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Just in Time for Awards Season: On ‘The Americans’ and Series Finales
June 21, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment
 

Endings are hard. We know this.

They’re even harder, perhaps, when they have to put an exclamation mark on an entire series, especially when a series is as ardently admired and showered with praise as The Americans is — or, rather, was.?And as the just-announced Television Critics Associations (TCA) nominations and next month’s Emmy nominations highlight, this is awards season.

While The Americans won a 2015 Peabody Award and back-to-back TCA drama series awards in 2014 and ’15 and the TCA critics’ award for outstanding new program in its debut year, it has never fared as well, or even respectably, at the Emmys — just a pair of Emmys from 14 nominations over five seasons.

And both those Emmys, while hard-earned and well-deserved, were for best guest actress in a drama series (Margo Martindale) – not exactly a high-profile category; not in a period when award-winning dramas like Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid’s Tale have carved out a place in TV history based on Emmy recognition alone.

There is every chance The Americans will once again be overlooked, snubbed, and taken for granted by the TV academy when the actual awards are handed out.

That doesn’t mean last month’s series finale was lacking in any way, though. The Americans’ multiple mentions in the TCA nominations reminded me just how good the 90-minute finale, "START," really was. And not just good. Surprising.

I had followed The Americans from its inception, as had most of the writers at this parish, and I had my own preconceptions — good and bad — about how show-runners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg would bring their spy drama to an end.

It could have ended badly — both for the series, and for the protagonists, Russian spies posing as a happily married American couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), and their now grown-up teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor). As a general rule, and with rare but notable exceptions — Breaking Bad, The Shield — the more complex and adult a drama, the harder it is to pull off an ending that’s both satisfying and makes sense in the context of everything that’s come before. Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and, most notoriously, Dexter, all stumbled at the finish — though, arguably, they all had their defenders, except Dexter, which was uniformly pilloried and excoriated by, well, virtually everyone who saw it.

I don’t know quite what I expected from The Americans’ ending, but not that. I predicted in TVWW at the season’s outset that somehow the Jennings’ two teenage children would pull their parents in opposing directions, and I alluded to a pivotal moment in the second-season opener, when another family of Russian spies living in America was wiped out by unknown assassins, leaving Elizabeth and Philip Jennings badly shaken for the safety of their own very young (at the time) children, and whether they were really cut out for the spy game, if it meant sacrificing their own children. One of the unusual concepts of The Americans — and just one of the grace notes that made it unique — was that theirs was a marriage of convenience, a cover. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings were thrown together by assignation, for an overseas assignment, no more and no less. They weren’t married in the traditional sense. And so their inevitable subsequent children were essentially props, just one more piece of cover in their outward lives of a comfortable middle-class suburban couple whose neighbors all work in the FBI and/or defense industries.

Of course, over time, a couple living in such close proximity to one another can’t help but feel the tug of a growing commitment that has nothing to do with the job. And as their children grew up and began to forge lives of their own, the couple couldn’t help but become as concerned about their kids’ futures — and their safety — as any genuine parents would be.

As The Americans followed the path to its inevitable destiny, we, the viewers, knew that a period drama that mirrored real-world events so closely would eventually have to confront perestroika, glasnost, the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Berlin Wall — the dissolution of the old Soviet Union, the rebellion and revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War.

Later seasons of The Americans became notably slower, more withdrawn and inward-looking — more tension, less action.

There was a lurking sense of dread and more than a hint that an explosion was coming. If the second-season opener, "Comrades," was anything to go by, that explosion was likely to be violent and bloody.

As we now know — spoiler alert if you’ve not seen The Americans and are planning to catch up with it later — the ending could not have been more different.

It was quiet and cerebral, elegiac and heartbreaking, like the ending of one of those socially aware, politically conscious big-screen feature films of the mid-to-late 1970s, something Alan J. Pakula, Nicolas Roeg, or Costa-Gavras might have directed.

It was hard to imagine, given the violence Philip and, especially, Elizabeth Jennings inflicted on unlucky and, in some cases, perfectly random people who crossed their path during their years living a secret life, they would find peace, let alone redemption.

