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How The Americans built one of the best final seasons ever made

By sticking to its guns — and asking whether saving a marriage can save the world — the show goes out brilliantly.

The Americans Javier Zarracina/Vox; Images courtesy of FX
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It’s very early in production on the sixth and final season of The Americans, and I’m pretty sure I’m watching the calm before the storm.

I’m on set in late October 2017, watching filming of the season’s first two episodes, “Dead Hand” and “Tchaikovsky,” which are filmed concurrently. I’ve already learned the season is leaping ahead three years from where the fifth season ended, to a 1987 where American-Soviet relations are thawing ever so slightly, where Gorbachev is working to open up the USSR to the West, where Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (the series’ married KGB spy protagonists) have never been further apart.

The two scenes I see filmed aren’t particularly action-packed. In the first, from the season premiere, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and her newly minted spy daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), watch a movie depicting life “back home” in the Soviet Union with Elizabeth’s handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), the closest thing Elizabeth has to a maternal figure. In the second, from episode two, Elizabeth and Claudia discuss what will happen with Paige should something happen to Elizabeth.

It’s not that neither is of interest. Though the first scene is largely silent on the part of the three actors, the second offers a chance for Martindale and Russell to turn their considerable talents on a dime, going from a brief read-through of the scene to full emotional intensity almost instantly. (They’re being directed by co-star Matthew Rhys, who plays Philip and has beautifully directed episodes in each of the final three seasons.)

What’s more, its content seems to promise dark things to come. After all, as I’ll eventually learn in the season premiere, Elizabeth now wears a cyanide capsule around her neck, the better to escape arrest should anybody catch on to her attempts to undercut an arms summit between the Americans and the Soviets. Surely this conversation foreshadows a moment when Elizabeth, on the run, must choose between her family and her ideology, the conflict at the center of the show.

And, well, I won’t spoil whether that happens or not in the series finale (if you’ve seen the finale or don’t care about being spoiled, you can read more about it here). But I will say that what I should have been paying attention to in that day on set wasn’t my assumptions of where the show was going — all final blazes of glory and explosions and dark horrors — but rather where the show had always been.

The Americans has constructed a remarkable final season not by trying to become something other than itself. Instead, it has refocused on the three questions that made it so good in the first place, questions ably expressed by the scenes I saw being filmed: What is your home? Who is your family? And what do they matter?

Most final seasons push toward dramatic cataclysm. The Americans has kept pushing inward.

The Americans
Matthew Rhys (right) directs Noah Emmerich on the set of “Tchaikovsky,” the second episode of the final season of The Americans.

“I don’t think it even occurs to us that we have to have a conversation about how do we make it big, or how do we add big elements. It’s all there. It’s going to happen, whether we try or not; I don’t think we have to add big sequences or big explosions,” Joe Weisberg, the series’ creator and co-showrunner, tells me when we talk about these very things, earlier during my visit to the set. “It’s possible we could fuck it up and accidentally take it out, but I don’t think we have to put it in.”

Weisberg’s words turn out to be ones I should have paid attention to as well. Though the final season of The Americans has not lacked for tense sequences, it has been relatively free of gigantic confrontations and dramatic showdowns. Its stories have played out, as they almost always have on the series, on the more emotional battlegrounds of friendship, of marriage, and of parenting.

The season begins with Philip having left the spy game behind and Elizabeth having to pick up the slack. Now he seems reinvigorated, a born-again capitalist pumping money into the travel agency the two run as a front, while she seems exhausted. The show’s writers — led by Weisberg and co-showrunner Joel Fields — use this setup to examine not just how strong the connection between the two is, but also 1980s global geopolitics.

Philip is drawn back into spying by contact from former Soviet embassy official Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), who asks him to help prevent other elements within the KGB from undercutting Gorbachev’s efforts. The only problem is that Elizabeth is working with the aforementioned “other elements.” And all the while, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the couple’s FBI agent next-door neighbor, continues to nurse his hunch that something is fishy with the Jenningses.

What’s brilliant about this is the way it collapses the series’ political and personal stories into each other. Whether Philip and Elizabeth can find their way back to each other ends up being another way to ask whether the US and USSR can ever attain world peace. And Fields and Weisberg know that viewers figuring out that the two countries successfully negotiated a treaty is just a Wikipedia search away — but we don’t know if the Jenningses will be okay.

Thus, everything the final season does gains an added urgency, because our certainty in one area is balanced out by uncertainty in another, and vice versa. Weisberg and Fields have turned the smallest possible stakes (will this marriage survive?) into the largest possible ones through narrative sleight of hand, and it’s brilliant.

Broadly speaking, too, it’s very different for TV antihero dramas, of which The Americans is loosely an example. Most antihero shows with good-to-great final seasons, like The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad, blow up their plot stakes as big as they can possibly manage in the final stretch of episodes. The Sopranos ignited a mob war, The Shield saw the noose tighten around the series’ corrupt cops, and Breaking Bad eventually pitted Walter White against essentially everybody else on the show (and a few Nazis).

The Americans
Matthew Rhys (left) and Keri Russell chat with showrunners Joel Fields (second from left) and Joe Weisberg during production of the season’s seventh episode.

But The Americans has balanced a growing tension around the series’ spycraft — in that Elizabeth is growing more desperate to accomplish her goals and Stan is slowly starting to suspect something might be up with his neighbors — with its ever more acute drill-down into the Jennings marriage. Indeed, as the final season has gone on, it hasn’t done any of the things you’d expect from a final season, like killing off lots of viewers’ favorite characters or showing Philip and Elizabeth on the run from those who know their secret. But it has maintained almost all the emotional devastation you’d expect from a final season, and much of that has to do with its ingenious idea of pitting Philip and Elizabeth against each other.

