Television

The Americans Perfected the Art of the Anticlimax

The show didn’t end with a bang, but with a slow bleed.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans.
Keri Russell in The Americans.
FX

This post contains spoilers for The Americans.

It seems obvious in retrospect that The Americans was never going to end with anything as satisfying as catharsis. Despite the sensational trappings of its premise—Russian spies pass as Americans and raise American children in a fake American dream!—the show was always about the slow, soul-grinding work of serving a cause you love. Regardless of whether you’re an FBI agent, a spy, or a daughter, idealism puts you in moral peril, and you will do ugly things in its name. This, the show argues, is its own punishment. No showdown can do more damage than these slow erosions of the self.

It’s typical of The Americans, then, that its antepenultimate episode, rather than its finale, is called “The Summit.” (The final episode, naturally, is titled “START.”) This series has never been as interested in “climaxes” per se—nor, despite the occasional thrilling twist, did it invest much energy in the simple machines that power most plots. Quite the contrary, in fact: The show side-stepped the thrills that might reel action fans in and steered clear of glamorizing the Jennings family’s semiregular violence. For all that fans of both shows compared The Americans to Breaking Bad, it’s always simmered and stewed in the emotional strain of its premise without ever actually exploding. Its slowness wasn’t preparatory; it was the point.

Rather than end in a satisfying bloodbath, The Americans doubled down on the series’ investment in suspensions over resolutions. We don’t know what will happen to Paige, or whether Stan’s wife, Renee, was in fact a spy, or whether Claudia reported Elizabeth’s betrayal. We don’t know whether Oleg will ever see his family again, and the slow, desperate smile that drips off his father’s face when he hears that his son is in custody is agonizing. The show stops there, forcing us to remain in the spectacular pain of uncertainty. This is both smart and enormously frustrating, a mode of pain that the viewer’s hunger for resolution simultaneously models and obscures. We want so badly to know that we barrel ahead. We binge-watch. So eager are we to know what comes next that we fail to properly savor the agony of wondering.

Wondering is all our characters can do. The things we do know about them are marvelously, almost symphonically abstract: We know that after seeing Paige standing on that train platform, Elizabeth—whose orientation toward art has changed radically over the course of this season—dreamed of looking at Erica’s painting in her dead lover’s arms. We know that Philip found the Russian cityscape, viewed from the roadside, worth pulling over for.

The show’s interest in moments like this, moments that stretch out like taffy with suggestive import but never explain themselves, will frustrate those who hoped for definite answers. Elizabeth’s fight with Paige in last week’s episode felt cathartic, but it wasn’t—family disagreements never really conclude or resolve. And Paige’s last look at her mother has every emotion in it: the admiration that once bonded them, the sorrow she feels now, the disillusionment, the heartbreak, the astonishment at the permanence of what she’s just done.

Some of that subtle work conceals unlikely acts of kindness. Take Elizabeth’s request that Philip escalate the Kimmy mission, even if it means actually sleeping with her. There are plenty of ways to read Elizabeth’s actions in that episode, and a common interpretation was that Elizabeth was “honey-trapping” her husband into doing her bidding. It’s possible that this was true, and the show is careful not to refute that reading. But this is a couple that knows each other extremely well, and Philip isn’t exactly new to the tactic of using sex to persuade. The possibility I haven’t seen discussed, and which strikes me as more psychologically likely, is that Elizabeth didn’t want Philip to make the decision to sleep with Kimmy for the wrong reasons—that is, out of sexual deprivation.

Seen this way, Elizabeth’s decision to have sex with her husband may not have been spontaneous, but it was, oddly enough, the opposite of manipulative: Elizabeth was asking him for a favor and didn’t want to manipulate him into doing it just because he was horny. She slept with him so he’d make the decision for what she saw as the “right” reasons. That’s a thousand times more interesting—and supported by Elizabeth’s response when Philip tells her he’s abandoned the plan midstream. We default to our ugliest thoughts when we’re angry, and Elizabeth’s response, when Philip tells her he sabotaged the Kimmy plot in “Rififi,” suggests that this is exactly how she was thinking: “You just wanted to fuck her,” Elizabeth snaps at him. “You weren’t getting enough action here.”

The confrontation between Elizabeth and Claudia is shot through with dynamics far more complex than a shootout between them would have been. If this had turned violent, we would have missed the 12 different colors of strain and shock and disappointment plaguing these two characters. It would have reduced this immensely complicated relationship to anger and revenge, which, exciting emotions though they are, tend to flatten the stories that preceded them. For all their past difficulties, Elizabeth respects Claudia. Claudia was a mentor to her, and a confrontation with a mentor is never not fascinating, particularly when two warriors tacitly acknowledge that their history is too deep to resolve with bloodshed. That there is no lesson to draw from their final talk is the painful part. The scene is the opposite of cathartic—it literally ends with Claudia sourly eating soup—but there’s something awfully true about that: Sometimes the most devastating things happen in muted and sudden ways, without drama and without relief.

As if to double down on this point, the finale’s climax—Stan’s showdown with his neighbors—happens too soon and simply refuses to take the required shape because neither side can fully occupy the roles the scene demands. Stan is an FBI agent. Philip and Elizabeth are spies. The conflict is clear; this confrontation has been signposted since the pilot. But they have been other things to each other too, and neither—despite the lethal training we know they have—lets the professional identity that defined them dictate their interactions. There is no verbal resolution, no satisfying moment when Stan says out loud that he’ll let them go. We don’t even know for sure that he’s actually going to let them leave—or that they’re not going to pull a gun and shoot him—until he awkwardly steps out of their car’s path and they drive on past him.

The Americans spent six years blurring familiar categories and competing moral systems in the expectation that a final battle would organize the world through violence. Instead of succumbing to a longing for artificial clarity, it softened its distinctions until its characters collapsed into bleak, exhausted sorrow. There are ways in which it felt like our heroes got away scot-free. But the bloodlessness of its ending is deceptively gentle. To this viewer, it felt like everyone ended the series with an unseen hemorrhage. Despite the apparent reprieve, the net effect was amazingly, unexpectedly painful. Death might have been more apparently punitive, but The Americans’ most effective move might have been letting the uncertainty win.

Read more in Slate about The Americans.