I think some applause is in order for what might very well be the best new series on television this year, The Americans, which wrapped up its first season last night. Overall, I think Kyra and I both would say that this first season impressively straddled genres (the combination of domestic drama with spy thriller is by no means an inherently obvious one) without ever feeling contrived. It’s a well-written series that has a lot of respect for the audience’s intelligence, in that it allows for an easy exercise in comparing and contrasting the Soviet agents’ home and work lives with those of their American counterparts but contains enough subtle differences between the parallel storylines so that no character’s fate seems predetermined. The show shifts from quiet scenes to comic scenes to action scenes to flashbacks so fluidly that it manages to be a slyly ambitious show despite its relatively small cast. The Americans is grounded in a specific historical setting, but, like Mad Men, its themes are universal.
Among The Americans‘ most impressive accomplishments is the empathy it has for each of its characters; Elizabeth, Phil, Stan, and Nina are all rudderless in some way, searching for an identity to cling to. Their divided loyalties have significant consequences; in trying to reconcile their ideological and moral principles with the realities of American life, they’re also risking their own lives and their own relationships with others, especially their spouses and their children—the children blissfully unaware that they’re collateral damage. Their divided loyalties complicate our feelings for them, too, because we empathize with their decidedly human struggles even though they’re driven to dark and cynical places (think “Clark” and Martha), and all this despite the fact that we know which side wins the Cold War. If you’re like me, then last night you wanted Phil to stop Elizabeth before the FBI could. It’s this slight of hand that made the season finale and The Americans as a whole a success, I think.
“The Colonel” tended more towards The Americans‘ spy thriller side than its domestic drama side (this latter facet took top billing last week, though last night we also got a few longing looks from Elizabeth at one of those hideously dated family portraits of the Jennings). For starters, there was Claudia with her smoothly executed B&E of the CIA agent’s apartment. I didn’t think her tasering and cold carotid-slitting was particularly tense, but I don’t think it had to be. In my humble opinion, Claudia’s more of a darkly comic character, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s baffled reaction to Granny’s insinuation that Zhukov was once attracted to her, or just the fact that a fat old lady is also a super-spy. Still, her thirst for vengeance on her old lover’s behalf was palpable, and there’s nothing wrong with supplementing a revenge killing with some artful wit. Kyra pointed out to me that Claudia is perhaps the most honest and scrupulous character on the show: For example, she only revealed to Arkady and not to Elizabeth or Phil that she was worried about a set-up, but in that same conversation she indicated that she still felt responsible for them even though they want her transferred. I’m guessing a lot of her honesty comes with experience; she drops a lot of potentially silly lines (last night, to Elizabeth: “I know you better than you know yourself”) that land more as old-age wisdom and reinforce what makes her character fun and deceptively dangerous. If that’s the last The Americans sees of Margo Martindale, at least Claudia left her mark.
There was some tense action last night, of course, as the Americans plotted their set-up of the Directorate S agents. But how the episode built that tension is reflective of the strength of the writing on The Americans: A lesser show would be content to dramatize one stake-out and a car chase. Instead, last night we had two potential situations that could have resulted in either Phil’s or Elizabeth’s capture, and the episode deftly kept the Jennings ignorant of the actual trap that awaited them. Unbeknownst to Phil and Elizabeth, it was Viola’s tip about Caspar Weinberger’s clock that led the FBI to the sedan with the recording equipment, while Elizabeth’s detained source who set up the meeting with the Air Force colonel had yet to make a deal and reveal his secret. Of course, we knew the extent to which the FBI was on their trail, making the Jennings’ deliberations over who would take the presumably riskier mission and meet with the colonel and who would take the presumably safer job of checking the Weinberger bug before taking the kids out of town all the more fraught with perilous dramatic irony. In something of a coup de gras, all the stories came together leading up to the climactic stake-out, as it was Nina—hearing from Stan that the FBI was on the verge of a big score—relaying to Arkady that something was up. When it dawned on Phil and Claudia that Elizabeth was the one in danger, it dawned on me that the subsequent chase scene was the result of some nice planning by the writers (on top of the above-mentioned feeling that I wanted Phil and Elizabeth to get away).
