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, senior writer Dylan Matthews, and deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski offer their takes on “START,” the series finale. Needless to say, spoilers follow!
Todd VanDerWerff: After six seasons and 75 episodes of longing and spy games and dark twists and turns, The Americans finally revealed its core self in “START,” and that core self was an unabashed romantic, with a side of icy cold tragedy.
Philip and Elizabeth live. They don’t just live; they escape to the Soviet Union to begin a new life together there as Mischa and Nadezhda. But both of their children stay behind in the US — Paige by choice and Henry completely unknowingly. Stan finds out the truth about his neighbors. He confronts them in a parking garage and pulls a gun on them — but ultimately lets them go. Oleg rots away for years to come in an American prison cell. Renée is maybe a spy, or maybe she’s not.
Oh, yeah, and Philip and Elizabeth save the world, bringing news of the attempted coup against Gorbachev back with them to the Soviet Union. It’s not depicted onscreen, but this, I assume, is why the two end up in a car with Arkady, the one character from the show’s past to make an appearance in this finale. There’s a fitting symmetry here — the Jennings marriage is saved, and so is the world. The two were more reliant on each other than we ever might have guessed.
As both a series finale and an episode of The Americans, “START” is a terrific achievement. For starters, it’s a beautiful showcase for the show’s main players. (The little gasp Keri Russell gives when Elizabeth realizes leaving Henry in the US is the right call is Emmy-worthy in itself.) But it also somehow ties off every story thread that matters, and it ties off most of them in vastly unexpected ways. And the few that it leaves open, it really lets you know it’s leaving open, so you have little bits and pieces of doubt hanging over you about the resolution of the show. (Poor Stan! Loses his best friend and has to wonder if his wife is a KGB spy all in one fell swoop.)
I dare not go on too much longer — except to point out that this series finale falls on the Sopranos end of my “Sopranos to Six Feet Under” series finale scale — because there’s a lot to talk about, and I want to get your very high-level thoughts on the episode before we dig into the nitty-gritty (and let a few of our colleagues offer their thoughts as well). So: What did you think?
Does this finale make us completely rethink everything we know about The Americans?
Libby Nelson: It’s a tremendous finale. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. And it’s made me wonder if I ever understood anything about The Americans at all.
For the past six seasons, I would have said we were watching the story of two people who gave everything they had in service of a doomed cause. After all, we all knew that the USSR’s collapse was practically imminent. Everything Philip and Elizabeth did — exiled Martha to Moscow, cut up Anneliese and stuffed her into a suitcase, killed Lisa, ruined Young Hee’s marriage, strangled the airport worker on a bus, shot a teenage busboy, forced an old woman to swallow pill after pill until she died, stabbed Sophia and Gennadi in front of their son — would, in the end, be for nothing. They would lose. It was a tragedy.
And yet, while the Jenningses seduced and blackmailed and murdered their way through the larger metropolitan area known as the DMV, I rooted for them, because I’m human, damn it. From the start, Philip, Elizabeth, and their marriage were tremendously complex and compelling. I wanted them to get away with it, in part because I knew they wouldn’t. Tragedies don’t get happy endings. Antiheroes don’t grow old together and die quietly in their beds. And no matter how much I cared about the Jenningses, they were antiheroes, weren’t they?
Or were they? Can antiheroes save the world?
“START” takes its title from the landmark nuclear treaty signed in 1991 — a treaty made possible, we learn, by Philip and Elizabeth. The Jenningses aren’t going to be left behind on the battlefield, soldiers for a lost cause; they’re behind the scenes, making sure the ceasefire happens at all.
It’s not the ending I expected. I’m not even certain it’s the ending the Jenningses, strictly speaking, deserve. (Poor Oleg did his utmost for world peace too, and ends up in prison for his pains!) But it’s an ending I’m going to be thinking about for a long, long time. I love that this show subverted my expectations up to the very end, and I can’t wait to rewatch the whole thing to see what I missed the past five years while I arrogantly assumed I knew what it was all about.
Dylan Matthews: Longtime viewer, first-time discussant here, and what an episode to jump in on.
