Every week, Todd VanDerWerff, Caroline Framke, and Libby Nelson gather to talk about the latest episode of The Americans. Read our complete coverage of the show here. Spoilers, needless to say, follow.
What's up with the muted climax?
Todd VanDerWerff: The sentiment I've heard most often in response to "Persona Non Grata" is, "That's the finale?!" After a similar reaction to the season three finale, it's possible The Americans believes in a muted climax, in placing most of the proper "action" in the episodes leading up to the finale.
From my point of view, "Persona" was stellar. It's a spellbinding episode of television that puts Philip and Elizabeth as close as they've ever been to getting caught, then walks back from the brink — even as the Jenningses continue to wonder whether the hammer of the government is about to fall.
In the meantime, Paige and Matthew get serious (and Philip gets serious about keeping them from seeing each other); William is captured, but not before he can give himself a disease that rots his insides; and Arkady is sent back to the USSR.
And hanging over all of this is the ultimate question: Will Philip and Elizabeth take their children overseas and cease to be the Americans? Or will the show's title prove ironic in more ways than one — are we building to a conclusion where the couple realizes how much of their life has been built in the US, and how little geography matters when it comes to matters of the heart?
Those looming shots of the Jenningses' house suggest as much. It once seemed like a refuge, but now it seems like a darkened tomb.
Caroline Framke: You can count me among the "Wait, that was it?" viewers, which is a shame, because I really did love so much of "Persona Non Grata," until I remembered it was the last episode of the season. Despite the enormity of William’s choice and the decision the Jenningses must make, this episode felt like a fantastic lead-up to what could have been an even more explosive finale.
Even keeping Stan out of those last few minutes of the episode would have made the ending — where Elizabeth and Philip wonder if their neighbor is finally going to catch on — more interesting, tension-wise. Seeing him all giggly with his friend Philip took the air out of the, "Oh shit, is Stan going to remember he once suspected his neighbors?!" balloon that William blew up in his final, delirious moments.
Libby: I shared your reaction initially, Caroline, but I think I’m with Todd: I really loved this episode. Again and again, The Americans has ratcheted up the tension, unspooling the plot so that you dread what you're sure will happen next — and then instead of the big dramatic break, something quieter happens instead.
It gives me the same sensation that the characters on the show must feel when they learn Philip and Elizabeth's secret. The familiar rhythms of a tense spy show, like the comfortable everydayness of a suburban family with two kids, make you think you know what you're seeing and how it fits together. And then, over and over, our expectations are subverted, and we're watching something else entirely.
You think you're paranoid? You're not paranoid enough!
Caroline: I love the Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields style of showrunning. They’re brilliant, period. But sometimes I do feel like their strict adherence to the logic of this situation outside of a television show — like the fact that Stan wouldn't suddenly suspect his neighbors just because William mentions a couple with two kids — makes them far less likely to care about pacing inside of a television show, and, I’m not going to lie, it can be disappointing!
I will say, however, that the end of "Persona Non Grata" is a great example of how The Americans can draw you into a character’s paranoia.
Philip and Elizabeth have to be on high alert at all times, and when William gets taken into FBI custody, they have to prepare for the worst. Maybe it’s just living so intimately with the Jenningses and their abundance of caution that made me want something a little more tense at the end than the gritted teeth they’ve been sporting all season.
Todd: At times, "Persona Non Grata" reminded me of one of the early popular readings of The Sopranos' infamous final scene: that it was placing us inside Tony Soprano's headspace as he contemplated various potential threats. It was showing us the paranoia of his point of view.
That reading gradually fell by the wayside, in favor of the endless "Is Tony alive or dead?" debate (he's alive, probably, but it doesn't matter). But I always thought it was an interesting idea, and I think the last 10 minutes of The Americans' finale get us to roughly the same place.
Libby: As cliffhangers go, I’m glad we left the question of whether the Jenningses stay or go open, rather than putting them on a plane to Russia or heading on the run from the FBI, the Center, and the world. Or maybe Gabriel will succumb to that bout of being old and having to sit down he suffered earlier, and no one will ever know the Jenningses are supposed to be going home.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this season, it’s that if you think a plot line can only turn out one of two ways, you're not thinking hard enough.
Todd: More generally, I'm intrigued by how the finale revolves around all of these so-called "fake" relationships, showing just how real they are, ultimately. Even Paige wants to make out with Matthew (which I find unfathomable — has she seen his hair?).
