the couch. Philip was never around, Matthew was protected from Stan by his mother, and so Stan and Matthew found those absent relationships in one another.
It's hard to know how that might continue. If Stan trusts Henry, he might reveal that the Jennings' final wish was for Henry to be safe and for Stan to protect him. There's no reason to doubt that Stan won't uphold that desire, otherwise his letting them go makes far less sense. And knowing what we do about history -- the fall of the Soviet Union occurs just a few years after the events in "START" transpire -- it's possible Henry will be able to see or at least speak to his parents again, possibly with Stan's assistance.
Is Renee actually a Russian intelligence officer?One of the big dangling threads the finale never ties up is the true identity of Stan's second wife, Renee (Laurie Holden). Philip and Elizabeth suspect she's a soviet spy for the Center, and it's Philip's departing plea to Stan to keep an eye on her. There is a tantalizing shot near the finale's closing moments when Renee watches as the FBI searches the Jennings' house. Her face is curiously hard to read. It's a Rorschach test for the audience: is it a smile or a silent scream?
We also don't know how Stan feels about her. Earlier in the season, she told him she wanted to work for the FBI. His flags are certainly raised, but it's unclear if he plans to long-con her like he did the Jennings, or if he's past the point of caring. Or maybe he doesn't want to know at all.
There are a lot of signs that point to Renee being a spy, like the curious way she entered Stan's life -- by flirting with him at the gym -- and her desire to know more about his job, to the point of wanting to work in his department. But isn't that all a bit... obvious? Perhaps we the audience have been trained, like Philip and Elizabeth, to look suspiciously at any potential red flag. In the end, the ambiguity of the situation is its most delicious aspect. We can imagine any possibility, and "START" is all the better for that.
What will happen to Paige?The finale's most heart-stopping moment happens when Paige (Holly Taylor), Philip and Elizabeth's daughter, who learned of her parents' identity years ago and has been quietly working for her mother while also attending college, made the decision to stay behind in America instead of fleeing with her parents. Having just evaded police inspection on a train, Elizabeth breathes a sigh of relief, but then notices her daughter on the platform. It's a gut-punch, knowing this young woman has decided to leave her family, just as she'd finally grown so close to them. The pain on Elizabeth's face says it all. This is devastation at its purest form for her.
So why did Paige decide to stay behind? Probably for a number of reasons. First and foremost: Henry. Philip and Elizabeth make the decision to leave Henry behind relatively easily; they're saddened to do so, but know it's best for him and his safety. But Paige can't let it go, and spends their time on the run fretting about Henry's well-being. Philip suggests at one point that he could stay behind, move out west, and monitor Henry from afar to let him know he's not alone. The family decides against this, but it's possible Paige hatched her own similar plan so as not to abandon her sibling.
What we don't know is if Paige plans to integrate herself back into her college life and pretend she never knew about her parents' work, or if she'll be on the run. She probably has enough leeway to get herself out of potential criminal charges, considering she was a child when her parents roped in her and that she never did any true dirty work, though she was privy to some of it.
But her decision to return to the safe house she shared with Claudia (Margot Martindale) and her mother might imply that she's keen to keep up the act. She brings out the Russian bottle of vodka and sips from it, as if to say her ancestral roots are still a part of her. Maybe she thinks she can do what her parents could not, and actually carry out operative work without the violence and sexual manipulation. Or maybe it's a mere moment of reflection before she starts putting the pieces of her life back together in any which way. As with Renee, the lack of foresight is exactly what makes our final time with Paige so poignant.
What will Philip and Elizabeth's life be like in Russia?Here's what we know: Philip and Elizabeth successfully return to Moscow. They don't know this country anymore, but as Elizabeth says to Philip in the show's closing moments (in Russian), "We'll get used to it."
It is almost 1988 when we leave them. The dissolution of the Soviet Union is roughly four years off. Philip and Elizabeth were, upon leaving the States, trapped between opposing ideologies as the U.S.S.R. was moving toward a more open future with the election of President Mikhail Gorbachev. They are now under the protection of Arkady Zotov (Lev Gorn), the deputy chief of Directorate S, who opposed the same faction of anti-Gorbachev KGB officials that Elizabeth eventually turned on. Now that they're in the good graces of the Directorate, Philip and Elizabeth will likely be treated as heroes in Moscow, and given the protection they need.
That means they could follow up on a few of their own loose threads. Martha (Alison Wright) is also in Moscow, which means Philip might be able to track her down and check on her. The last we saw Martha, she was about to adopt a child. Perhaps Philip will find a way to get Martha back in contact with her worried parents, and help give that child a more robust family life. There's also Philip's son, Mischa (Alex Ozerov), who we were briefly introduced to in Season 5, when he attempted to come to the United States. His attempts were unsuccessful -- Gabriel (Frank Langella) convinced him to return home -- but we know that he's working in a factory with Philip's brother, Pyotr.
A family reunion seems in order. The dissolution of the Soviet Union also means that Philip and Elizabeth might be able to see their children again someday. That's the glimmer of hope that makes those final, quiet moments between the pair so touching. After all that the Jennings have been through, there's no reason to doubt that they can make anything happen if they try.