And yet, by opting to return home — to a home that was no longer really home — literally moments before they would be apprehended, they found a resolution of sorts, if not the ending they had hoped for.

The Americans could never hope to tie up all its loose ends — it was never that kind of story, anyway — but there were two ongoing stories that were resolved, in two extended scenes, one at the very end, that were among the finest in the entire series, all 75 episodes worth.

In the first of these scenes, roughly midway through the 90-minute finale, hard-luck FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich, left), the hard-working, impeccably loyal career officer — Philip Jennings’ neighbor and closest friend — confronted Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige in an underground parking garage and faced up to both his naiveté and their betrayal. Shaken, torn between apprehending them and turning them in to his FBI colleagues, in the end, he did neither but instead let them go, broken on the inside but trying to make sense of it all.

It would be interesting to know if co-creators and showrunners Fields and Weisberg had that ending in mind from the beginning, or whether it occurred to them late in The Americans’ run. It says a lot of FX president John Landgraf, who would have had to sign off on the ending, that he didn’t demand something more physically confrontational and definitive for the series’ loyal viewers who had stuck it out from the beginning — the Jennings's shoot their way out of a bad situation, perhaps, or Stan Beeman follows through on his threat to shoot them first. Something to give the viewers the satisfaction of knowing the career spies got their comeuppance in the end — crime doesn’t pay! — and something for the Twitter-verse to get excited about.

By opting for the quiet, true-to-life ending, The Americans’ makers showed real maturity. The Americans was always an adult show, for adults, and here was an adult ending that, while short on action, was long on thought.

As haunting and unforgettable as that scene in the garage was, it paled in comparison to the shock and emotional surprise of the actual final scene. (Again, spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen The Americans all the way through and are saving it for later, you really don’t want to be reading this.)

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, heavily disguised, sporting false identity papers and sitting in separate train compartments, are on their way to Canada. They have just completed US border formalities, assuming Paige is with them, traveling in a separate compartment, when they spot her standing by the railway tracks, a look of almost unspeakable sadness on her face, as she waves them goodbye. She has decided to stay — an American kid, after all, born and raised in America, who’s going to look after her younger brother, who is back in school, left behind, oblivious to all that’s happened.

It was the kind of finale that stays with you long after you’ve watched it, and how rare is that?

Given the astonishing performances — this was arguably Rhys’ finest moment in the entire series, and Taylor and Russell’s as well, not to mention the shattering heartbreak of Emmerich’s realization of betrayal — and the nuanced, delicately poised writing, it may seem silly to credit the song choices, but there they were: full renditions of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (“Through these fields of destruction/Baptisms of fire/I’ve witnessed all your suffering . . . And though they did hurt me so bad/In the fear and alarm/You did not desert me/My brothers in arms”) and U2’s With or Without You from 1987’s The Joshua Tree. (Lead singer Bono composed the original song’s chord sequence, with its telling lyric, “With or without you/With or without you/I can’t live/With or without you.”)

That look on Keri Russell’s face — a lifetime revealed in a single glance of shock and recognition — summed up Elizabeth Jennings’ entire life experience, as she realized she was probably seeing her young daughter for the last time; that forced to choose between life with her parents and away from her younger brother, in a country she barely knew, Paige opted to stay home and be the person she knew she was born to be, and not who her parents wanted her to be.

The Americans probably won’t win any of the season’s major TV awards — if it hasn’t won any of the high-profile Emmys yet, it’s unlikely to start now that the series is over — but, based on that ending alone, it will do more. It will be remembered.

Much like the momentous political upheaval that played out as a backdrop to The Americans’ personal story of one family’s private drama — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the old Soviet Union and the early rays of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” — The Americans will stand the test of time.

(This year’s TCA Awards are Aug. 4, in Beverly Hills, CA, the Emmy nominations are July 12, with the main event, and NBC telecast, set for Sept. 17.)

 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Jonathan Storm
Alex -- what a beautiful piece. About one of the best-ever TV shows. Thanks.
Jun 23, 2018   |  Reply
 
 
 
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