It seems to me like it's one of the major themes of the season: If you fake a relationship for spycraft purposes, it's still a real relationship on some level, as every character has learned in painful fashion. Emotions, like biological weapons, don't care how they're used.
A major character pops up for the first time
Libby: Speaking of relationships, the one thing this episode did that baffled me was introduce Philip’s son, Mischa, who is apparently headed on a journey of discovery to the US. My notes from those scenes consist solely of the wide-open-eyes emoji, so: What’s with that?
Caroline: I definitely had a moment when the Mischa scenes started unfolding where I needed to pause and remember just exactly what we were talking about.
But to be fair, this season of The Americans has brought back several people from the depths of prior seasons, like Kimmie, Lisa, and the old woman in the repair warehouse whom Elizabeth quietly forced to kill herself. Bringing back Mischa is just another reminder that The Americans wouldn’t throw a secret son out there for the shocking hell of it. He’s a real person — and he doesn’t want to be ignored anymore.
I’m interested to see how Mischa — who’s now about the age Philip was when he left the Soviet Union — will interact with his father, who’s as disillusioned with his job and his country as we’ve ever seen him.
Todd: I, for one, loved the Mischa reveal. I love anytime a show that's relatively late in its life pulls back and reveals some other layer entirely — like when Breaking Bad started showing us the story of Gus Fring — and this is the sort of thing that's going to reenter Philip's life at the most inconvenient possible time.
Plus, the season one episode where Philip and Irina met up again was the first one where I really felt like the show had the potential to be one of the all-time greats.
Libby: This actually provided a lot of clarity around Irina. She wasn’t a KGB plant after all! She really did have a son!
Caroline: What made me love The Americans in the first place was the fact that it's far more preoccupied with making us understand the mindsets of the Soviet Union than doing the same for the American side of things. On another show, Philip and Elizabeth could very easily be written off as one-dimensional ideologues, with the FBI playing the determined heroes — end of story.
But on The Americans, we dive so deeply into their internal conflicts that the "us versus them" mentality starts to melt away. They're all just people, doing what they think is best.
In "Persona Non Grata," we see that most starkly when the FBI tells Arkady that he’s being expelled from the country because he's messing with the US’s bioweapons, and Arkady curtly replies that this would be huge news, since the US isn’t supposed to have them either.
As he prepared to say goodbye to America, my heart hurt for him, just like it did for Nina, and like it still does for Oleg, and Philip and Elizabeth, every damn day.
Every glimpse we get of the Soviet Union — whether Mischa’s cramped apartment building, Oleg’s mother alone in a stately home, or even Elizabeth describing Smolensk — deepens the characters. These scenes remind us that everyone comes from somewhere, even if the FBI will dismiss the Soviets as "monsters."
Libby: While we’re talking about tragic figures, can we talk about William?
The deepest division on The Americans isn't between Americans and Soviets but between the lonely and the less lonely. William is the loneliest of all, something we knew from the first moment that we saw his sad apartment, covered in plastic barriers. At the end, he dies a lonely death in a sterile room. We didn’t even need that shot of the crushed vial, marking his hand with stigmata, to understand what a sacrifice he’d made.
"When our organs are dissolving, we're all just people." (Or, "Why doesn't anybody watch this show?") (Or, "See you next season!")
Caroline: I would also like to request that everyone reading this stands and gives Dylan Baker a round of applause for a truly extraordinary performance.
He conveyed William's stress level, anger, and incredible loneliness with every tiny gesture and resigned sigh. Watching William die — knowing full well the horrors that were happening inside him — was one of the most gut-wrenching moments this show has delivered, which is truly saying something.
And he still managed to make me laugh, when he incredulously sputtered blood at Aderholdt’s offer of soothing William's dissolving organs with a cool, refreshing Coke.
Libby: I did like that Stan (another lonely guy) and Aderholt seemed genuinely horrified by what was happening to William and were kind as a result. In the end, when our organs are dissolving, we’re all just people.
Caroline: Can FX adopt "When our organs are dissolving, we’re all just people" as The Americans’ new tagline?
Todd: In a just world, Baker and Noah Emmerich would both receive Supporting Actor Emmy nominations, to go along with Alison Wright and Holly Taylor's Supporting Actress noms, and, of course, Lead Actress and Lead Actor nominations for Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, and the the corresponding honors for the writers and the show itself (and maybe a special award just for Henry, played by Keidrich Sellati).
But we probably don't live in that world. Though season four actually had about the same viewership as season three — thus stopping The Americans' audience bleed — the series is still criminally ignored. I'd love to know why you think that is.
