Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Americans' Finale

For much of the past six seasons of FX's The Americans, I have harbored a hope that the series would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and with Philip and Elizabeth - their entire life project now gone (and its utter moral and political bankruptcy definitively revealed), - having to adapt to being in reality what they had for so long been pretending to be, a plain ordinary American couple, parents of ordinary American children. I wondered how that would play out in their varied relationships. To me, the more interesting side of the series has always been less about the spying, the sex, and the violence that littered so many episodes and more about their relationships - as a couple, as a family, as neighbors, workers, and putative citizens, as well as with their handlers and fellow spies - relationships all tainted by their duplicitous lives. 

As the show moved into its sixth and final season, with doomsday approaching it was obvious that the series would not quite end that way. The question then became what particular apocalyptic scenario would the series go with, and how many loose ends would it try to tie up? From way back, there was always the hint of the possibility (just a possibility) that Philip might perhaps defect. Now that Elizabeth, after a life devoted to murder and mayhem, was also beginning to reconsider things, might that be one scenario? All they had to do, after all, was walk across to their best friend and neighbor's house in order to defect! Or would one or both of them go down in a violent, suicidal battle with the FBI? Or would they really just get away, with no price paid for their crimes except that of giving up their comfortable suburban American lifestyle? And would they really go "home" or try to make a new life somewhere else in the US or Canada? And what about all the minor characters whose lives have been ruined, like Oleg and Martha? The show has had so many interesting characters - even the minor ones have been interesting and sympathetic figures - that it would seem hard to tie up all the loose ends. And in fact the finale didn't really try to do so - concentrating instead almost entirely on the principal characters, the four Jennings and Stan. (We never even really find out for sure if Renee was a spy or not.)

The finale may actually have been one of the very few episodes with no one getting killed (despite the tense scene centered on Stan's pointed gun), with no violence at all in fact. The violence was all emotional - the heart-wrenching separation for Philip and Elizabeth from their American lives and their American children and Stan's comparably heart-wrenching realization about his best friend.

I admit I have generally found Elizabeth hard to like (unlike Philip who always seemed more human and sympathetic). So it was somehow humanly reassuring to realize at the end that she really did love her son Henry and was somewhat broken up by her having to leave him behind (although she quickly came to agree with Philip that that would in fact be best for him). In the end, of course, all Philip and Elizabeth were left with was each other - having had to abandon their home of so many decades and their children. Their marriage, originally part of their deception, but which had grown more serious and was even solemnized some time ago by a Russian priest, ends up being their only reality, the only thing they get to keep.

Along with giving up their children, they  had to give up their one real friendship in America. The series was as much about the male bonding between Phiilp and Stan as it was about the work of either of them. Both were essentially lonely men, made so by the demands of their work. Both had comforted each other in their times of marital troubles. The amazing way Philip somehow talked Stan out of arresting them and letting them flee highlighted the talents he had honed as a well trained and accomplished liar through a lifetime of deception, one last instrumentalization of other people. But it also revealed his sincere feeling for Stan (whom he calls his "only" friend, and probably means it) and almost (not quite but almost) a kind of repentance for his horrible life. In letting them go, Stan in effect undermined everything he had devoted his career to, prioritizing friendship over patriotism and ideology.

So Philip and Elizabeth really returned to Russia. Even almost at the last minute, as their car pulled up to the border crossing, I wondered if they might turn around and try to start a new life elsewhere. But in the end they did what was probably at that point their only seriously viable option - at the cost by then not only of their son but of their daughter as well. They are safe now, but scarred. Their punishment is to grow old without the one good thing they ever produced - their children - and (as the audience knows but they do not know yet) to do so in a society which will soon turn its back on everything they had sacrificed for.

I always sort of held it against Elizabeth that she had tried to turn Paige into a spy. I liked the motif of "ordinary" American kids as a counterweight to their parents. And it had to be obvious that, whatever else happened, the Paige plot could not end well. Consistently determined to understand what she was doing and make informed decisions, Paige was the motivation for that final phone call to Henry (although she proved unable to talk herself). And at the last minute, in what had to be either irrational impulse or great courage, she got off the train at the Canadian border and returned to DC. Will she turn herself in? Or will she try to rebuild a life in hiding? How? The latter seems almost impossible. Philip and Elizabeth at ever stage in their careers had been enveloped by handlers and other contacts. Paige is a strong personality, but she would be moving on with her life alone without any of those supports. Her final scene, sitting alone in Claudia's now abandoned apartment drinking vodka, does not seem very promising. But then the story has not been kind to any of the secondary or tertiary characters who have been caught up in this tangled web.

It is one of the characteristic strengths of great drama - whether Shakespeare or Netflix or even Cable TV - to cause the audience to identify with and feel something even for characters who have done appallingly evil things. For all the harm Philip and Elizabeth and their historically evil cause have done to so many people over the course of their long careers as "illegals," it was hard not to feel for them watching their final, poignant phone conversation with Henry, watching their faces as they saw Paige abandon them at the Canadian border, watching them make the irrevocable decision to drive across the border into the Soviet Union, watching them look at their old/new homeland from the side of the road and contemplate who they are and what they have lost.

No comments:

Post a Comment