- Season five of “The Americans” was underwhelming, but this year’s final season, specifically the finale, puts it in an entirely new perspective.
- One scene in particular in the finale makes the monotony of season five worth it.
- It’s caused me to reexamine and appreciate what I once thought was the show’s weakest and most disappointing season.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for the series finale of “The Americans.”
FX’s Cold War spy drama, “The Americans,” was always a slow-burn, but that was to its advantage. It prided itself on being character-focused, and while it was often a riveting thriller, the action was never the main part of its appeal. A character eating a sandwich at the dinner table could be just as dramatic as a job gone wrong.
But last year’s fifth season took the term “slow-burn” to another level. While it was still one of the best dramas on television, “The Americans” stumbled in season five. It didn’t seem to be pushing the show’s narrative forward, and instead seemed to be stalling for its final season, which had already been announced at the time. It also lost out on an Outstanding Drama nomination at last year’s Emmys, while the fourth season marked the series’ first nomination in the category. The show’s momentum had slowed.
By the end of the season, I was left wondering what had changed from the first episode to the last, and, unfortunately, I thought not much had. Season five was still well-written and there were some memorable moments, but it felt underwhelming at the time because I expected more.
On Wednesday, the show’s sixth and final season came to a satisfying halt, and marked the end of its era of character-driven television dramas. But not only did it deliver a fulfilling finale, it also made me reexamine and appreciate what I once thought was the show’s most disappointing season.
Throughout season five, Philip (Matthew Rhys), one of the KGB agents posing as an American along with wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell), is doubting his life as a spy. He’s become accustomed to and even likes life in America, and he’s taken too many innocent lives for him to feel good about his work anymore. This is the main focus of the season, and by its end, Philip decides to quit being a spy (for the most part) while Elizabeth stays in the field.
By this year’s final season, the series jumped forward three years. Elizabeth is chainsmoking and constantly tired from her nightly spy gigs. Their children, Paige (Holly Taylor), who knows about her parents’ double life and has been training to be a spy with her mother, and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) are attending college. Philip is struggling to keep his travel-agency business afloat, despite focusing on it more.
On the surface, the final season is strikingly different from what I remember of the fifth season. The story moves toward a definitive conclusion and the stakes are high.
But the final season, specifically the finale, also shines a new light on the fifth season. Philip is drawn back into the life he left behind because of two things. First, Oleg (Costa Ronin) has returned to America to gather intel on a plot to remove Russia’s leader by the people that Philip and Elizabeth serve, and he wants Philip to spy on Elizabeth. Second, Elizabeth needs his help for a job in the season’s seventh episode, “Harvest.” It naturally goes terribly wrong.
By the end of the season/series, Philip and Elizabeth flee back to Russia because the F.B.I. has learned about them. Philip, who at the end of the fifth season had quit that life, and Elizabeth, who had always been so loyal to her country but is betrayed by her own people, leave their American life, including their children, behind.
Was it all worth it?
That’s a question they must be asking themselves, and it’s a question that wouldn’t be as powerful without season five. Philip has obviously assimilated to his American lifestyle. He chooses his final American meal to be at McDonald’s, and he even thinks about staying in America in hiding. But both he and Elizabeth know there’s no other option than to leave.
It’s a heartbreaking realization considering how season five plays out. In season five, Philip can’t handle his actions anymore and he gets out, but the final season ropes him back in with devastating results. And in the end, it’s their own people who are their undoing. Philip’s monologue during the parking garage scene in the finale, when Philip and Elizabeth’s F.B.I. agent neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich) finally confronts them, is the perfect encapsulation of this.
“I did all this for my country. My country wanted me to and I kept doing it. Telling myself it was important, until finally I couldn’t and I stopped. I’m done with that now and I have been for a long time. It was all just screwing people for … I don’t even know for what. So I quit … Now I need to leave, if I can. I have to run away from the place I have lived for the past so many years. I have to abandon my son. He can’t come with us, because I got caught, I finally got caught. I don’t even know what happens if we make it home, because after all these years of being scared of Americans and recruiting Americans and following Americans we finally got something … and it’s our own people. It’s a bunch of f—ing Russians.”
In this moment, Philip is pouring his heart and soul out to the one person he’s ever considered a friend, and it’s everything he was feeling in season five. For Philip and Elizabeth’s downfall to be because of their own bosses puts season five in an entirely different perspective, both in terms of Philip quitting and Elizabeth being so loyal.
Apart from Philip and Elizabeth’s storylines, we also needed Oleg’s slow story in season five, where he is back in Russia, for his fate in the finale to be as effective. Oleg leaves his family and risks being arrested in America – and exactly that happens.
And while the series finale didn’t answer whether Stan’s wife Renee (who was introduced in season five) is a KGB agent or not, which fans have speculated, her up-in-the-air storyline still felt worthwhile. Many fans felt she might be the endgame when she was introduced, and while the finale doesn’t answer who she is, that kind of ambiguity feels strangely satisfying.
Season five of “The Americans” may have been monotonous when I first watched, but the series finale gives it new meaning. I guess it’s time to go back and rewatch.
More on “The Americans” finale:
- ‘The Americans’ ended with one of the greatest series finales ever, and it marks the end of TV’s Golden Age
- ‘The Americans’ series finale left one storyline unresolved that fans have been debating for a year
- ‘The Americans’ creators describe how they found a McDonald’s that looked like it was from 1987
- ‘The Americans’ creators tested ‘hundreds’ of songs for a pivotal scene in the series finale