SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t seen the May 30 series finale episode of “The Americans.”
No one had to die for “The Americans” to be devastating.
Throughout the show’s stellar sixth season, the walls seemed to be caving in on everyone with alarming speed. Knowing that the endgame was in sight, it seemed inevitable that someone we cared about was going to meet a nasty end, maybe even (probably?) at another’s hand. Was there any way that Oleg (Costa Ronin) could live through his double-crossing mission? Would Philip (Matthew Rhys) have to kill his FBI neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich) to keep him from exposing the truth? Or would Stan kill Philip, the best friend who was betraying him all along? Would Elizabeth (Keri Russell) give in to the flinty determination always lurking in the corner of her eye and kill everyone?
Incredibly, and almost defiantly, the answer to all of the above was an unequivocal no.
By the time the final scene of one of TV’s finest dramas faded to black, all of its beloved characters had, despite all signs and predictions otherwise, somehow made it to the end of the series alive. Stan confirmed the truth, walked away from it, and even got to be the one to break the news to the Jennings’ oblivious son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) went on the run with her parents only to step off the train before crossing the Canadian border and walk back into her old life, or whatever was left of it. Philip and Elizabeth eluded the FBI and escaped back to Russia. Even their handler Claudia (Margo Martindale) slipped away without a trace.
With the exception of poor Oleg trapped in an FBI cell while his family wept back in Russia, all the main characters made daring escapes from seemingly inevitable ends. In one of the finale’s cheekiest moments, Elizabeth even ditches the cyanide pill necklace – one several critics had called “Chekhov’s cyanide pill” in anticipation of someone swallowing the lethal dose.
The finale’s subversion of expectations, however, is representative of its sly brilliance. It takes everything we came to know about these characters — their wants, their dreams, their red lines, their darkest shames — and finds a way to make their fates completely wrenching without spilling a single drop of blood.
Yes, the series ends with Paige and Henry alive in the country that’s long been their home. But Henry will never hear the truth from his actual parents, and therefore will always think of his adolescence with suspicion and anger, pain, and heartbreak. Paige made a choice — a rare opportunity in a life dictated by terrible circumstances — that tore her from her parents forever. Unless Stan decides to reveal her part in it all (which appears unlikely), she will live a very lonely life weighed down by her mind-boggling secrets.
Yes, the series ends with Stan making it out alive after confronting two highly trained and dangerous Soviet spies. But the confirmation that his best friend and neighbors have been tricking him all along, that he ignored his instincts because he liked them, almost destroyed him. As he tells Philip in the finale’s most extraordinary scene, he “would have done anything” for them – a claim he then, despite all odds and protocol, proves when he lets them drive away. What’s more, Philip’s final warning that his longterm partner Renee (Laurie Holden) “might be one of us” will leave him — and us — guessing forever.
Yes, the series ends with Philip and Elizabeth alive together, gazing out at the winking lights of a Russian city that supposedly spells freedom. But as the series took pains to point out time and time again, they left their home as young adults, determined to help and unaware of the true toll it would take. Returning now decades later, they’re strangers to the country they have been fighting so hard to protect. They’re still straddling two worlds, unable to fully acclimate into either, with only each other as precarious life rafts. And in the finale’s most brutal knife twist, they lost both their children. So much of the episode grapples with their pain at deciding to leave Henry behind that when they finally see Paige shrinking into the distance on that train platform, it’s such a breathtaking gut punch that neither of them can bear it.
So, yes, they all made it out alive – but at what cost?
As many TV critics have noted, deaths have become a ubiquitous plot device to move stories forward. Where Ned Stark’s death in the first episode of “Game of Thrones” once shocked millions of viewers in 2011, that kind of jolt to the system is now far more expected in a TV landscape that grows more crowded by the hour. Killing someone off can be impactful, but more often than not, TV shows treat death as an inevitability once they believe there’s nowhere else for the story to go.
“The Americans” has had a couple shocking deaths itself; the swift execution of charismatic double agent Nina (Annet Mahendru) in season 4 remains one of the series’s most surprising moments to date. But the show always made an effort to avoid treating death as a quick way out of a storyline, often finding a more meaningful or fitting way to send someone off. It seemed impossible, for instance, that the tragic figure of Martha (Alison Wright) could possibly make it out of her sham marriage to Philip’s alter ego Clark alive. And yet she did, getting smuggled out of the country by the KGB in a stunning season 4 episode that proved her life story didn’t have to end in order to land with devastating grace.
That’s why, when thinking back on the entirety of “The Americans,” the finale scene that should endure the test of time is the one in which Stan, Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige face off in that empty parking garage. Running more than 10 minutes long, it is the epitome of everything “The Americans” did so well. It’s thoughtful, personal, and crucially, restrained. It begins with Stan pointing a gun at Philip’s head and spitting rage, Elizabeth’s eyes darting as she calculates whether or not she should strike. It seems impossible that no one will snap. And yet, through dialogue that methodically strips Philip and Stan down to their most vulnerable cores, the scene ends with them all backing away from one another in one piece.
Part of the reason “The Americans” became such a rare treat is because it so rarely bowed to the usual pressures of TV story-building. It allowed itself to be slow and insular in a deliberate way that almost always found a satisfying payoff. Where other shows might have indulged more exciting twists – like, say, Philip and Elizabeth slipping and pinging Stan’s radar earlier and more often – “The Americans” exercised firm (and undeniably frustrating) patience.
In retrospect, the fact that the series ended without a single major death is far more fitting than if it had. “The Americans” has always known that people don’t have to die in order to shatter.