Another Cracked Brick Wall
When The Americans was renewed for two final seasons earlier this year, I thought again about the ending I’ve wanted for the show since its debut. It’s rare for me to actively root for a particular resolution for a TV show, especially when the writers have reinforced my faith in them as steadfastly as The Americans 's team has. But as a fan, I’d love — nay, need — to see married KGB spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) confront the end of the Cold War -- and thus the dissolution of their life’s mission -- before the FX drama wraps up in 2018.
The series’ terrific fourth season, which drew to a close Wednesday night, got us many steps closer to the fall of the Iron Curtain. A wall is only as strong as the individual bricks that comprise it, and this season saw several of the Russian characters crumble as, one by one, their superhuman devotion -- simultaneously so admirable and so alienating -- began to falter. In a year even more measuredly paced than usual and relatively lacking in crazy wigs and car chases, The Americans escalated its tension and turmoil -- and pulled off a couple of inevitable yet shocking surprises -- by masterfully diving deep into the Jennings’ and Team USSR’s existential crises.
The tiny cracks of doubt in Philip, KGB agents Nina (Annet Mahendru) and Oleg (Costa Ronin), and biowarfare scientist William (Dylan Baker) were the strongest signs yet of the Communist empire’s imminent demise. Season 4 brings FBI investigator Stan (Noah Emmerich) closer than ever to Philip in the field, in part because the KGB found itself constantly bending its own rules to accommodate their agents’ sympathies and skepticisms. Martha’s assassination could have been neater for the Russians, but she was rewarded with Philip’s affection and advocacy for her blind love. Distrustful of his bosses, Oleg gave away William’s double identity, and the virologist himself considered withholding key information from his handlers. Nina’s startlingly abrupt execution, too, couldn’t have been good for morale at the radar technology lab back in Russia. (It was a rough season overall for The Americans ’s female cast, as we said goodbye to Nina, Martha, and Elizabeth’s mark Young Hee, played by Ruthie Ann Miles.)
All those rifts and ruptures create an aura of tragic inevitability that makes the characters’ sacrifices and violence even more heartrending. When Elizabeth killed an old woman (Lois Smith) in her son’s machine-repair facility last season, I wondered how she’d look back on that night in 10 years, when she’ll have realized it was all for naught. You ain’t that important, Philip is told by his EST coach in the season finale, an accidental truth meant to soothe and reassure, but which does anything but -- neither for the character nor for us.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest fissures in Russian solidarity came from Elizabeth, often the truest believer on the show. The show indulged in actual joy (albeit later punctured by dread) as Elizabeth befriended the Korean-American Young Hee, a happily adjusted immigrant who was the mirror-opposite of the spy. (Whoever thought we’d actually see Elizabeth dance and laugh -- and not just at Reagan’s rosy cheeks?) Elizabeth second-guessed the mission’s technique, and her regret at breaking up Young Hee’s marriage was the most guilt-ridden we’d ever seen her at her job. As Elizabeth left Young Hee behind, we saw once again how the spy’s dedication to an idea of community and connection -- the one offered by Communism -- has left her unable to create real ones in her own life.
That isolation makes Elizabeth’s relationship with her teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), devastatingly crucial. At the start of the season, they’re at odds, and Elizabeth has to be dissuaded by Philip from killing Paige’s confidant, Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). The biggest suspense of the season was how the Jenningses would contain Paige and Pastor Tim after the upset girl revealed her parents’ real profession to her minister. After Paige got a sense of the physical danger of Elizabeth’s work during the attempted mugging later in the season, she played at being a mini-Elizabeth by testing out her sexual desirability and her ability to gain trust with her neighbor, Matthew (Danny Flaherty). Paige’s story this season has been a fascinatingly bizarre coming-of-age, as well as an anxiously fragile story of mother-daughter bonding. I can teach you a few things, Elizabeth offers after garnering Paige’s wide-eyed respect for her quick reflexes (and stabbing prowess). Russia brings them together — and by the end of the season, perhaps Russia will separate them once more.
A wave of cataclysms are headed the Jenningses’ way. Season 4 made us recognize the wholly understandable individual decisions that expedite the tragedy coming their way. In the next two years, I hope we learn how they’ll survive it.