It’s natural territory for the series to explore. “You want to obviously grow and change as an individual, but you have to do it with this other person, which doesn’t always line up,” Russell told me.

In a later conversation for an upcoming episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, Fields and Weisberg told me that once they knew they were telling this one last story about the couple, it became natural to pit the two against each other. After all, it was the one dynamic the show hadn’t really explored yet.

Throughout our conversations, they keep comparing the process of writing the final season to writing the first season. “When you’re in the first season of a show, you’re struggling in this void where any direction is a legitimate direction. You’re suffocating under the fumes of all the possibilities and trying to figure out what’s the way forward,” Fields said. “In the final season, it’s the same, but the polar opposite. Now you’re in this tunnel, and it’s closing in, in the sense that the margin for error gets smaller and smaller and smaller, and your options get more limited in terms of what feels right.”

The actors have felt that connection to season one too. Philip and Elizabeth “started as polar opposites in the pilot episode where he says he wants to defect and she slaps him in the face,” Rhys told me. “And we find them again in this kind of cold emotional tundra, where they’re trying to figure out where they can meet.”

And in collapsing the personal into the political, the series has also managed to say something sneakily relevant about what it means to live in 2018, a time when the idea of US-Russian relations has taken on a very different tinge.

The Americans assures us the world always feels like it’s ending, but we keep blundering through

The Americans
Keri Russell films a scene for the final season of The Americans.

During the first season, “a journalist asked whether Russian interest in America was still relevant, and I had this moment where I went, ‘Oh, we’re one and done. We’re gonna go here. This is it,” Rhys laughs when I ask him to look back on the journey with the show. But now, of course...

I won’t spoil the series finale of The Americans, but I will tell you that the world keeps spinning, that humanity manages to keep from blowing itself up, that 2018 eventually follows 1987, as it must. The flip side of the dread The Americans engenders by pitting the Jennings marriage against the fate of the free world is the hope that arrives from knowing that whatever happens to Philip and Elizabeth, the rest of us get to survive.

And yet the reforms Gorbachev pushes, while necessary, lead to the fraying of the Soviet Union, a fraying that eventually pushes communism aside and results in the much purer authoritarianism of the current regime. Whatever optimism you might have about the world not ending in 1987 is tempered by the idea that no matter who survives the final season of The Americans, they will step into a world that almost immediately starts fraying.

The Americans has always argued that ideology must never trump humanity, that no matter your most fundamental beliefs, what is most important is reaching out to the other people you know and meet. It has always been a series where even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant character gets tiny little defining details to let you know that they have a life of their own, that the camera could follow them home and find a whole TV show waiting there.

It’s a core tension of the series that these one-scene or one-episode characters — who often become cannon fodder in Philip and Elizabeth’s great patriotic war — have lives too. We want Philip and Elizabeth to succeed, but we also don’t want them to leave such a trail of destruction in their wakes. That becomes ever more stomach-churning in the final season, as more and more lives are lost and Elizabeth tries, futilely, to keep her daughter from learning about the true nature of her work. The message is clear: Losing yourself in ideology leads you to diminish those who don’t share that ideology but also, ultimately, yourself.

Nobody involved in The Americans has been particularly interested in talking about the series on the level of accidental commentary on the present. It started as a weird bit of ’80s period piece fluff, then only gained relevance as it went on. But the final season nonetheless seems to stand as an ad hoc statement on how hard it can be to keep one’s head amid the rising floodwaters, especially in an age when these tensions are driven less by ideology than by a quest for more.

“There’s something surreally sad to me that back then, everything was so ideological. Communism was an ideology. America was an ideology for its citizens. Now it seems like that rift is no longer ideological. It’s entirely about power,” Fields said. “That’s a sad thing. Because power was the lever for the ideology. Now it’s as if all that’s left is the lever, and the important part, which is who are we gonna be as human beings, seems to have gotten lost in the battle for power.”

That’s what makes this final season so beautiful. It pretends to be a story of two nations trying to find a way to better wage peace but is instead, at its core, a story about what it means to lose someone you loved and then realize only as you start to fall that you hope they’re standing somewhere beneath you, hands outstretched to catch you.

“I always enjoy those little tiny emotional moments, because they treat them so sparingly,” Russell said. “It’s so rare on episodic television, that they’re so earned, and I enjoy them so much when they happen — these small kindnesses or slights.”

Those involved in The Americans are so careful, always, to say their show is not about spying or politics or ideological clashes or whether our way of life can continue to exist. It is, instead, a show about marriage and family and building a home, which is to say that it is about how unlikely and how precious it is to find something to believe in, a way of life you want to continue very much. The end of the world is a personal project, one conducted in quiet solitude. Philip and Elizabeth each have their finger over the big red button that would end it all, but neither has pressed it yet.

The world didn’t end in 1987, and it hasn’t ended today either. We keep bumbling forward as a species, toward some continuance of ourselves. But in all of our own lives, our smaller, more muted connections, behind all those closed doors in your apartment building or along your block, there are so many carefully cultivated worlds, always on the verge of ending, all those miniature apocalypses in waiting. The Americans takes place behind those closed doors, and it suggests one last detente, a step back from the brink, before we start all over again tomorrow.

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