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The Americans spends its penultimate episode raising lots of very big questions

Heading into the finale, the show leaves tons of threads dangling — and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Americans
The “Jennings, Elizabeth” of the episode title.

Every week, some of Vox’s writers gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, news editor Libby Nelson, and deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski offer their takes on “Jennings, Elizabeth,” the ninth episode of the final season. Needless to say, spoilers follow!

Todd VanDerWerff: At every turn, the final season of The Americans has defied expectations — usually thrillingly so. We’ve only got one episode left now that “Jennings, Elizabeth” is over, and Stan still doesn’t have the proof he so desperately seeks (despite calling Pastor Tim!), while Philip and Elizabeth aren’t quite burned just yet. We still don’t know a thing about Renee, and literally everybody listed in the opening credits is still alive. Indeed, this episode includes the biggest death of a recurring character this season, and it’s Tatiana (the wonderful Vera Cherny), not a more prominent character.

Maybe the show is only defying my expectations, which have been heavily set by previous final seasons of serialized antihero shows where the shit hit the fan early and regularly (most notably in Breaking Bad but also memorably in The Sopranos and The Shield). Those seasons featured tense standoffs and high body counts. The Americans hasn’t lacked for tension, but it’s come from other arenas, using our knowledge that the show is ending to let the prospect of doom hang over every frame.

And yet even this show must eventually hit certain storytelling beats. As “Jennings, Elizabeth” ends, Philip is very nearly caught by the FBI, which will presumably soon swoop in to capture Father Andrei, who has seen Philip and Elizabeth sans disguises. As Libby pointed out last week, falling in love has always been the worst thing that ever happened to these two, so it only makes sense that making their marriage official would be what finally takes them down.

So we end this episode with Philip on the run, with Elizabeth grabbing the couple’s go bag, with Stan sure he’s on to something but not quite there yet, and with poor Oleg sitting in prison, where nobody cares that he’s trying to save Gorbachev. It’s at once big and exciting, and slightly deflating, the way that a real-life tragedy has a weird mix of horror and morbid fascination at what might come next, at how many more shoes can possibly drop.

“Jennings, Elizabeth” — the title refers to Stan’s futile attempts to turn up information on his neighbors in a computerized crime database — isn’t the season’s strongest episode. It’s a little too occupied with setting things up for that. But it portends some pretty massive things for the finale, while also leaving that finale to deal with almost all the plot threads the show has left dangling. Can either of you think of any threads that have been neatly tied off? I guess the show could leave Claudia roughly where she is and have that be a pretty satisfying ending for her — but that’s really about it.

What happens to Philip and Elizabeth if Directorate S isn’t protecting them?

The Americans
Is this the last we’ll see of Claudia?

Genevieve Koski: I think Elizabeth’s conversation with Claudia is a solid endpoint for the latter’s run on this series, but it also functions as a definitive break between Elizabeth and the KGB. Obviously that break is not a clean one, and leaves some dangling threads of its own — chief among them, what happens to Philip and Elizabeth once they’re outside the protections of Directorate S? — but it’s a huge resolution in terms of Elizabeth’s character, which has always been largely defined by her loyalty to her cause and the conflicts it creates.

This episode, through judicious use of flashbacks to Elizabeth’s spy training — for once, thankfully, devoid of sexual assault — serves to clarify the foundation of that loyalty. This (final? I’m guessing final) confrontation with Claudia boils down to whether Elizabeth serves the Soviet Union as represented by the KGB, or whether she serves a higher patriotic duty to her countrymen. We watch flashback Elizabeth pass by a gravely injured man without assisting, because it’s what would be expected of her in America — don’t stop, don’t risk getting caught, for any reason. But as her handler chastises her, in Moscow, you don’t leave a comrade behind, no matter what. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that there is a greater morality, a broader duty to one’s country and its people, that supersedes the principles of spywork.

In manipulating Elizabeth in order to take down Gorbachev, the KGB has thrown this conflict between politics and patriotism into sharp relief for one of its most loyal soldiers. That Elizabeth made the right choice — or at least the choice that aligns with our historical reality — is a huge resolution for her character, even if it necessarily raises a host of other questions leading into the finale.

Elizabeth has another confrontation in this episode that brings a similar sense of resolution, in similarly gut-wrenching fashion. I’m less inclined to believe her final scene with Paige is the last we’ll see of that character, but as with the Claudia confrontation, this mother-daughter face-off surfaces a conflict that’s been simmering for two seasons now, and blows it to smithereens. Paige has long suspected that her mom’s been leaving out crucial aspects of the job, and the plight of poor Jackson the intern was the piece that made it all click into place.

