Television

The End of The Americans

What did it mean to root for these murderous antiheroes, whose moral struggles were so like our own?

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans.
FX Networks

On paper, the series finale of The Americans, which aired Wednesday night, gave Elizabeth and Philip Jennings more peace than they deserved. After spending decades plotting, manipulating, betraying, and murdering on behalf of the USSR, with the FBI finally closing in on them, these dangerous, soulful Soviet spies escaped to Russia, the country in which they have not lived for decades. Their American children, Henry and Paige, did not come with them, but Elizabeth and Philip could comfort themselves with the knowledge that this was for the best, if not for the good.

The surprisingly spare, heart-wrenching finale made a climax out of a series of anti-climaxes. The episode was a litany of things that did not happen: Elizabeth and Phillip did not get caught. FBI agent and neighbor Stan Beeman did not turn them in. Paige did not leave the country with her parents. But each of the things that didn’t happen didn’t happen with real emotional force. In another show with similar ingredients, you could imagine this outcome being presented as a rousing escape, the charismatic but morally debased protagonists squirming away one last time.

When I say another show, I mean Breaking Bad, which has been popping into my head for this entire final season. It was in the context of Breaking Bad, another psychologically astute show about a morally abhorrent antihero, that the New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum introduced the idea of the “bad fan,” the kind of viewer who sees brutal, violent, macho megalomaniacs like Walter White and Tony Soprano, and instead of being horrified, roots for them (while, not incidentally, sneering and hissing at the female characters who stand in their way). Elizabeth and Philip have done horrible things. And yet I wanted puppy-dog Philip, so nauseated by what he has done, and Elizabeth, righteously fighting for the wrong cause, to live, to survive, to escape. Was I a bad fan of The Americans?

In some ways, being a bad fan is the default state of being a TV watcher. TV is extraordinarily good at making viewers identify with protagonists of even moderate charms, and this propensity is exactly what antihero shows play around with. The Sopranos’ creator David Chase, especially, was reflexively suspicious of the audience’s tendency toward identification, and he built this disdain into his show and its descendants, series that pushed viewers to find their personal breaking point with violent machismo—when did you really turn on Tony or Walt? Identifying with these men for too long was for dupes. This contentious relationship with the audience—the possibility that a viewer could somehow flunk the show, read it all wrong—is built into the DNA of series about toxic masculinity, whether they know it or not. But it is not built into The Americans.

The Americans is an example of how identifying with complicated, nefarious characters can be emotionally generous and morally instructive, the response of an engaged and sensitive viewer, not the simple-minded action of a couch potato cheering every bloody whacking.
In hoping for Elizabeth and Philip Jennings’ survival, I was rooting for murderous Communists, yes, but I was also rooting for people who, despite not being Americans, struggled with heightened versions of moral problems that plague all of us. I was rooting for devoted parents facing familiar, quotidian family dynamics, not brutish alpha males with megalomaniacal desires.

Watching the finale, it became clear to me that wondering whether I was a bad fan was just the wrong question to ask. The Americans exists in a more realistically complicated moral universe than almost any other antihero show, one in which questions of good or bad—as they pertain to the characters and to the audience—are too blunt and binary to address the questions it has raised. At the end of the series, Philip and Elizabeth are alive, married, and not in prison. They did not come to a bad end, but this is no happy ending. At the end of The Americans, there aren’t good or bad fans, there are only sad ones.

The Americans, like its protagonists, has been in disguise, a searching psychological drama dressed up as a kicky action play. This season’s convoluted plot mechanics were less about the FBI closing in than they were about getting Philip to a point where he could tell Elizabeth that their deeds are their responsibility—and have the sting of his conscience enliven her own. It was a mishandling of their intimate relationships, not of a job, that finally triggered Stan’s FBI spidey sense.

Aware that the FBI is closing in, Elizabeth and Philip turn to their escape plan, the one they’ve always had, fake passports at the ready. At that point, they have very few options, and the choices are left to the show’s Americans. The Russian Oleg, who has sacrificed his whole life for a just cause—the possibility of peace—is left in a prison cell, the fate Elizabeth and Philip deserved. Paige, who had been training to be a Russian agent, initially flees with her parents, but in the episode’s tearful, stomach-lurching apex, chooses her American life, whatever the consequences. And Stan learns that he loves the Jennings more than he loves his country. “I would have done anything for you guys,” he says, holding a gun on them in a parking lot. There’s a note of wonder in his voice—because, after everything, he still would. He lets them go. Henry, the show’s real innocent, is the only American with no choices, but his abandonment by his parents is an act of both cruelty and kindness. The separation from their children, which they had not let themselves imagine, is the most painful consequence for Elizabeth and Philip’s actions.

Bound for Russia, Philip has one last chance to look upon the American life he had. Has a McDonald’s ever been the site of such pathos? In disguise as an old man, he walks amid the golden arches, bags of hamburgers in his hand, and sees a young family eating dinner. It’s a vision of a family that almost could have been his own.

History—our past but the Jennings’ future—hangs over The Americans finale like a partly cloudy forecast, promising both the chance of rain and the possibility of sunlight.
The Jennings are returning to a bloated, dying, immoral state that cannot possibly justify the vile deeds they have done on its behalf. We know enough about Philip, whose conscience already pricks him, and Elizabeth, a true believer, to know that this will weigh on them. (As, perhaps, will Philip’s potential run-in with Martha, on the streets of Moscow.) And then after learning that their immoral acts were conducted on behalf of a morally bankrupt state, they will see that state fall, only to turn into a kind of metastasized version of America, just as corrupt as the old USSR but with all our avarice and consumerism. (Philip won’t have to wait long to eat another Big Mac.) But, at the same time, the future also means that Henry and Paige are not as far away as they seem to be—not on the other side of the iron curtain but eventually just a plane flight away.

It was actually imagining some possible future encounter between the Jennings and their children that drove home for me the melancholy of this entire series. That meeting, if it ever happens, can be nothing but awkward and fraught and full of hurt, not only because of the lives no longer shared, but the ones that were never fully shared to begin with. It took the finale to show us that the trap of their tragedy was sprung years ago, before the series even began.

Read more in Slate about the finale of The Americans.