I hesitate to disagree, especially on my first outing, but in a way, I saw this episode as the ultimate triumph of the Jenningses’ ideological commitments over their personal attachments. Those commitments are not, of course, to hardline Soviet communism, of the kind that Elizabeth espoused in the early seasons (or even earlier this season, with her stating misgivings to Philip about glasnost and fear of becoming just like Americans). Their ideology is, in a way, blunter than that, but no less real and no less divorced from their concrete personal loyalties.
The Jenningses have always been nationalists — or at least patriots, if you want to put a nicer spin on it. From their explanation of their jobs to Paige in season three’s “Stingers” (“We serve our country”) down to Stan’s confrontation in the parking lot, when Philip insists, “It seemed like the right thing to do for my country,” the one thing that always rang true when they explained their jobs to outsiders was a deep sense of national duty. The show underlined this again with last week’s flashback to Elizabeth abandoning a comrade in Moscow and being chastised for it by her trainer. You don’t let down countrymen.
And even apart from being dangerous to world peace, Claudia and the KGB’s plot to bring down Gorbachev was a kind of treason, a betrayal of the nation. Gorbachev, love him or hate him, was the Soviet Union’s legitimate ruler. He was chosen fair and square under the autocratic system governing the country. Claudia and her co-conspirators actually did what we’ve spent the past few months hearing President Trump accuse the FBI and Department of Justice of doing: exploit the powers of the “deep state” in an attempt to bring down a legitimately, if not exactly democratically, selected leader.
That, I think, is why Claudia’s revelation to Elizabeth was her breaking point. Elizabeth thought she was serving the Soviet Union. She was not. She was just serving an internal faction attempting to launch a coup against the Soviet leadership.
And so the Jenningses blow up their entire lives. Philip collaborates with Oleg to stop the traitors back home. Elizabeth breaks with her handler and kills a fellow officer to protect her nation’s government against internal enemies. If she hadn’t been monitoring Nesterenko to protect him from KGB assassins, then Philip wouldn’t have had to meet with Father Andrei, he wouldn’t have seen the FBI on his tail, and the whole family might not have fled.
Instead, they did flee, and the Jenningses wound up abandoning their son (on purpose), their daughter (by necessity), and, of course, their next-door neighbor, who, it’s never been clearer, truly was Philip’s best friend. They paid an absolutely extraordinary personal cost, out of duty to country — and, if you want to be an idealist, perhaps a desire to avoid nuclear war too.
I keep coming back to an exchange between Father Andrei and Aderholt, where the father notes that Aderholt is asking him to “let down people who trust me.” “I have to let down people who trust me all the time,” Aderholt responds, somewhat glibly. Later, he insists to Andrei, “We were meant for better things. We all were.” The Jenningses, in their way, agree. They let down the people who trusted them more than anyone, in the pursuit of better things for their country.
Why “START” is one of the 10 greatest TV finales of all time
Genevieve Koski: This one definitely makes it into my list of the 10 greatest TV finales ever, not just for the consideration and care that went into the construction of it (and the final season as a whole), but for how thoroughly and almost radically it puts a bow on the series’ central preoccupation: the Jennings marriage.
What’s so breathtaking to me about that final image of Philip and Elizabeth overlooking Moscow isn’t simply that they’re back in Russia after all this time, but that they’re there alone, contemplating what their lives might have been like had they never left and what they will be like now that they’ve returned.
The entire time we’ve known them, their marriage has been defined by its various constraining factors: their work, their children, their sources, their secrets. The version of their marriage they were able to build and keep alive — sometimes just barely — is one that’s always been informed by these factors, and now suddenly it’s just … not. They’re no longer Philip and Elizabeth, super-spies and parents; they’re Mischa and Nadezhda, two Russian citizens back in a country they no longer know, without their children, their jobs, or anything else to give them a sense of identity. Nothing beyond each other.
This extreme and heartbreaking distillation of the Jennings marriage down to its most basic element — Philip and Elizabeth’s commitment to each other — feels like the flip side of their world-saving efforts. As the series fades to its closing credits one last time, the question that hovers over it all is less “At what cost?” (though the loss of their children is certainly a huge cost), and more “What now?”
