Spoilers for last night’s season finale of The Americans below:
At the end of “The Colonel,” I did something I rarely do when watching TV alone (or, for that matter, with another person): I clapped. Not a long, standing-O bravo, just the kind of quick, relieved, delighted clap you might give a buzzer-beating shot or a gymnast’s difficult dismount. The Americans stuck its first landing.
Part of my reaction, I’ll admit, was a superficial one, to the choice of Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” as the soundtrack for the closing minutes. I can think of few dramas lately that have made such spot-on musical choices; its only glaringly obvious, overused period choice was “In the Air Tonight” in the pilot. “Games Without Frontiers,” in many ways, is The Americans: tense, sly, sinuous, its lyrics contrasting the banal and the menacing, imagining world war as a kind of internationalist Lord of the Flies child’s game.
The song choice is a small thing, but symbolic; it’s an example of how The Americans, through its first season and in its finale, has shown the confidence not to do the obvious thing. We’ve seen a lot of political-minded spy thrillers–24, Rubicon, Homeland, and plenty of lesser ones–build in their first seasons to a big moment of truth. There’s a temptation to unload the fireworks: to give us cliffhangers, shocking deaths, big reveals, double-crosses to outdo everything that came before them. “The Colonel” was plenty thrilling, but in the end it came back to the personal stories that set it apart.
As far as the spy storyline was concerned, the switcheroo was, deliberately, one was could see coming from the beginning of the episode: Philip and Elizabeth think that the Colonel mission is the setup, when in fact it’s the tape pickup. Watching that filled me with dread for most of the hour, not just for what would happen to the characters but what would happen to the show. (Please God, not the “someone gets captured and becomes a double agent—or do they?” route again.)
It was paced with torturous deliberation, down to Elizabeth’s slow walk toward the car as Stan and company prepared to take her down. It looked like it was headed toward some pivotal “game-changer” as the Jenningses hurtled through the streets chased by police. (A scene that, incidentally, after the Boston bombings and manhunt felt more uncomfortably close to home than anything Jack Bauer ever did.) Again, it was an action scene distinguished by its refusal to be excessive; it’s the duo’s composure, their learned discipline not to break character or lose their cool, that gives the scene tension. (It’s also why Elizabeth’s calm—shock, it turns out, from a wound and blood loss—it first seems nothing unusual.)
And then—it was over. See, as it turns out, the misdirection wasn’t in the spy-setup plot. The spy-setup plot was the misdirection. What the finale ended up returning to was not the deception Philip and Elizabeth are perpetrating on the American government, but the one they are perpetrating on their own family.
Not knowing what her normal teenage suspicions are bringing her close to, Paige goes into the basement, where Elizabeth had been listening to a tape from her mother. Here again, you might expect a wait-until-next-year cliffhanger moment: Paige finding the tape recorder, hitting Play. Instead, as Gabriel’s hypnotic coda plays, it ends on the image of her gazing off, pausing, wondering, on the cusp. It was evocative, tantalyzing, perfect.
What Philip and Elizabeth and Stan Beeman are playing is, in fact, a game without frontiers: it extends to their children, their marriages, their love affairs, and in Philip’s case to a second marriage. There was something symbolic about seeing them rip off their wigs together in their getaway car, because the resolution of their chase, as Elizabeth recovers from her gunshot, is about them maybe beginning to find something real in their subterfuge: “Come home,” she asks Philip, not as a comrade or a colleague but as his wife.
After I watched the episode, I tweeted that this may have been the best first season of a drama I’ve seen since Mad Men. I reserve the right to change my mind–immediately after watching a finale is not exactly the best time to objectively set its place in history. But it’s certainly one of a handful of top first seasons for a drama in the last few years—Homeland, Game of Thrones, Terriers, Rubicon—and it’s been as worth watching for its rich picture of marriage and parenting as work as for its thriller plot and Cold War moral dilemmas.
Who knows what the next season will bring, but it’s encouraging that the end of the first shows The Americans patient enough not to constantly up its stakes in a way that might precipitate its own burnout. For now, I’m as happy as I can reasonably expect to be. The Americans is playing the long game.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* One open question I’m curious about is the future of Claudia, who only gets more compelling—here, as we discover she agreed with Elizabeth about the setup all along, though duty prevented her from saying so. (“That’s what we always say right before our people die for nothing. The next thing we always say is, ‘It was so obvious.’”)
* Elizabeth’s secret gunshot wound didn’t just set up an emotional moment with Philip; it also in retrospect avoided the pitfall of having a character like Stan suddenly unable to hit a target at point-bank range when he’s shooting at a protagonist.
* One thing I’ve loved about The Americans is the way it’s flipped gender roles and portrayed Philip as the connected, involved parent (albeit one who kills people). But maybe one of the most upstanding things Elizabeth has done as a parent this season was, in a moment of crisis, to be honest enough with herself to decide that the kids should go with Philip.
* Speaking of parenting, I imagine viewers without kids may not pick up on this as much, but The Americans is also oddly a drama about the juggling act of being dual-career parents: once again, as Elizabeth and Philip are courting death or capture on a mission, at least 50% of me is thinking, “But who’s going to pick up the kids!”
* Another theme that’s run throughout this season is the difference between the Russians’ assumptions about their American rivals and reality, which comes to a head in the Colonel’s anti-bombshell: that the Star Wars system that has set everyone’s (fake) hair on fire is a nothingburger.
* Much like Argo last year, the tense climax surrounding Elizabeth’s going to the pickup was a reminder — there are certain kinds of suspense you can only build now by setting your story in a time before cell phones.