Warning: Spoiler alert! Contains spoilers and major plot points from the series finale of The Americans, which aired Wednesday night. Don’t keep reading if you don’t want to know how the show ends.
For most of the last season of The Americans, FX’s dark drama about a Russian couple working and living undercover in the U.S. during the 1980s, the biggest question to ponder wasn’t who would die before the show ended, but in what terribly tragic way would presumably some, if not all, of the lead characters die. None of them seemed destined for a happy ending.
And there seemed a decent chance that the husband-and-wife team at its center, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), would somehow be the cause of at least one of the other’s deaths. After all, this season Philip was willing to betray Elizabeth, sharing details of her missions with a rival faction of the KGB, even as he also allowed himself to be dragged back into that spy life when Elizabeth needed his help.
Plot twist: No one dies. In its last and biggest surprise, The Americans stages a bloodless coup in its final hour. And yet it’s somehow more tragic and heartbreaking than if they had perished.
Yes, their exceedingly smart and intuitive FBI neighbor, Stan (Noah Emmerich, who should win an Emmy, but may not even be nominated), finally trusts his gut and confronts them in a tense showdown in a parking garage. But while a gun is raised, Philip literally talks their way out, leaving Stan silent, stunned and empty-handed. They drive away, with their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), to make their great escape. There’s no classic Americana bang-bang ending, no surprise car crash, no gotcha moment, no perp walk, no mission accomplished.
When The Americans began six seasons ago, Philip and Elizabeth were plodding through what had essentially been an arranged marriage between two KGB officers. They had agreed decades before to give up everything in their past, including their native language. They were good at their jobs and keeping each other alive. They had two kids, further allowing them to hide in plain sight. But they were also borderline miserable until a fresh crisis prompted them to reevaluate what they might mean to each other. They end it, somehow, having succeeded in that, even as every other part of their mission falls apart.
There’s no body count, but there is still a steep cost. Having painfully decided to leave behind their younger son, Henry, an All-American kid who knows nothing of their secret agent life, Elizabeth and Philip are shocked and heartbroken when Paige, who has been groomed to also work undercover for Russia, jumps ship at the last possible moment, simply stepping off the train they are taking to cross the Canadian border. (Here’s hoping Taylor gets her Twitter campaign wish for a sequel.)
That leaves just the two of them, silently navigating a long, brooding journey back to the motherland, slumped sleepily on each other through the Soviet countryside set to Tchaikovsky, a rare indulgence for a show that has skewed toward hand-to-hand combat, uncomfortable sexual encounters and palpably wrought subterfuge for most of the last six years. But co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields wanted “a Russian ending, whatever that means to you,” Russell told reporters last week, and they got one. “It’s bittersweet,” she said, “or just bitter-bitter.”
They end on a bridge overlooking Moscow, the skyline neither has seen in decades, reassuring each other that their kids will be OK, and that they will be too. Philip recalls that his first handler had warned him not to think this life would be a “big adventure,” and Elizabeth for a minute muses on what could have happened if they’d both turned down the assignment. “Who knows what would have happened here,” she says, before imagining a thoroughly proletariat alternate universe in which she managed a factory. “Maybe we would have met,” she imagines, “on a bus.”
This is hands down the most romantic thing Elizabeth, who has never particularly trafficked in imaginary fantasies, has ever said. But it’s a fitting end for the show and its ability to make a true romance -- one in which Philip seemingly apologizes for betraying his wife by … grabbing an ax and chopping the head and hands off a dead comrade so she can’t be identified -- out of a bad set-up.
There is one small consolation: Rhys and Russell, who had actually met 10 years before, even if only one of them remembered it, started off the series as strictly friends. But Russell divorced shortly thereafter, and the two of them began to be spotted out around New York. They confirmed their relationship in 2014, and then had a son, after which they finally began to open up -- to gush, really -- about how much they enjoyed getting to spend every day working together.
Russell is “everything you want in a co-star,” Rhys sweetly said last week.
“Matthew is such a great scene partner,” Russell said, returning the favor. “It’s fun. It doesn’t feel like work.”
If Philip and Elizabeth have to finally end their reign as the most interesting -- and sympathetic -- Russian spies we’ve ever seen on American television, at least we can go on rooting for their real-life counterparts to live happily ever after.