May 31, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “The Americans”


It was utterly on-brand for THE AMERICANS that the most electrifying sequence of its series finale was about four people talking to each other.  This was the epic confrontation six seasons in the making:  FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) had finally, once and for all, discovered that his neighbors and supposed best friends Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), along with their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), were Soviet spies, responsible not only for plots against the US, but many murders in their line of duty.  Stan had his gun drawn on them, and even though none of the Jennings was brandishing a weapon, Elizabeth had proven herself a pitiless and expert killer many times in the past.  It’s probably an understatement to say that 99 out of 100 espionage thrillers would have ended that scene with explosive violence and probably at least one death.  But writers and showrunners Joe Weisberg (the series creator) and Joel Fields instead had Philip talk to his friend, for the first time since they’d known each other, with almost complete honesty (neither he nor Elizabeth quite copped to her killing the witnesses Stan had sworn to protect), and Stan reply from the heart.  The scene’s violence was purely emotional, and when it was over, Stan chose friendship over duty and let the Jennings leave.  If that wasn’t emotionally complex enough, Philip’s parting gift to his friend–meant genuinely, but inescapably cruel–was a caution that Stan’s wife Renee (Laurie Holden) might be a spy as well.  (And in true Americans fashion, Weisberg and Fields left that loose end unresolved.)

The Americans rewrote the rules of the thriller genre, and sometimes its insistence on detailing the day-to-day routine of the spy business could be plodding, notably in a Season 5 that mostly existed to set up the final episodes.  Although it could be plenty violent when it wanted to be, it refused to use bloodshed for easy emotional release.  Instead, it patiently built up the conflicts between its characters’ principles and feelings, and insisted on demonstrating that there were no winners in its Cold War.  After the confrontation with Stan, the finale–beautifully directed by series veteran Chris Long–became an elegy for all that Philip and Elizabeth were losing, with no certainty of getting anything in return.

With their covers blown, the Jennings headed “home” to Russia, and decided to leave their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) behind, a kindness to a boy who had no concept about his parents or sister, but still heartbreaking for all concerned.  Then Paige, whose commitment to the cause was more an act of will than a true conviction, abruptly disembarked from the train taking her parents to Canada, her deeply troubled expression the last they saw of her as their train traveled on.  Finally we saw Philip and Elizabeth on the outskirts of Moscow, with no way of knowing what kind of reception they’d receive considering that Elizabeth had recently killed a KGB officer involved in a plot against Gorbachev.  Even if they were welcomed, they’d be starting an entirely new life without anything but each other.  And we know the rest of the story that the Jennings couldn’t, that in any case, the Soviet Union was about to fall, their struggles and crimes basically for nothing.

The Americans‘ rejection of compromise, its insistence on following its own sometimes meandering path, could be as infuriating as, well, Elizabeth’s iron will.  At its best, though–and it was frequently at its best–it was a brilliantly complicated portrayal of unique lives.  The acting by all concerned was faultless, from Rhys to Emmerich to Taylor, to supporting players like Margo Martindale and Frank Langella as the Jennings’ handlers over the years, and this season a powerful turn from Miriam Shor as a dying painter Elizabeth was supposedly nursing while surveilling the woman’s husband.  Special praise, however, is due to Keri Russell, whose Elizabeth, at once rock-hard and a pulsing coil of tangled emotions, was a masterpiece of small-screen acting.

The Americans was never much of a hit, and that was understandable given its measured pace and incremental approach to narrative.  It stands, however, as one of the truly distinctive works of this TV era, a story about treachery that never betrayed its principles or its viewers.

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."