There’s a strong mirroring happening between this confrontation and the one between Elizabeth and Claudia, but with Elizabeth taking roughly Claudia’s position in her conversation with Paige; note how both women use the justification of a wartime sensibility in explaining themselves to their accusers. And in both cases, honesty is the sticking point: Elizabeth counters Claudia’s shaming techniques with “If you knew me, you’d know never to lie to me,” implying that a breach of trust is at the core of her supposed betrayal; then a few scenes later, Paige delivers an ultimatum to her mother — “If you lie to me now, after everything, I swear I will never forgive you” — which Elizabeth answers with yet another lie, moments before the full truth comes tumbling out of her in a rage (don’t call your mother a whore, Paige) and Paige leaves, maybe forever, skeptical question mark?

I don’t really think this is the last we’ll see of Paige before series’ end, but this scene does feel like the end of her nascent spy career, and possibly the end of her relationship with her mother. And as with the end of Elizabeth’s relationship with the KGB, it boiled down to a massive, world-shattering breach of trust.

Speaking of breaches of trust, and of the political/patriotic divide, how about that scene between Oleg and Stan? What about these men’s history made Oleg think he could trust Stan with the truth, and what do we make of Stan’s response?

Libby Nelson: Who else was Oleg going to tell? Oleg and Stan have a lengthy, complicated backstory, but they’ve each had to put quite a bit of trust in the other, and Stan has certainly proved worthy of Oleg’s trust. Given that Stan essentially blackmailed the FBI director last season to keep Oleg safe in the USSR, I was initially surprised that he greeted the big reveal about the KGB’s opposition to Gorbachev with such indifference.

It’s true, though, that Stan has never been as invested in the geopolitical stakes as other protagonists. As one of the few actual Americans in the show, he hasn’t needed to. Unlike most of our other protagonists, he’s not consciously befriending people whose values he supposedly loathed. There’s no comparable intra-American debate to the Soviet fight over perestroika and glasnost, no question about whether maybe the US should become a little more like the USSR. While Philip and Elizabeth were caught in a deep ideological conflict, Stan gave a Thanksgiving toast that suggests he sees the US/USSR divide in black and white — freedom versus its enemies.

But I’m curious what you think we, as viewers, are supposed to make of this, in a season that’s imbued the division between reformers and hardliners with more moral urgency than it ever did the divide between the USA and USSR. Oleg, an idealist, committed treason in season four to protect the world from biological warfare. Philip risked his marriage and spied on Elizabeth for Gorbachev. Elizabeth’s killing of Tatiana seemed to be framed as a redemption. Stan’s indifference makes sense, given what we know about him, but how does it fit into the show’s moral universe?

What happens when Stan finally finds out the truth about Philip and Elizabeth?

The Americans
Aderholt and Wolfe have a little chat with Father Victor, who puts them on the track of Father Andrei.

Todd: Well, there’s the ultimate question of what happens when Stan learns that his best friend was also a KGB spy, something I’m now quite sure will happen, even if it’s only after Philip and Elizabeth skip the country (which is presumably their next move — would they dare try to start over in Missoula, Montana, or something?). Like a lot of Americans in the ’80s, Stan has bought the propaganda about what the communists represent; unlike a lot of Americans, his line of work brings him into contact with horrible things the KGB has done on a regular basis, which only bolsters his beliefs. Maybe learning that Philip was also a spy will challenge that belief a little bit. But I somehow doubt it.

I suspect this is why the series has always thrown Stan and Oleg into storylines together. They’re superficially similar in a lot of ways, and they both loved Nina at one time. But Oleg’s the guy who left behind the safe bubble of his homeland and realized the people he’d been taught to demonize were, ultimately, just people, that the KGB was just as responsible for bad actions as the CIA.

I don’t find it all that hard to imagine a version of Stan who did something similar, who perhaps traveled to work in the American Embassy in Moscow and slowly but surely realized that there are good and bad actors on both sides. One of the points of the series has always been that “the Americans” is a different concept from any one American, or even a small group of Americans. None of us is our ideology. Ideologies are broken, inherently, because they try to say “people always do this,” and people have ways of surprising you. But people, even broken ones, are worth understanding.

All of the above is part of why, say, it’s easier to hope that Philip and Elizabeth can get away with their many crimes where other antiheroes might not. They’re battling in the name of an ideology, and once they realize how broken that ideology is, they give up that fight. Would Stan do the same? I hope so. But that’s an entirely different show, and it would necessarily have to begin with him realizing just how closely tied he was to a couple of KGB spies.

This brings me to something I didn’t like about this episode — Paige’s revelation that she found out about what her mom had done from Jackson the intern was one of the few times when I felt like this series took place in a world with about six people in it. It took a surprisingly complex portrayal of sexual coercion and the darker sides of Elizabeth’s job, and it got it all mixed up with Jackson needing to be in a place to say a thing that would make Paige have a late-in-season turn that might jeopardize her parents’ mission. I get why it needed to happen this way, and I can mostly justify it from a story sense. But emotionally, psychologically — it felt rushed. Tell me I’m wrong.

