April 23, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “The Americans”


FX probably shouldn’t hold its breath for THE AMERICANS to become a wider popular success than it is. The series, for all its excellence, was more grim in its 3rd season than ever–the sun barely even seemed to shine on its distressed, and distressing, characters.  There was intense drama, to be sure, and outbursts of shocking violence from time to time, but none of the latter were “fun” in the action-adventure sense.  Rather, they were almost always agonizing, as when the show’s deep-cover Russian spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) snapped apart a corpse’s bones in order to fit it into a suitcase, or when an enemy agent was killed by having the tire around his neck set on fire.  Perhaps the season’s most disturbing death was its least bloody, when Elizabeth instructed an innocent elderly woman (played superbly by Lois Smith) to commit suicide with a slow overdose of her heart medication because she’d happened to see the couple in a place where they shouldn’t have been; knowing that her conversational partner would soon be dead, Elizabeth for once talked honestly about her life, in an extended sequence that was both cold and compassionate, moving and monstrous.  Then there was the season’s major plotline, in which Elizabeth (and Philip, but much more reluctantly) set out to recruit their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to the spying life–not to mention the parallel operation in which Philip needed to seduce a girl roughly Paige’s age, although even The Americans shied away from depicting just where that went.

The Americans often feels more like a deconstruction of spy fiction than an example of it.  There is the Jennings’ inexhaustible assortment of tacky wigs and disguises, all of which fool everyone.  There’s Philip’s fake fake marriage to FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright)–as opposed to his real fake marriage to Elizabeth–and the amount of time it took Martha to acknowledge that her “husband” might not be who he seemed.  The series subverts the conventions of its own genre, sometimes to the extent that it’s hard to tell what’s a deliberate commentary on espionage thrillers and what represents a failure of storytelling by series creator Joe Weisberg and co-showrunner Joel Fields.  After last week’s final scene creepily detailed Philip stripping off his disguise in front of Martha for the first time ever, for uncertain reasons, was the decision not even to show Martha in the finale (written by Weisberg and Fields, and directed by Daniel Sackheim) a deliberate anticlimax or a routine inability to squeeze all the show’s characters into the episode?  Was the season’s punchline to the Paige storyline–her choice to inform on her parents to her trusted pastor–predictable or inevitable?

Certainly the series pushed even harder this season than it has before on the sheer pointlessness of the espionage that is its subject.  The Jennings spent much of the season trying to undermine 1980s-era US support for the Afghan muhajideen–the same rebels who would soon enough become Al Queda, and the US’s deadliest foes.  Similarly, Philip and Elizabeth worked on behalf of South African anti-apartheid activists, now generally regarded as heroes.  (That man burned alive with the tire was going to set off a bomb that could be blamed on civil rights forces in the US.)  They also bugged an FBI mail robot, which yielded so little usable intelligence that the Russian embassy considered dropping the operation (but kept it going for political reasons).  Another seemingly odd aspect of the season was that when Paige was finally told what her parents really did for a living, there was no discussion on either side of the politics of it all, no outrage on Paige’s part that her parents were betraying her country, and no attempt by Philip or Elizabeth (even when she and Paige went off by themselves for a trip to Germany to see Elizabeth’s dying mother) to discuss their views on Russia vs the US.

Russell, Rhys and Noah Emmerich, as the Jennings’ hapless neighboring FBI agent Stan Beeman–himself hopelessly in love with former double agent Nina (Annet Mahendru), now deported to Russia as a result of Stan’s double-bind betrayal and spying on a scientist whose abduction the Jennings had put into motion–provide some of the best acting on television, and this season also greatly enlarged Holly Taylor’s role, and brought in the great Frank Langella as the Jennings’ newest handler (although it was still a thrill to see Margo Martindale, no longer CBS sitcom-bound, return for an episode).  The scripts are unfailingly intelligent and gripping, and both the 1980s period atmosphere and the sequences of surveillance and violence are handled beautifully.  Nevertheless, The Americans is brilliant but not always satisfying, wrenching but never cathartic. and that’s reflected in its marginal ratings.  (The series is a poster child for the new economics of cable, where branding and value as an in-house studio production can trump what are likely insufficient network revenues from on-air viewing.)  Its characters lie all the time, but it’s the rare series, even in this remarkable TV era, that insists on being true to itself.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."