Brow Beat

Why Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” Was Such a Poignant Choice for the Americans Finale

In the closing episode’s greatest musical moment, they let the guitar speak.

Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige in a car on The Americans.
Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, and Holly Taylor in The Americans.
FX

Spoilers for the series finale of The Americans follow, comrade.

Half the suspense in watching any episode of The Americans is waiting to find out which songs it’s going to use, and in its final episode, the show made us wait even longer: The 90-minute “START” was half-over before the first needle drop. But after the Jennings family—minus Henry, now permanently exiled to boarding school in New Hampshire—drove away from their parking-garage confrontation with Stan Beeman, it was clear why the show had held back so long: Once you play “Brothers in Arms,” there’s no turning back.

Dire Straits’ song, originally released on the album of the same name in 1985, is an elegiac slow burn, of the kind you might expect to close an episode rather than carry its middle section. (Indeed, that’s exactly how it was used in The West Wing’s “Two Cathedrals,” which found President Jed Bartlet facing storms both literal and metaphorical with a smile on his face.) But The Americans’ home stretch was a tribute to the power, and sometimes the frustration, of taking it slow, letting conflicts simmer like the unresolved organ chords and thundering rumbles that fade in on the soundtrack as Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige face what is left of the rest of their lives. Although it was released at a time when the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—as chronicled in Season 4’s “The Day After”—still seemed acute, “Brothers in Arms” is steeped in sorrow instead of anxiety, sung from the perspective of an old soldier who’s come to the end of a war he wishes he’d never had to fight.

Philip and Elizabeth won’t make it home to Moscow until the end of the episode, and when they do, they’re greeted, nondiegetically speaking, with the strains of their countryman Tchaikovsky’s “None but the Lonely Heart,” a choice that underlines showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ willingness to go for the jugular as the Jennings’ mission comes to an end. (Disclosure: Weisberg is the brother of The Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg.) U2’s “With or Without You” is a step too far in that direction, an on-the-nose choice that plays as they realize that while they’re escaping with each other, they’re doing it without Paige, who steps off the train at Rouses Point and shoots her parents a last look of sorrow, resignation, and defiance before heading back to D.C. and hitting Claudia’s bottle of vodka. The moment’s so devastating that having Bono howling in your ear as it’s happening is a distraction rather than a complement.

The strained croak of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, by contrast, lays there in the background where it should be, filling in the emotional cracks without overflowing them. I wouldn’t have said it when I was a tween sneaking the Brothers CD—the first I ever owned—out of my dad’s office, but in retrospect, it’s clear that putting up with Knopfler’s voice was the toll you paid to get to the guitar solos, and in “Brothers in Arms,” they’re far more eloquent than the actual lyrics. (“We have just one world/ but we live in different ones.”) “START” lets the seven-minute song play out at close to full length, beginning as Elizabeth shoulders the full weight of the realization that she’ll never see her son again and fading out as the three of them gather for a final phone call in a McDonald’s parking lot. So much passes between them in those minutes, much of it unspoken—Paige can’t bring herself to even speak to Henry, knowing it’s the last time and unable to pretend it isn’t, and she doesn’t tell her parents she’s leaving, either. So many of the words they’ve spoken, to her and even each other, have been lies, but their actions tell the truth. And as Philip told Elizabeth at the beginning of the season’s eighth episode, “The Summit,” the consequences of those actions lie with them as well. “We do it … so it’s on us.”

It’s too late for the narrator of “Brothers in Arms” to change his ways: He’s an exile, near death, and all he can do is pass on what he’s learned, that the boundaries that make people enemies may shift and dissolve but their common humanity remains. The Americans began with that idea, that in spite of their ideological opposition, the Jennings weren’t so different from the FBI agent next door—no better, maybe, but arguably no worse. (The show always seemed to suggest the existence of a parallel series called The Russians, about deep-cover U.S. agents murdering for freedom in Moscow.) By the end of the series, that humanity has all but been crushed out of them, to the extent that the characters might as well be walking around with weights strapped to their sides. Despite speculation that this or that character would murder this or that other one—Philip kills Elizabeth! Elizabeth kills Stan!—the finale passed without a single death, but what remained was almost worse, the rotted remnants of a life. Maybe Elizabeth means it when she says, looking out at a city she and Philip haven’t seen in decades, that they’ll “get used to it,” and maybe she really believes that the two of them might have met on a bus had they not been paired off by the Centre, but we know the world is going to turn upside-down again in a matter of years, and it’s hard to believe their marriage will endure it. They can’t even share the wisdom for which they’ve paid so high a price. “Brothers in Arms” will have to do that for them.

Read more in Slate about the finale of The Americans.