- “The Americans” ended its six-season run Wednesday night in an excellent series finale.
- While it was loved by critics, the show mostly flew under the radar.
- In the years it was on the air, TV has changed a lot, favoring fantasy, sci-fi, and other world-building shows over character-driven dramas that dominated television’s Golden Age.
- The end of “The Americans,” one of the best shows of all time, marks the end of its era.
FX’s “The Americans” ended its six-season run with an excellent final season, and a gut-wrenching series finale. The end of the show, which made its debut in 2013, also marks the end of an era of television: the Golden Age of prestige, character-driven dramas that started with “The Sopranos.”
When “The Americans” premiered, “Mad Men” was still on the air. “Breaking Bad” – another violent show about a criminal balancing his secret life while attempting to keep a family afloat – was months away from airing its final season. But as “The Americans” got further into its run, shows like it didn’t keep coming. Instead, plot-driven sci-fi and fantasy shows with expanded universes like “Game of Thrones” (which was about to air its third season when “The Americans” premiered in 2013), “Stranger Things,” and “Westworld” began to dominate the TV landscape.
“The Americans” is on par with shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad” – and is the best show to end its era of character-focused dramas. Like AMC tech drama “Halt and Catch Fire,” which ended its four-season run in 2017, “The Americans” was loved by critics but never generated much buzz elsewhere. AMC still has a great character drama in “Better Call Saul,” but even that show fits more into the newer slew of TV.
The best thing about “The Americans” is its ability to exist in a gray area: Despite the fact that I am an American, and most people watching this show are American, there’s no clear good guy or bad guy. You quietly root for everyone, or no one, despite their allegiance, methods, or how many people they’ve killed and how.
At its heart, “The Americans” isn’t a spy thriller. It’s a family drama. While Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are KGB spies, their neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is an FBI agent, and it has some of the best action sequences ever depicted on TV, its highlights were always simple emotional moments and conflicts. The drama and action were made more complex by the true identity of its characters, and those who were ignorant of them (or not).
In season two, Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor), the then 14-year-old daughter of Philip and Elizabeth (who is, at this point in the series, oblivious to her parents’ real identities, but suspicious) starts going to church. She donates $600 – all of her money – to a fund for refugees. Her parents are infuriated. In the haunting scene in the Jennings kitchen, Philip (whose allegiance to the Soviet Union wavers throughout the series) tears up Paige’s Bible, and screams, “You respect Jesus, but not us?” Paige has no idea why her parents have such a negative to reaction to her new interest (it’s not like she was drinking, doing drugs, and having sex), and the many layers packed into Philip and Elizabeth’s hostility for it made this one of the best stories in the series. And it ultimately leads to Paige figuring out her parents’ secret.
The series finale stays true to the core of the story and its characters in an unexpected, stinging twist fans never could’ve imagined. A lot of fans were expecting major deaths. Would Stan, the FBI agent who figured out that Philip and Elizabeth are KGB spies (something he was suspicious of in the pilot), kill his friends or turn them in to the FBI? Would Philip and Elizabeth kill Stan in order to save themselves, and their family?
After an intense, quiet scene that’s more than eleven minutes of dialogue in a parking garage, Stan lets Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige get away.
“You were my only friend,” Philip says. “My whole sh—y life. For all these years, my life was the joke. Not yours.” Later, Stan lies to the FBI about seeing them.
After Stan lets the Jennings go, they enjoy their last American meal at McDonald’s before heading to Canada in disguises, without their fourth family member: Henry. Henry doesn’t know about his parents’ true identity, and he’s been away at boarding school for years. He also hasn’t had that much to do on the show besides love hockey and video games. After some discussion and pushback from Paige, Philip and Elizabeth decide that they’ll leave Henry in the US, leaving Stan to take care of him.
Before the Jennings leave their son for good, Paige insists that they call Henry on a payphone to talk to him one last time. It’s a huge risk, since the FBI is already looking for them. Even though Henry was underdeveloped – and oftentimes a joke among fans for his ignorance – this emotional moment reveals so much about each member of the Jennings family, and is a perfect cap on the story this show was always telling. While Philip and Elizabeth talk to him briefly, Paige backs out at the last minute. Henry, who assumes they’re calling him because they’ve been drinking, ends the call abruptly because he’s in the middle of a ping-pong tournament.
On a conference call with journalists discussing the finale, Keri Russell said this was the last major scene they shot, which made it even more emotional than it was on the page. “I did not see the Henry aspect coming at all and that was just devastating to me,” she said.
As U2’s “With or Without You” plays (one of the show’s many strengths was surprising choices for music from its era), Philip and Elizabeth see Paige on the platform through the train windows: she’s not going to Russia with them. The series ends with Philip and Elizabeth, who make it to Moscow. They got a better life in the United States than they would’ve had in Russia, but they lost everything they built for decades.
“They’ll remember us,” Philip says, overlooking Moscow. “They’re not kids anymore. We raised them.”
Elizabeth nods. “Yes.”
There will probably be countless spy thrillers and complex family dramas like “The Americans” again. But not really. Because no show can do this better. In its final season and especially in its series finale, “The Americans” proves once again that it is one of the best television series ever made with careful, detailed writing; thoughtfully fleshed-out female characters; and mind-blowing performances (especially from Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Noah Emmerich).It’s just a shame that it flew so far under the radar that it never gained as much popularity as “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad,” the predecessor that made it possible.
If you want to watch “The Americans” from the beginning, it’s available to stream on Amazon Prime.