Caroline: I suspect that those who have no interest in The Americans view it as slow and complicated, which can be a deadly combination as far as building a following. But what’s frustrating about The Americans' failure to generate the kind of interest that something like Mad Men did — despite both shows taking a similar, unabashedly methodical approach to their subject matter — is that the politics inherent to The Americans' premise can scare people away.
That's not fair to The Americans, not at all. The show isn’t about politics so much as it is about the constant shifting inside of people that sometimes makes politics so incredibly hard to navigate and accept.
And season four is the show's most personal yet. Even when the conflict concerned something as unspeakably massive as a deadly biological weapon, it still came down to how these characters felt about it.
This season came down to Nina trying to be a decent person only to die for it, Oleg struggling to understand his place in the world, Americans and Russians watching The Day After on the same couch together in horror. It came down to Elizabeth tearing a family apart, Paige almost unwittingly learning the art of subterfuge, and the pit at the bottom of Philip’s stomach. It came down to William’s plastic-wrapped apartment, and the terrible loneliness that marked so much of his life.
Every scene has so many rich, incredibly personal layers that thinking of The Americans as being sterile or cold in any way (as many frequently complain) makes no sense to me.
Todd: I have my own theory on this, which is that people view the show as almost mundane.
Think about it this way: The sorts of grand, sweeping shots that typify a Breaking Bad or a Game of Thrones are almost completely absent from The Americans (they're there, but they usually focus on something that's not intrinsically beautiful to look at). Similarly, the show is filmed mainly in medium shots. It uses wide shots sparingly, as if trying to reflect the way Philip and Elizabeth only have a small piece of the picture at any given time.
Finally, its period details are mostly kept in the background. The show works overtime to make you believe that it lives in the '80s, but it in the '80s as they really were, not a fantastical version of the '80s. And there's still a comparatively small level of separation from then. When Mad Men launched, almost 50 years had passed between 1960 (when it was set) and 2007 (when it first aired). There was more distance and, thus, more eye candy.
In short: The Americans takes many of its most potentially salable elements and deliberately mutes them. It's made for a tremendous TV show, unlike anything else, but it's also made for one that's hard for people to invest in.
Libby: I suspect The Americans is partly the victim of Peak TV. Many of my friends plan to get around to it eventually. If The Americans is as good as they've heard, just imagine how fun it will be to binge-watch, and there's so much TV that you have to watch right now to avoid being spoiled. Who has time?
The Americans also leans away, deliberately, from the nostalgia and smugness that so often define period pieces. The concept seems built to repel nostalgic product placement: Elizabeth Jennings would never fill her house with trendy toys, overpriced food fads, or new, neon-hued wardrobes that teenagers will grow out of.
Nor is The Americans telling a self-congratulatory story about history and progress. We are living in a nation remade by the '80s as much as it was by the '60s, but that shift is pushed to the edges of the show's frame. It's not about The Way We Live Now, or a rich historical reproduction of The Way We Lived Then.
The result is that it’s easy to reduce The Americans to "that show about spies." And it can be hard to explain that the spy plots — like Philip and Elizabeth's identities — are in some ways just cover.
None of us are deep-cover Russian spies. (Probably.) But we all have struggled with the questions of who we are and the sacrifices we make to fit in. We can all play different roles for different people. We all leave places, and we all struggle with the worst things we've done. We've all felt that the people in our lives — even our partners or parents or children — are, deep down, strangers. It turns out that being a spy just means being human, plus a few more costume changes of glasses and wigs.
In the end, The Americans' message isn't that Philip and Elizabeth are extraordinary. It's that they're just like us. But "Actually, it's not even really about spies!" is a hard concept to sell, too.
Todd: When I asked John Landgraf (president of FX Networks and Our Father of This Perpetually Beleaguered TV Show, May He Be Blessed for Keeping It on the Air) this very question before season three, he suggested that The Americans struggles to find viewers because it doesn't offer easy answers. It suggests that no matter what you believe, no matter your creed or code, you are going to have something inside you that feels unfinished.
The show doesn't play out on a grand geopolitical landscape. Instead, it plays out in a flicker of a shared glance between two people who trust each other implicitly.
All I know is that we've now seen three straight seasons of TV that are essentially as good as the medium gets (preceded by one that was really, really good). Endings on TV are hard, and 23 more episodes strikes me as a lot of time to kill. But I trust The Americans to figure it out, and I trust people to catch onto the show eventually.
Be sure to read our thoughts on last week's episode, and stop by the comments to let us know what you think season five has in store.