Interestingly, The Americans chose not to close its premiere season with this climax, but with a couple quiet moments that I thought demonstrated both how far some of these characters have come and how much they still have yet to discover about each other. It’s Phil who spends the night by the wounded Elizabeth’s safe house bedside, and this is in character for Phil, who we know has romantic feelings for his “wife”—he’s never been too shy about that. It’s Elizabeth, though, who fluctuates between suppressing and releasing any romantic impulse. Elizabeth closes with a line in their native Russian (“Come home”) that I think is meant to communicate her reciprocal feelings to her “husband” who behaved less like a partner spy (for whom code would dictate not coming to the rescue and relying on Elizabeth to keep silent in prison) than like an actual husband who risks his own safety and job for the person he loves. I don’t think there’s been as much back-and-forth between Phil and Elizabeth in terms of their commitment to their marriage as Alan Sepinwall does, at least so far. To me, Phil’s been the constant while Elizabeth went from initial misgivings to trying to make it work to backing out to renewed commitment. On paper, yes, that’s a lot of change for one character, but it’s not like Elizabeth has been written without nuance; I don’t think this emotional roller coaster of hers is a problem unless her feelings keep rising and falling over the course of the series.
The second moment, and the season’s denouement, found Paige in her family’s basement, driven there by suspicion that Elizabeth wasn’t actually folding clothes down there in the middle of the night. (Let’s be honest, it was a pretty flimsy excuse, and it’s easy to see why Paige wanted to snoop around a little bit.) I thought this was an excellent final scene, and I must admit that I expected a cliffhanger (like in the most recent Breaking Bad season) or Paige to discover the truth about her parents (the way Meadow Soprano found out that her dad wasn’t in construction early on in The Sopranos).* I was properly suckered in—I’m not sure how many of you were, but it worked for me—and pleased to learn that Paige found something, as in, folded laundry.
*Though as Kyra pointed out to me, there probably wasn’t much in the Jennings’ basement that would’ve told Paige that her parents were actually Soviet spies. Yeah, she could’ve found the tape in Russian, but absent something like a banner with the hammer and sickle there probably wasn’t a lot that would explicitly confirm who her parents are, only leaving Paige more suspicious. As it stands, the closing scene still won’t eliminate Paige’s suspicions anyway while managing to push any discovery of hers or Henry’s into the future.
All in all, I’m not sure much has happened on the homefront—the FBI and the Soviets are still chasing each other around, and after Phil and Elizabeth get away the Americans have blown their best chance for a while—but a lot has transpired on the home front (AYOOO). Elizabeth has been hurt on the job, and this injury of hers brings into greater relief her feelings towards Phil and her work, which aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s Stan, too, who’s only grown more distant from his wife and has botched things with Nina (though he hasn’t realized that yet). It turns out that Stan can’t completely separate his personal life from his work, either, to the detriment of both; a tantalizing storyline that may develop is whether Nina might be able to turn the vulnerable Stan, as per Arkady’s instructions. The Americans has indicated that the search for the Russian spies will continue concurrently with its characters’ own searches for emotional stability, and after a strong opening I’m quite looking forward to its second season.
[kyra update]: I don’t have much to add, as Buckeye and I talked about the finale before he wrote this and most of my thoughts are contained in his words. But as always, faithful readers, I have a few brief remarks.
The show did something very well this season that Buckeye did not touch on, and that is set up with late payoff. In the second episode, when the Jennings bug the alarm clock, it seems like a self-contained story. The Jennings go on a mission and it is completed, while the characters personal lives are impacted beyond the events of the episode. Of course that alarm clock shows up again much later, and plays a significant role in setting up the events of the finale. The showrunners, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, commented in a podcast interview with Andy Greenwald that they actually wrote fairly far ahead of the current episode in order to be able to do stuff like this. They did a good job tying up loose ends.
I, like Buckeye, liked the fact that while Paige is suspicious, she didn’t actually find anything in the basement. What I want to comment on is just how weird these kids’ lives are. Don’t forget when Henry says to Paige that they are never supposed to go into the parents’ bedroom. We don’t really know the extent to which their lives are not normal due to their parents’ occupations, but we know there some odd rules, which I hope and expect they will explore more next season.
They also defended the flip-flopping in the marriage as trying to reflect how real marriage actually works. The show at its core, they claim, is about a marriage, which is an interesting take and not necessarily how I would’ve described it. I see it as a show where the concept of identity is really the overriding motif, and I don’t know if I would agree that the marriage is at the show’s center since I consider Stan to really be part of the center. You can read more from the interview here.
Margo Martindale had to be written out of the show because she had a pilot picked up by CBS. If it is successful, she may be gone for good, but the showrunners made it clear they would love to have her back. That being said, she will definitely be spending a lot more time in Russia next season.
Finally, just a hope for next season. I would really love to see some flashbacks into Stan’s past activity with the KKK and how that has shaped him. I imagine that to have been a particularly troubling experience.