And that makes me feel like this is the ending Philip and Elizabeth deserve: After everything they’ve done, they’ve lost their children, their careers, and the country at least one of them called home for decades. They may be heroes, but they’re tragic ones, and the comparatively small stakes of what they now face — figuring out how to just be married to each other — in comparison to what they’ve been doing for years is a stark realization.
I’m dwelling on that final image because it’s such a pitch-perfect coda to this series, but there are a handful of scenes in “START” that made me break out in a cold sweat, chief among them Stan’s face-off with Philip in the garage and Paige’s desertion. I feel we could probably write several thousand words on either of those…
Todd: OH BOY, STAN AND THE JENNINGS FAMILY IN THE PARKING GARAGE!!!!!!
One of the worries I’ve had about this season was whether it had pushed back Stan’s realization so far that it would ultimately fall flat. When Stan finally confronts Philip and Elizabeth with what he knows, with Paige standing there, gamely trying to keep up the lie, so much is riding on the scene that it would have been so easy for it to turn into a long, long exposition dump. And in an upcoming episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg admit that, yeah, this was the scene they spent the longest figuring out during the production process.
But goodness me, did they figure it out! There’s this almost ecstatic relief on Philip’s face when he can finally admit the truth to his best friend, while Stan looks like he’s been gutted, like even though he was sure of his hunch, he really didn’t want it to be true — he wanted there to be another explanation for catching the family together like he did. (I instantly thought Paige should have said she was pregnant. It might have thrown Stan just enough off his game to let the three get out of there.)
The scene takes up nearly all of an act — the stretch of story between commercial breaks — and it uses every single bit of that time (nearly 10 minutes) wisely. It even features Philip telling one last half-truth to get away, when he says that no way did he kill Sofia and Gennadi. He doesn’t commit murder! And, of course, we know that he does, but we also know he didn’t kill Sofia and Gennadi, even if he has every reason to suspect that Elizabeth did.
Noah Emmerich hasn’t always been served particularly well by this show — especially in the fifth season — but the last half of the last season finally pushed him closer and closer to center stage, and he’s just magnificent in this scene. He tries like hell to do what he knows is right, but he’s also broken by this revelation, so broken that “what’s right” no longer makes complete sense to him. He should arrest his friends. But he can’t.
I’m sure some people will question exactly why Stan lets the Jennings family escape, but what else is he going to do? The central idea of this show has always been that people trump ideologies, and the second you lose sight of that is the second you stop being human yourself. (I think I say a variation on this every week.) Stan is living out the central thesis of the show, especially since nobody will ever know. His little playacting of, “I’ll kill him,” when Aderholt shows him the sketches of Philip and Elizabeth is just the right note of very, very angry and very, very sad. Plus, now he has to wonder for the rest of his life if Renée is a spy!
But deep down, he knows the truth: Philip and Elizabeth are headed out of the country. Which brings us to Paige Jennings and the finale’s most fateful choice.
Libby Nelson: Before I get to Paige, I owe an apology to somebody (or many somebodies) about the Renée arc, which I was frequently and loudly derisive about. This endless guessing game for the audience about whether she was a spy, I proclaimed, was beneath The Americans; I resented the time we were spending on it.
I was playing checkers and the writers were playing chess. Making us frequently wonder what Renée’s deal was, and then never telling us, was brilliant. By making the audience constantly second-guess her motives based on very little evidence, the mystery of Renée demonstrated how living life undercover, never trusting anyone, can warp you.
And speaking of how living with secrets can change your life … Paige. How great and tense was that scene on the train? And how successful was it at misdirection? I didn’t think Paige would really end up safely in the Soviet Union, but at that point, I wasn’t sure any of them would; the last glimpse of her lightly disguised face on that train platform will stay with me for a long time.
In 2016, the Guardian profiled a Russian spy couple who, after years of posing successfully as an American family, fled to their homeland, leaving behind two adult children and lingering doubt about what the older child knew and when. In retrospect, it was sort of a spoiler hiding in plain sight, but my takeaway here is that there’s likely no way to stop Paige and Henry from eventually meeting up with their parents in a country without an extradition treaty — or, to be precise, the challenges are more emotional than they are legal or logistical.
