Don't read on unless you have seen "Echo," the Season 2 finale of "The Americans."
"The Americans" pulled a long con on us, and it was glorious.
It never occurred to me that Jared killed his own family, an idea that shocked even experienced operatives like Philip and Elizabeth. That was Stunning Twist No. 1 of the show's excellent finale.
But that development was almost small potatoes compared to Stunning Twist No. 2: The Jennings' bosses planned -- as they had done with the ill-fated Jared -- to recruit Paige Jennings to be an extraordinarily valuable Soviet Operative: The Next Generation.
Jawdropper No. 3: At the end of the episode, Elizabeth began to think -- for reasons that are simultaneously rational and terrifying -- that bringing Paige into the espionage fold might actually be a good idea.
As Ryan McGee and I discussed in a new Talking TV podcast devoted to the season finale of "The Americans," one of the things that was so pleasing about "Echo" was that the pieces of it were all out there in the open. This was not a trick ending that required special knowledge that the audience didn't have. This was an excessively clever ending that made absolute sense, scored a direct hit on the deepest beliefs and hopes of the Jennings and set up a series of outstanding dilemmas that will no doubt drive Season 3.
Nice hat trick, comrades.
That said, what makes "The Americans" one of the finest shows on television is not just its tasty reversals and revelations. Of course, those things were mighty pleasing and smartly deployed (except for one thing that bugged me, which you'll find below). What really separates this show from the herd are the moral and emotional implications of those twists.
As Philip and Elizabeth tried to resume their "normal" suburban life -- setting the table, putting dinner in front of their children -- they moved like sleepwalkers. Elizabeth, in particular, looked as if she'd just woken up from a trance, and in a way, she had. Logical and pragmatic, Elizabeth had always known that the Center viewed her and her husband as pieces on a chessboard, but she also knew they were valuable assets that their bosses would try to protect.
But to contemplate the fact that nothing in their lives was truly theirs -- not even their flesh-and-blood children -- was a chilling thought that upended the foundations of their lives. They had not had a family, Philip and Elizabeth realized -- they had produced more chess pieces for the Center to play.
That was the most heartbreaking reversal -- the idea that the system they thought would protect them was actually intent on exploiting them at every turn. Throughout its short life and especially in its second season, "The Americans'" directors did a fine job of visually depicting the characters' isolation and alienation -- individuals were frequently shown alone at the center of an empty space, or two characters were often depicted at the opposite sides of a nearly empty frame. There was so much space around these people, so much distance to cover if they wanted comfort or connection.
The Jennings appear, on the surface, to have deep connections, but, as Claudia's chilling words revealed, those connections could be severed or broken at any time. The greater cause they served also had much greater power. The Jennings had always known that intellectually, but now they knew it on a deep and terrifying gut level.
The final image of "Echo" wasn't just filled with pathos, it actually hummed with an undercurrent of danger. What could be more wholesome or normal than an American family sitting down together at the dinner table? Yet even an outsider looking in could probably have detected that something was off. As is so often the case, layers of lies crowded around that table, stifling the atmosphere.
I couldn't escape the feeling that, in that normal and safe-looking suburban home, Philip and Elizabeth had never been more exposed. There was nowhere to turn, no real protection anywhere. The architects of the cause they'd given their lives to didn't actually care about them and didn't care about their children as human beings. Those Cold War apparatchiks would only protect the Jennings if they proved useful to the cause. If they weren't useful, they'd be treated as Nina was.
The Jennings were devoted something bigger than themselves, an idea that "The Americans" has explored with its usual deliberate thoughtfulness. What the finale revealed is that the couple hadn't truly calculated the cost of that devotion. Ultimately, they learned that the cause was not devoted to them -- not unless they served Mother Russia unceasingly, and offered up their only daughter in return for continued protection. (Speaking of ideology, the show is nothing if not even-handed -- it's not as though the American side is shown as glorious and correct and the Soviets as dark and evil. The differences in the American and Soviet belief systems aren't ignored, but on the ground, both sides are shown as pretty cold and calculating toward their operatives.)
Let's face it, going into Season 3, the Jennings have no good options: They can defy the Center and keep Paige in the dark, or they can bring her into the fold and potentially lose her in a different way. She might rebel against their ideology. She might excel at spycraft and report on her parents' lapses in belief or obedience. She may, like Jared, be so corrupted by what she learns that she will be lost to them in some essential way. They can tell her the truth and make her a stranger at the same time. Or they can keep lying to her and lose her anyway.
As TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach wrote in this perceptive recent essay, the premises and plots of most TV dramas are really devices for externalizing conflicts and problems that otherwise would remain largely internal. I can't think of any other show on TV right now that executes Grillo-Marxuach's Operational Theme theory more elegantly and compassionately than "The Americans." It is rigorous and deliberate in its approach, and yet the restraint it displays only adds to the sense of melancholy tension and moral confusion. The show has found a way to explore the fault lines of any marriage and all parents' fears about their children by way of a suspenseful tale about espionage, sex and lies. Also, wigs.
The wigs weren't as big a deal this year (though they were well-used in the season premiere, and I enjoyed it when Martha revealed that she had known all along that Clark's hair was not his own). Presumably executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg wanted viewers to focus on everything else that was on offer, and given how much more consistent and pleasing the show was in Season 2, I can understand that urge. This season, the show's writers, directors and cast did an outstanding job of increasing the depth and the complexity of the story and adding new layers to the characters' emotional dilemmas while continuing to infuse the story with suspense and a driving sense of purpose.
