June 9, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “The Americans”


THE AMERICANS isn’t a show that indulges in many meta moments, but late in this Season 4 it gave one to Matthew Beeman (Daniel Flaherty), son of FBI agent Stan (Noah Emmerich), in one of his unwitting conversations with neighbor and incipient romantic interest Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor), the daughter of deep-cover Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys).  Imparting his father’s wisdom, Matthew explained that chasing spies isn’t about “car chases and stuff,” but rather it’s “a lot of figuring out… waiting.”  Season 4 was, in some ways, the least action-packed of any Americans edition so far.  There were no mass murders, no bodies cut apart and stuffed into suitcases, no one set on fire.  The violence that did occur was almost random:  retired FBI agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) smashing into a plate-glass window as he tried to evade KGB agents in his Thailand vacation hotel room; Elizabeth swiftly dispatching a knife-wielding mugger who accosted her and Paige on the street.  And yet, that “figuring out” made this perhaps the most emotionally intense season thus far.

Briefly belying this in tonight’s season finale, series creator Joseph Weisberg and co-showrunner Joel Fields began the episode with something of an action sequence (tensely directed by Chris Long), as Stan and a squad of agents closed in on William Crandall (Dylan Baker), another deep-cover spy who was going to pass a virulent biological toxin to Philip that was being in developed in the lab where Crandall worked.  Crandall caught on to his pursuers, though, and before getting near Philip, he cut his own hand and poured the toxin into the wound, dooming himself.  After that brief burst of activity, the main FBI action of the episode settled down to Stan and his partner Aderholt (new regular Brandon J. Dirden) exercising patience as they watched Crandall (from behind protective glass) gradually die, barely even trying to interrogate him while hoping that he would let something slip about his fellow spies.

In the end, Crandall mostly kept his secrets, providing only the vague information that he worked with a married couple who had children and seemed to be the “American dream.”  Not enough for Stan to recognize his travel agent neighbors.  But the Soviet Center, in the person of handler Gabriel (the magisterial Frank Langella), couldn’t know that, which led to the critical development of the finale:  his strong suggestion to Philip and Elizabeth that they pack up their family and relocate to Russia.

We know that The Americans has two final seasons yet to run, so it’s unlikely that Season 5 will take place in Elizabeth’s home city of Smolensk.  But transitions were very much at the heart of this finale.  Soviet attache Arkady (Lev Gorn) was deported by the US government because of Crandall, Gaad’s death and the earlier plotline that had Gaad’s secretary Martha (Alison Wright) taken as a(nother) wife by Philip and ultimately forced to flee to the USSR.  Oleg (Costa Ronin) decided to leave the US voluntarily to be with his sick mother.  Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) welcomed his new baby into the world, after a disappearance on his own vacation (in Africa) that had put the Jennings family in mortal danger, since Paige had told Tim about her parents and he’d told his wife, who threatened to expose them because she believed the Soviets had taken or killed her husband.  Back in Russia, we finally met Philip’s talked-about adult son, who not only turned out to be an anti-government activist, but who was planning to come to the US and find his long-lost father.

Weisberg and Fields turned the screws on all this brilliantly, keeping the characters one step away from disaster–and in the case of the late Nina (Annet Mahendru), executed by the KGB, making it clear that sometimes disaster is inevitable–and keeping us constantly aware of how this danger was causing all of their mental states to become increasingly precarious.  Russell (hiding her real-life pregnancy in classic TV ways like holding laundry baskets and dry cleaning in front of her stomach) and Rhys gave performances that were more complex than ever, because on top of their spy duties, they were now dealing with their daughter’s knowledge of their secrets, and the risks that raised not just for themselves but for Paige as a human being.  Taylor, given a much larger share of the show’s heavy drama, proved herself a worthy TV offspring to Russell and Rhys.  Emmerich continues to be masterful at playing a character who’s always one step behind the protagonists without making him any kind of a fool.  Langella added layers of knowledge and craft to a veteran operative whose shows of emotion may or may not be strategic.

The other emotional beat of the season was aloneness, a pervading sadness that gave depth to the suspense.  Elizabeth was forced to betray the only semi-real friend we’ve ever seen her have, the innocent Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles), and Russell made her pain obvious in the finale scene where she admitted to Paige that even after she’d given birth, she had no one to visit her in the hospital.  Philip sought comfort in EST seminars.  Crandall had no one in his life, and Oleg’s relationship with fellow agent Tatiana (Vera Cherny) was short-lived.  They all live solitary lives, operating on the fumes of their principles, a daring note for an espionage thriller to play.  (Even the recent AMC John LeCarre adaptation The Night Manager was much more glam about its spies’ emotional damage.)

The Americans gets critical acclaim (even if the Emmys have yet to notice it in any meaningful way), but its ratings have never been high.   It’s a measure of the value of quality in this “Peak TV” era that it’s going to end up with a 6-season run and an exit on its own terms.  The series has taken one of the most familiar genres and presented it in a startlingly fresh way, and as much as the show will be missed 2 seasons from now, it’s a relief that its storytellers will be able to carry their tale to its very possibly bitter end.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."