But I’m not sure Paige (and especially Henry) would ever want to. In the end, Paige made a choice that echoed the message in Elizabeth’s flashbacks last week: You don’t leave a comrade (or a sibling) behind. At least she had a choice; Henry was blindsided.
At times during the series, I struggled to invest in Paige. But now I am dying to know what happens to her next. Does she just pick up and return to her life like nothing happened? What does she tell Henry? Where does that leave Stan, who has to know that she was somehow involved?
I’m not sure I actually want to know the answer to that question, or any of my others. (Do Philip and Martha run into each other in Moscow? Can anyone get Oleg out of prison? Can Stan’s marriage survive? Does Henry have to work at a tannery in West Virginia to pay tuition?) That, to me, is the true strength of this finale: It left me wanting so much more, but also knowing that in some ways, it’s more satisfying not to get it.
Some final thoughts on the best drama of its era
Genevieve: I’m right there with you on being impressed with this series’ handling of Renée, Libby, particularly for how it contributes to that sense of satisfying open-endedness you mention. What strikes me as so genius about the decision to have Philip tell Stan that he suspects — but has no proof— that Renée might be “one of us” is how it extends the central conflict of Stan’s character, the tension between his personal life and professional one, into the indefinite future.
The embodiment of that conflict, Philip, has exited his life forever but left behind a new seed of doubt for Stan to nurture in his absence. And the fact that we don’t know the truth either, beyond whatever we might read into that final look Renée gives the now-deserted Jennings home — and kudos to Laurie Holden for selling that moment as well as she does — puts us right there in Stan’s shoes, obsessing over a gut feeling, maybe forever.
Stan has a long and storied history on The Americans of letting his relationships impede on his professional obligations, from Nina to Oleg and now finally Philip, whom he allows to walk away from certain capture out of some hazy combination of personal connection and exhaustion with counterintelligence work. That character history, combined with the fact that we’ve reached more or less the end of the Cold War on this series, with everyone feeling burned by having been a part of it, makes me suspect that Stan will end up not pursuing those suspicions about Renée, whether consciously or not.
The fact that we won’t be able to see that happen is perhaps a little disappointing, but also not, because the series has given us everything we need to understand what Stan will do, and why.
Todd: So it’s me, then? I’m wrapping up this whole thing — this whole show? Well. All right. (It’s fitting that I’m wrapping up this show as it started: by recapping an episode with Genevieve.)
Our discussion about what motivates Philip and Elizabeth is a rich one because that question within the show is a rich one. You can argue that both are motivated by blind ideology. You can argue that they’re motivated by nationalism. You can argue they’re motivated by personal attachments both in the US and in the USSR. And you can argue they’re motivated by love.
All of these statements are true, because the characters and their relationship are that compelling and complex, as were their relationships with Paige, with Stan, with Claudia. (Henry was a solid character, but he never quite escaped the role of being symbolic of the series’ dramatic stakes in the way his sister did.) They are, like all of us, a bunch of different people simultaneously — ideologues, nationalists, parents, friends, partners.
But “START” makes one thing incontrovertible: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings survived because they had each other. They also became worse at their jobs because they had each other. (It is, after all, their marriage that would have gotten them arrested, if not for Philip’s extreme running skills.) But in the end, when everything else fell apart, they had each other, and they made it out of the series alive, and together, and maybe not sure of who they are without their job. We only get to imagine what their lives will be like now, in some Moscow apartment, trying to figure all of this out, probably with U2 wailing away somewhere on the soundtrack.
The series began with Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in its pilot — both an expression of a relationship falling apart and a product of a time when the Cold War was fully operational. It very nearly ends with U2’s “With or Without You,” a product of the Cold War’s thaw and an expression of something firm and unshakable, even if maybe it should be shaken here and there. Neither Philip nor Elizabeth can live with or without the other. There’s something perfect in that.
So we leave them, with a million questions swirling, overlooking a city they no longer know, which is about to erect Pizza Huts and McDonald’s, which is about to look a whole lot more like the land they left but also remain itself. The Americans has always asked what it means to build a home, and in its finale, it suggests that laying the foundation with another person you can’t quite stand and can’t quite leave behind is, if nothing else, a really good start.