“When a person is born, he can embark on only one of three roads of life. If you go right, the wolves will eat you. If you go left, you will eat the wolves. If you go straight, you will eat yourself.”
-Anton Chekhov, 1878
We’ve become accustomed to television series that end in ultimate victory, ultimate defeat, or some combination. Most of the time, this takes the form of tying up loose ends in a clearly defined and satisfying manner. The Americans does not end neatly. It was never about tying up loose ends. It was about the lies the characters tell themselves and each other.
The Americans has one of the strongest pilots and series finales of any great television drama. The pilot works because it sets up everything that the show will become best known for: suspense, car chases, 80’s musical cues, and tensions within and without the Jennings household. The pilot sets up a world and makes the viewer want to keep visiting it.
Right now, its last episode feels like the best conclusion of all time, although I’m sure some of that luster will fade as time goes by. Or maybe not. Philip and Elizabeth escape, but lose their children, and part of their souls, in the process. We, the viewers, might seek justice for all of the horrible things these two have done in the name of Mother Russia, but dishing out cosmic punishment was never The Americans’ game. No, the real enemy was never the KGB or the FBI. The real enemy was always the enemy within.
Elizabeth was ever the zealot, and at times, purely evil. She may have done one good thing by icing Tatiana, but does that make up for everything else she has done? There is a brief dream sequence in the finale that serves the purpose of showing that, in the end, Elizabeth has given up on and destroyed herself in service of a lost cause. She ends the series alive, but filled with regret.
Philip was never as committed to the spy game as Elizabeth. He seemed to fall into the life by inertia – it gave him an outlet for his violent anger and an excuse to leave a bleak future in Russia. He experiences more character growth, and with it growing guilt, than any other character on the show. The guilt may come crashing down on Elizabeth in the very last episodes of the series, for for Philip, there hasn’t been anything else for a long time.
Stan is a more sympathetic character, but far from perfect. After all, he killed a Russian agent in cold blood back in the first season amd destroyed the lives of both Nina and Oleg. In the end, he’s left with the guilt of not finding out about the Jenningses sooner, and suspicion that his wife might not be who she says she is.
The Jennings children fare better in the end, especially Henry, who by all accounts will be able to move on with his life if he chooses to do so. Paige may have a harder time, but there’s not proof that she knows much of anything or that she was training to be a spy herself. All Stan knows is that she knows, he doesn’t know the extent of her actions.
The Americans wasn’t a perfect series. Like most dramas, it had its weak points. Season five was a let down, although it certainly wasn’t bad. Indeed, almost every great drama has a weak season or two, oftentimes the second to last one.
Still, by dwelling in the dark corners and avoiding spy versus spy clichés, The Americans started and finished better than arguably any other show. The show had its share of climaxes and showdowns, but not at the end of the day. No, in the end The Americans wasn’t about the wolves eating or being eaten. It was about the wolves eating themselves.
(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe