“I thought I knew you.”
Is there a more apt line that captures the fundamental tension at the heart of The Americans? This is a series that built its entire narrative on the basis of the fine line between deception and self-deception, the ways that our lies accumulate and challenge our understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and—more painfully—the people we care about. And after years of plotting and duplicity, even professional manipulator Claudia finds herself blindsided by Elizabeth Jennings’ decision to turn against her handlers at the Center. She reacts with the sense of outraged betrayal that can only come from someone who’s spent so long deciding the tactics that best govern their country, the very idea of its leaders choosing another path means they’re the treasonous ones, not her. To quote Jon Voight’s misguided spook in Mission: Impossible: “You wake up one morning and find out the President is running the country without your permission. The son of a bitch, how dare he.”
That mid-episode confrontation between Elizabeth and Claudia neatly encapsulates the ideological conflagration ignited by the pyrrhic victory our undercover agent claims over her handlers and their targeted effort to initiate what is for all intents a coup d’etat against Gorbachev. Elizabeth has always been the good soldier, true, but in many ways this is a callback to the first battle of wills between these two women. “If you knew me, you’d know never to lie to me,” she hisses in response to Claudia’s flat accusation, and you can’t deny her consistency—think all the way back to season one’s “Covert War,” where the realization she was being played unleashed a similar anger in Elizabeth. “This isn’t going to go well for you, old woman,” she had said to the handler we then knew only as Grannie, and all these years later, when her superiors pull an even more deceptive move, her words are coming true. Doing whatever needs to be done for her country has always been Elizabeth Jennings’ guiding light, but in turn, her country needed to do right by her. And the plotters at the KGB have now been severed, in her mind, from what “country” truly means.
But that doesn’t mean the cost of her decision is any less steep. She has destroyed the only real bond that has never wavered all these years—that the people making the hard choices in Russia were doing it for the most high-minded of reasons. Even when Claudia let her down personally back in season one, it didn’t change Elizabeth’s commitment to the cause. But what is a cause that seems to be betraying the values of the country it supposedly serves? The quiet but powerful flashbacks in “Jennings, Elizabeth” reinforce the idea that Elizabeth is finally being pulled back to first principles, that it’s not her but those above her who have betrayed the cause of protecting their fellow countrymen. She relives that foundational moment of coming upon the dying man and horse during the night, only to walk away for fear of disturbing her mission. “You don’t leave a comrade to die on the street in Moscow,” she’s told, and that resuscitated obligation of kinship leads her to protect the innocent Nesterenko, even if it means gunning down a fellow agent doing the bidding of Claudia and her co-conspirators—irony of ironies.
After watching their marriage slowly come apart at the seams over the course of this season, it’s a hell of a bold choice to keep Philip and Elizabeth separated for the entire running time of the penultimate episode. It seems he got through to her last week—at least enough to get her to stop following orders—but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to forgive. Philip is doing his part to help right the ship, yet he’s largely relegated to the margins of this story (save for the glaring exception of the pulse-pounding chase following his meet-up with Father Andrei). Her husband is the one person who could still conceivably be on her side at the end of this, but during one of the most momentous choices of her life, Elizabeth leaves him out of her decision-making process, instead searching her own memories to help find her grounding.
After all, Paige has no desire to help. No good deed goes unpunished, and after Elizabeth spared the life of poor naive Jackson, the intern got drunk and babbled just enough information to Paige’s romantic interest to clue the eldest Jennings child in on what happened. It’s amazing to watch the carefully constructed edifice of lies commingled with truth come crashing down around Elizabeth when her daughter confronts her about sleeping with the young man. All those careful distortions of the truth, trying to gently ease her daughter into the same lonely and isolated life she chose for herself, and it all unravels in mere minutes. “If you lie to me now, after everything, I will never forgive you,” Paige demands, and yet Elizabeth can’t stop herself from denying, until it’s too late even for that.
What seemed like a firm and ever-stronger bond between mother and child collapses with the discovery that all that supposed honesty and top-secret education was hiding a much darker world. The scene is staged as a simple shot-reverse shot for much of the exchange, and yet in classic Americans fashion, the simpler the setup, the more outsized the emotions it contains. “Sex? What was sex? Nobody cared,” Elizabeth coldly retorts, after all her defenses have failed, and her daughter’s disgusted look provides one last judgment before Paige walks out. The script by Fields and Weisberg cleverly gets a basic truth of familial relationships: In the heat of anger, all the maturity and subtlety gets thrown out in an effort to hurt the other person. Paige pulls out the old “no wonder dad can’t stand to be in the same room with you” card, and it feels so obnoxious and so true all at once to hear the studious college kid, who seemed to idolize her mother, reduced to schoolyard-style taunts in her hurt.
And yet, even with these key scenes of emotional devastation upending the entire world of the series, most of the forward momentum here was pure story, discoveries unspooling and plot bursting out from behind the carefully concealed dams that prevented the Russian intelligence community from being discovered in D.C. I’ve often worried that Stan Beeman would come apart if he ever found out his best friend Philip was one of the operatives he’s been chasing all this time; the FBI agent is still simultanously looking for the best and worst in everyone, his instincts crying out in one direction while his heart pulls him in another. Despite his bluster with Oleg, when the Russian speaks openly and with clear emotion about wanting to fight for a better future, Stan can’t hide his empathy from spreading all across his face. And even when he’s chasing his suspicions about the Jennings, wanting desperately for it all to be as crazy as he admits it sounds to Dennis, part of him genuinely wants to help his old friend, offering to lend money to keep the travel agency afloat. Noah Emmerich is never better than when he’s playing six different emotions at once, and the uncertainty underlying all his actions in these final episodes is providing a stellar showcase for the actor.
It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact there’s only one episode left. Even with the closing cliffhanger of Elizabeth readying their escape materials following Philip’s coded phone call home, even with what may well have been Claudia’s final appearance, quietly eating her meal in the face of all her life’s work in tatters, even with Elizabeth burning her entire network to do the right thing, it doesn’t feel like we’re at the end of the story. And that’s the magic of this absorbing drama: Regardless of all the spywork and espionage and murder and derring-do, these are just people living out their everyday lives. If you’re drawing breath, your story isn’t over.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season 6, Week 9: C-. The lackluster hair accessories are mute testimony to just how close to the end Philip and Elizabeth are. Philip barely bothers to slap on a fake mustache and hat to meet with Father Andrei, and while Elizabeth is still rocking her Nesterenko-monitoring ’do with aplomb, it’s slowly fraying and frazzling, the better to match its harried host.
- Was there any Mail Robot? Methinks we’re saving one last glimpse of our beloved mail carrier for the series finale.
- No Renee tonight, either, so while it’s possible Allison Shoemaker’s review last week was right, and we’re just doomed to wander the earth forevermore wondering if she’s a Russian spy, I still hold out hope for an answer one way or the other.
- Pastor Tim alert! He’s in Buenos Aires, doing just fine, and more importantly, he’s even willing to keep the Jennings’ secret lives to himself.
- Dennis couldn’t be clearer. Philip and Elizabeth? “Not Russian spies.” Still, the seed of doubt’s been planted.
- Poor Oleg. Here’s hoping Stan figures out a way to cut him a deal.
- I didn’t address it in the above review, but that chase scene really was a marvel of tension-building excitement. Those 30 seconds in which Philip started briskly walking away, staring at everyone in eyesight, were as adrenaline-laced as any sequence this season.
- Thanks to Erik Adams for letting me contribute an Americans reviews just under the wire. He’ll be back next week to bear witness to the conclusion of the tale of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.