Genevieve: Oh, I would never tell you your feelings are wrong, Todd — but I don’t particularly share them in this case. Given that the information about Jackson comes to Paige secondhand through her own intern sorta-boyfriend Brian, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a bunch of congressional interns (or former interns, in Jackson’s case) would get a little sloppy together over beers, nor does it seem unreasonable that Brian would relay that information to Paige, given that their relationship thus far has been predicated on her asking him about his job and the people he works with.

Now, I’ll grant that the timing of this revelation is certainly convenient, in terms of Paige getting the last bit of confirmation she needs about her mom just as things are going, ahem, topsy-turvy at work. But The Americans has been sowing the seeds of this conversation all season, going back to episode two when Paige first broached the subject of the Book — which she brings up again here as the moment she first knew something wasn’t quite right about the bill of goods Elizabeth was selling her.

And Paige’s curiosity surrounding her parents is well-established; it makes sense that she’s been stewing over this in the background all season, and it all just happened to click into place at just the moment the narrative structure required it to. It’s neat, sure, but it didn’t feel out of place to me.

The Americans
Elizabeth and Paige have a devastating confrontation.

What did feel a little out of place — though not objectionably so — was the sudden reappearance of Pastor Tim, overworked but happy in his new position in Buenos Aires. Don’t get me wrong, as a Pastor Tim-head, I appreciated the check-in, but it was one of the few moments this season I’ve felt like The Americans was contorting itself in the name of tying up loose ends. And Pastor Tim wasn’t really even a loose end! As this phone call with Stan confirms, he recognizes and is willing to hold up his part of the bargain that landed him and his family safe in another country, and he isn’t going to risk that, his personal feelings on the Jenningses and the Ninth Commandment be damned.

I suppose we could have walked away from The Americans wondering if Pastor Tim might ever spill what he knows, but, well, would we? I don’t think I would have. But hey, nice to see you all the same, Tim.

Since we’re diving into the portions of “Jennings, Elizabeth” that made us go a little squinty-eyed, though, I hope you lot can clear up something for me: What exactly was Stan on about when he offered Philip a loan to save the travel agency? Even if Philip had accepted, surely with the suspicions Stan has at this point, he wouldn’t actually deliver on such an offer, right? Was this some sort of maneuver as part of his off-the-books investigation, or simply an illustration of how Stan’s loyalty to Philip endures even in the face of his suspicions? And more importantly — is this the last we’ll see of the travel agency??

Libby Nelson: I’m not sure exactly why Stan offered that loan; if Philip had taken it, would it have been evidence, to Stan, that he was genuine (because the travel agency was in such desperate straits that he’d take a loan from a friend) or that he wasn’t (because he’d go so far as to take Stan’s money, in circumstances when the “right” thing to do is clearly to refuse)? But more to the point, I’m not even sure if Stan is sure why he offered that loan. Noah Emmerich is, as always, doing a tremendous job playing Stan as someone who, deep down, knows his idea is right and yet clearly, obviously wants to be wrong.

Stan might have made that offer strategically. But he also might have made it reflexively — relieved that Philip is at the travel agency, where he’s supposed to be, and that the agency itself, bigger and yet desperate for business, backs up Philip’s story. (I don’t know how much Stan knows about the financial side of the KGB’s arrangements; even after six seasons, I just learned recently that “illegals” typically lived off the money they earned from legitimate work at their cover businesses, not secret Soviet payments.) Stan might be acting like a friend in the name of the investigation, or just acting like a friend because Philip is his friend. Philip has been doing the same thing with Stan for years.

We’re back here to a question The Americans has circled for its entire run: What does it mean for something to be “real,” anyway? At what point, if you’ve acted like a friend or a spouse for long enough, even out of operational necessity, are you just a friend? If Philip was friends with Stan just to keep tabs on the FBI, it would have been easy (and understandable) if they’d drifted apart between 1984 and 1987. Stan went back to criminal investigation, Philip quit the KGB, and Stan remarried — a real-life reason many friendships grow more distant. All the evidence suggests instead that they’re closer than ever.

When Philip said to Elizabeth last week that they had done everything they’d done, not the KGB, he was referring to the trail of bodies and betrayal they’ve left behind them. But it seems to apply here too. Befriending Stan was a strategic maneuver, but it wasn’t the KGB who befriended Stan. It was Philip, and the friendship, to me, seems real. But somehow I doubt, if Stan ever finds out the truth, he’ll see it that way.

I guess what I’m saying is, if we get a series finale that spends more time on the Stan-Philip friendship than the Jennings marriage, I won’t even be mad. Todd, what storyline do you want most to have a satisfying ending? Paige? Pastor Tim? MAIL ROBOT?

Todd: I say if the series doesn’t end with Mail Robot escaping the FBI to right wrongs and break hearts across the great American landscape, we write a strongly worded petition to FX. Beyond that, I am ready for anything — anything — the series wants to throw at us. One more episode! Ever!

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