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Commentary TV and Movies

A week later, I'm haunted by The Americans finale

An awesome TV series finale should stay with you long after you watch it. Last week's finale to The Americans hit that mark tragically and beautifully.

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Hear that? That's Elizabeth Jennings's heart shattering into a million pieces.

FX Networks

I don't envy anyone tasked with writing the finale to a popular television program. Pleasing everyone is probably impossible, so I imagine that you stick to pleasing as many viewers as possible. Give the characters some sort of resolution (but not always redemption), don't make it too neat, but tie up most (but not not all) loose ends that have left viewers guessing. And whatever you do, don't leave them asking, "That's it? That's all I get?"

It's a terribly tricky line to walk, and the TV finale graveyard is littered with hits, misses and the, well, controversial. There's Six Feet Under's breathtaking death-apalooza, Lost's perplexing letdown and The Sopranos' quiet last meal at the diner. (Of course, Newhart's boomerang back to The Bob Newhart Show is TV legend, but for entirely different reasons.)

Ultimately, though, a TV finale should stay with you, long after you turn off your set. For me, The Americans ender hit that mark brilliantly. More than a week later, I can't get it out of my head. 

spoiler alert

I started watching FX's The Americans soon after it premiered in 2013, mostly because I'm into anything with spies. But if the tightly written espionage plots were the shot, the Cold War setting, the awesome 1980s soundtrack and Keri Russell were the chaser. I was instantly hooked. Except for the three years when I lived in London and watched it on iTunes, it was one of the few shows I caught at its appointed time rather than later on my DVR. 

Showunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg never left me bored. Their genius was that, even though Elizabeth and Philip Jennings were doing terrible things (poor Martha), you rooted for them. But at the same time, you rooted for FBI agent Stan Beeman in his hunt to uncover the Soviet "illegals." 

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Just when you think she's ready for a new life behind the Iron Curtain, Paige takes her chances in America.

FX

Hoping that both sides of a battle succeed made me realize early on that The Americans finale wouldn't give us a happy ending, nor could it just cleanly kill the Jennings off. So, I wasn't surprised that, when Stan finally figured out that his neighbors and best friends were spies, they were able to escape anyway. As almost every review of the finale has said, the 11-minute standoff between Stan and the Jennings in the parking garage was spine-tinglingly amazing. But even so, it's two shorter scenes later in the episode that haven't stopped pulsing through my brain.

The first is when Elizabeth, Philip and daughter Paige (who knows her parents' true identities) are on the run and stop to stash their IDs, wedding rings and other personal effects. Set to the mournful tune of Dire Straits "Brothers in Arms," they literally bury the fake Americans identities they had assumed for the last 20 years in service of Mother Russia. Elizabeth passes out the forged Canadian passports they'll use to escape the country before pausing briefly to bury the one they made for Henry, the son they're leaving behind. Damn... I said I wouldn't cry.

Not long after, the fugitive trio is disguised and seated apart on a train about to cross the border to Montreal. A dramatic pause by a US border guard while checking Elizabeth's passport (he's carrying a wanted poster with her photo) made me think for a second that she would be arrested. But, no, that would be too obvious so the train lumbers on. Elizabeth breathes a sigh of relief until she's horrified to see that Paige is on the station platform watching her speed away. Paige wasn't arrested either. She got off the train voluntarily.

OK, maybe using U2's With or Without You as the background music was a bit too on the nose (not that I'd agree), but that, my friends, is how a writer punches you in the gut. Russell's face gave a master class in acting as she expressed how your child abandoning you would feel to a parent, especially a parent that had worked for years to regain that child's trust and respect. Elizabeth devoted her life to opposing the American way of life, even as she lived it. She tried to win Paige's allegiance to the same Soviet cause, but in the end her daughter said no.

The final bit that got me was minutes later when Stan visits Henry at his boarding school. Though you can't hear the dialogue, it's assumed that Stan is telling him a triple whopper: his parents have been lying to him his entire life, they're actually spies working for the America's Cold War enemy, and they've abandoned him to an uncertain future. Good luck getting a job, Henry, and save money for your future therapy bill.

Yeah, maybe I'm projecting. But like I said, I can't stop thinking about it. That, and whether Stan's wife Renee is also a Russian spy.