This piece contains spoilers for the finale of The Americans.
It starts as a story of a sham marriage becoming real, and ends as one in which peoples’ self-mythologies fall away – a spy thriller in which the most dramatically spiky moments arrive not in fight scenes, not in car crashes and not in the offices of the FBI, but in family kitchens, wedlocked bedrooms and ghastly-lit garages.
The Americans, created by ex-CIA officer Joe Weisberg, reckons with Operation Ghost Stories, an actual FBI investigation that resulted in the 2010 arrest of twelve Russian sleeper agents who had been embedded in the US since before the Cold War’s end. Season one begins in Washington DC at the beginning of the Reagan era. Two deep-cover KGB spies, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) fall in love fifteen years after their mission begins. Around the same time, a new neighbour moves in across the street: Stan Beeman, an FBI agent and enemy. The Jenningses know nothing of each other’s pasts, childhoods, or even real names. They have never spoken a word of Russian to one another. And yet they share a life – a small business, an almost comically large suburban home and two children – all as part of their long-term cover working for The Centre.
They are together, but divided; Philip is loyal to Elizabeth, and she – a hard, unrelenting woman – is loyal to Russia. Their relationship amplifies what we know of all long-term relationships: it is impossible to ever entirely know your partner. But although Philip and Elizabeth are strangers to one another, they are the only ones who know each other’s secret.
Their relationship amplifies what we know of all long-term relationships: it is impossible to ever entirely know your partner.
The Cold War wears on and, by the time the sixth season breaks, glasnost has arrived and it becomes clear just how much Elizabeth and Philip need each other as partners to survive as spies. They live isolated lives without frank friendships, without self-determination and with increasingly terrible emotional demands. They kill countless civilians, sources and defectors, tell innumerable lies, use sex to manipulate sources, deceive their confidants (most brutally, Stan, Philip’s best and only friend) and maintain fake relationships, marriages and households in other cities. And now Elizabeth has groomed her own daughter, Paige, to repeat the same trajectory.
‘They tell us what to do and we do it,’ says Philip to Elizabeth of the crimes they’ve committed and will never forget. She has been carrying a cyanide pill around her neck, under The Centre’s awful orders, for most of the season. ‘I get it, that’s how it works. But we do it, not them, so it’s on us. All of it.’ Of course, this being The Americans, Philip is pushed to an even grimmer fate: spying on Elizabeth as news of a coup against Gorbachev by those in The Centre trickles down to an opposing KGB faction.
The Americans was always a winter show and, in the finale, melancholy is everywhere – in the trees, in car window reflections, in the Washington snow and Moscow fog, in the Jenningses’ final, symbolic family meal at a roadside McDonald’s. That melancholy is also there in the show’s deepest ironies – that although Elizabeth and Philip’s story ends with their relationship intact, they are unthinkably unhappier than ever, together in the same empty hell. That perhaps the true claimants of the show’s title are not the Jenningses but their estranged children. That Philip’s desire to defect in the very first episode could have altered that conclusion. That although the couple abandoned their own son, Henry, Philip was right in that Henry’s future lay in the country of his birth. Granting autonomy to Henry, rather than smuggling him back to a Russian ‘home’ he’d never had, feels like a huge step for Philip and Elizabeth. These are two people whose entire lives are subject to the decisions of The Centre, who entertain autonomy only in their sleep – as in the scene of Elizabeth falling asleep on the plane to Russia, dreaming of a different life with a former lover in which she had lost a pregnancy, only to awake to a reality in which she has lost both her children.
Melancholy is everywhere – in the trees, in car window reflections, in the Washington snow and Moscow fog.
We identify deeply with Philip and Elizabeth, with the complications of their relationship and the blind spots in their knowledge of each other, even as we abhor their parenting and their devotion to a cause that compromises them. As Keri Russell has said:
Even though you’re rooting for these characters, you want them to pay in some way. And it’s in a way that everyone can relate to. Not everyone can relate to a big shootout, or someone going to prison for the rest of their lives. But anyone who’s a parent would know what that feeling would be like.