I often think of "The Americans" as the saddest show on TV (put that on a poster, FX!), but I truly mean that as a compliment. This is a show that doesn't rely on flashy tricks, slick cliches or expedient solutions. It continues to put its outstanding cast through a series of exceptionally resonant paces. In a way, it's a testament to the show's commitment to psychological pressure that I kind of felt bad for Oleg and Arkady, two characters who stood by and did nothing while Nina was shipped off to Moscow for a show trial that could only end one way. I understood why they felt bad about Nina's fate, why they did nothing and how that might affect them going forward. They weren't stooges or villains; they were, like every other character on the show, intelligent people trapped in an impossible situation.
"The Americans" truly lived up to its potential during this finely craft season: The show's themes about loyalty, betrayal, love, connection and loneliness played out on multiple levels for every single character. As Ryan and I discussed in the podcast, the drama's characters are often the most truthful when they're in disguise or undercover. The relationships that mean the most to them emotionally often cause them to lie or shape the "truth" in expedient ways.
"I don't know how you're supposed to know." When Stan's wife Sandra said that in an earlier episode, she was referring to the ambiguous end to their marriage, but you can apply the statement to almost any situation on "The Americans." What is the greater good? To whom does your life truly belong? What can you be sure of? What level of personal or professional disclosure is ever safe? "I don't know how you're supposed to know" could be the answer to all of those questions.
What is the truth, anyway? Is is that all connections -- to a greater cause, to another person, to a child -- are dangerous? Is it that there is no hard and fast truth, just what you can get someone else to believe? In a world built on shifting sands and inscrutable decisions made for political reasons, Philip and Elizabeth had one truth they could hold on to: Their children were their own. Their children were the one private thing they didn't have to share -- and they would do anything to protect them.
Season 3 holds out the tantalizing question: What does protecting those kids even mean anymore?
A few bullet points on the season and the finale:
- Though "The Americans" deservedly gets a lot of attention for its smart pop-music choices (the Golden Earring song was a nice touch), I think Nathan Barr, who does the show's beautifully melancholy yet tension-driving score, also deserves a shout-out.
- "She belongs to the cause." It's such a chilling statement (and yay for the return of Margo Martindale). But that crisp sentence is also designed to bring Elizabeth around. She's always been the true believer of the two, and if she rejects this choice for Paige, isn't Elizabeth repudiating all of her own life choices?
- There's some speculation that Paige and her pastor are already working for the Center (or will soon be recruited), but I don't think that is or will be the case. I think if the recruitment of Paige comes, it won't be through the church and the pastor won't be involved.
- All season long, there was such great work by the core cast: I just keep thinking about the face of Stan (Noah Emmerich) when his wife told him she was moving out; the face of Nina (Annet Mahendru) as she left the Rezidentura; Elizabeth's face as she tried to comprehend what a dying (and surprisingly chatty) Jared was telling her; and Philip's face as it dawned on him that his wife and him might not be united in their rejection of Paige's recruitment. Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Emmerich, Mahendru: All these actors deserve awards.
- In the podcast, Ryan and I talked about how often stories involving teen characters on scripted dramas are terrible or go off the rails. Paige's story (well performed by Holly Taylor) is certainly an example of a teen girl being expertly integrated into the main narrative of a drama. It's the exception to the dumb-teen-supporting-character rule that plagues much of the rest of TV.
- Thoughts on whether Nina will be back? I wonder if Oleg will use his connections to try to save her. Then again, Oleg is no dummy -- he may consider Nina Sergeevna a lost cause.
- If you like "The Americans" a lot, there's a good chance you'll enjoy the spy novels of Alan Furst. Start with "Dark Star," which is one of my favorites and is set amongst Soviet operatives during the 1930s. It'll give you a taste of the Russian melancholy, spy ennui and moral complexity that the FX show depicts so well. Furst's agents operate for long periods in moral and political grey areas, and they often realize that their accomplishments don't matter much, given that the other side's activities usually cancel out whatever they've managed to do. Many of his characters eventually come to believe, as the Jennings do, that personal bonds are what really matter, but of course, their relationships are always under believable threats.
- As I said last night on Twitter, Henry Jennings and Chris Brody of "Homeland" need to meet each other, which of course would require time travel but perhaps the Doctor from "Doctor Who" could make that happen. Henry and Chris could compare notes on the awesome, spontaneous vacations that their families take, they could fly kites together, and Henry would be amazed by the giant TVs on which Chris watched his beloved Washington Wizards.
- The one element of the finale that didn't make sense to me: Why not run in the opposite direction from Jared once they knew Larrick was in the wind? Philip and Elizabeth knew Larrick was likely behind the deaths of Kate and George, and they suspected he might be involved in the murders of their friends -- why would they go to the cabin where Jared was? Aren't the chances high that Larrick might be tracking Jared? Yes, Elizabeth wanted to check in on the only living child of their friends, but they knew how dangerous Larrick was. Didn't it stand to reason that going to where Jared was (with their children in tow) was just about the riskiest thing they could do? Even if they felt the need to make sure that the Center was treating Jared well and had a plan for his exfiltration, I don't buy that they would bring their kids anywhere near Larrick's possible location. Perhaps they wanted to protect Jared -- but again, why bring the kids? That part of the story doesn't make a ton of sense to me, but hey, Henry got to fly a kite, so maybe it was a cool vacation after all.