The same goes for the acute psychological insights the program offers of gender and sex. Elizabeth and Philip’s jobs require them to weaponise seduction as a tactic for gathering intelligence. For each of them, sex is a tool and a transaction for information. In his sexual lures, Philip tends to use the persona of a kind man rather than the cool guy. He knows that the soft, sincere qualities – of listening, of empathising – are often the most appealing to affection-starved women. Elizabeth promises something more beguiling: feminine vitality, boundless beauty, and the kind of sexual adoration that her gullible men never imagined was available to them. The different ways they use sex says so much of the ways men and women relate – about what people want and desire and crave of each other – and yet both their approaches are equally deceptive and devastating.
And of course, there’s the grandest irony, that all Elizabeth and Philip’s moral crimes and sacrifices are for nothing – we end on a shimmering shot of the city of Moscow, which will soon succumb to the Cold War’s end and to a groaning, corrupt, authoritarian version of the free market from which Elizabeth and Philip have just escaped.
This is a show of wildly entangled plotting, with Russian and Eastern European stories unfolding under a cold blue cast and those in American settings tinted with a warm, murky glow. TV storytelling has been, historically, plot-driven to the exclusion of more profound explorations of metaphor, allegory, people and place – all those classic nightly formats (soap operas, crime shows) with their episodic, tightly-resolved storyworlds. And yet, the plot of The Americans constantly evades climax – the finale shuns action-packed shoot-outs and stereotypical spy scenes for close-up shots of its major characters in various, internalised states of shock and trauma.
The finale shuns action-packed shoot-outs…for close-up shots of its major characters in various, internalised states of shock and trauma.
Its depictions of violence also follow this pattern. The finale arrived just months after the kindred BBC America program Killing Eve first aired. Killing Eve also overthrows the usual function of violence in espionage thrillers. After every slaughter, instead of cutting to the next scene, the camera lingers on the facial expression of anti-heroine assassin Villanelle as she reacts to her victim’s life slipping away. In doing so, the show shifts each scene’s dramatic apex from the moment of death – be it the contact of a blow, bullet or blade – to the emotional impact of the slaughter on the killer.
Similarly, in The Americans, each fallen body – almost all killed by Elizabeth’s hand – feels more sorrowful. As in Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne series (about another spy who, like Philip, wishes to get out of the game and only kills remorsefully) the focus is on the moral cost, the human toll and the personal impact of espionage. That humanist approach becomes the story’s real political statement; the glamour of the spy genre – the James Bond films, Mission Impossible and the like – is gone. Politically, The Americans is surprisingly even-handed in the way it foregrounds legitimate Russian grievances with US imperialism, particularly for a show created by an ex-CIA officer.
Through every season, every episode, The Americans refuses to traffic in the easy 1980s nostalgia-grab that the entirety of present-day popular culture is buckling beneath, instead, offering a furtive political history of the Cold War’s final chapter through a story of submerged, married Russian spies. Beyond the Bowie music cues and the fabulous Vidal Sassoon-advertisement hairdos, this was an era of nuclear fears and uncompromising rulers and austerity measures. The muddy beige-to-maroon colour palette says it all: what is there to romanticise?
Many have said that the mark of The Americans’ sophistication is that it doesn’t end, as many predicted, in a death of a key character. Their fate was that they all, particularly Philip, Elizabeth and Stan, now know the feeling of lifelong unhappiness – that they all remain alive feels only right. Only in the final episode does a new truth slide into light: The Americans is a tale of losing the life you know, shattering your sense of your own life’s story. A persistent narrative finally reveals but does not complete itself, in which every major character arrives at hollowness – a deep divide between the lives they thought they were leading, and what they came to inhabit. Philip, Elizabeth and Stan gave so much – their entire lives, in fact – for so little. What we’re left with is a feeling of almost total futility and wastage.