The Americans, which debuted on FX in early 2013, followed two Russian spies living undercover in the United States during the Cold War. Practically right away, I found myself wondering how things would eventually play out for Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and their two children. Would they be discovered and arrested? Would they be killed? Would they get away with everything? Five years later, The Americans series finale answered these questions—and left many other questions unanswered—while providing one of the most satisfying series finales I’ve seen.
My relationship with the Jennings family was a complicated one throughout this show’s run. Philip and Elizabeth were installed by the Soviet KGB to pose as a married couple living in Falls Church, Virginia. The two run a travel agency as a cover and have two American-born children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). While performing missions for the KGB, Elizabeth and Philip deceive, take advantage of, and even kill Americans. Throughout the series, which spanned six seasons, I never knew if I should be rooting for Elizabeth and Philip, or hating them.
The most interesting aspect of the show, for me, was to watch the constant balancing act between the idea of the Jennings family and their loyalty to their homeland. Over the seasons, the characters’ beliefs and priorities evolved. Philip became more sympathetic toward the American way of life, questioning if what they were doing was worth it. At the beginning of Season 6, he has all but retired from fieldwork, focusing on the travel agency.
Elizabeth, however, remains committed to her KGB duties and begins to train Paige in the way of life as a Russian operative. (Elizabeth and Philip come clean to Paige about their background in Season 3, although they are never fully truthful about the extent of their missions—i.e., that they kill people.) Although, Elizabeth in Season 6 ultimately does not go through with the parts aiding the KGB plan to take out Mikhail Gorbachev.
These conflicting and diverging feelings among the Jennings family are what make The Americans such an excellent show. Sure the action, eclectic ’80s music soundtrack, and many disguises are great, but to me, it’s all about the Jennings’ family dynamic.
And that’s also what makes The Americans series finale so powerful. Somehow the episode managed to be anxiety-inducing and heart-breaking, all while wrapping some storylines up perfectly and leaving others wide open for interpretation.
The Confrontation with Stan
As The Americans series finale begins, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has all but concluded that Elizabeth and Philip are Russian spies. Stan, an FBI agent who conveniently lives across the street from the Jennings family, was a constant source of tension throughout the series. At any moment, Stan theoretically could have discovered the truth about his neighbors. By the end of the series, he had become very close with Philip and acted as a father figure to Henry. So he didn’t want to believe what he suspected. Yet he just couldn’t shake what his instincts were telling him.
This all sets up one of the most intense moments of the episode (and entire series). After realizing that the FBI is on to them, Philip alerts Elizabeth and the two decide they need to return to Russia immediately. They drive to Paige’s apartment, where Stan is monitoring from across the street, following his hunch.
After convincing Paige that they need to leave the country (and making the heart-wrenching decision to leave Henry behind), the family makes their way to the parking garage, where Stan confronts them.
They attempt to keep up the charade, feigning ignorance about why Stan might be there. But then Stan points his gun at them and tells them to get on the ground (he repeatedly orders this throughout the scene, but the Jennings family never does).
When I first watched The Americans series finale, I felt like I couldn’t breathe during this scene. I honestly didn’t know what Stan would do. Would Stan really shoot them? (Or at least one of them?) And again, I was conflicted. What did I want to happen here? Deep down I was always kind of rooting for Stan. But after Philip’s change in perspective I was rooting for him as well. And Elizabeth, who was always such an entertaining character, had just disobeyed orders—was that enough to make up for all of the bad things she did? Should I be pulling for a Russian spy?
As they had done so many times before, Elizabeth and Philip go into survival mode. They come clean (except, once again, about the whole killing people thing) and say simply that they “had a job to do.” Philip tells Stan he never wanted to hurt him and that he was the only friend he has ever had. It’s impossible to know Philip’s true feelings, but I actually believe him here. I think he formed a true friendship with Stan throughout the series, and that was part of what made him get out of the KGB fieldwork.
After explaining that the KGB is trying to take out Gorbachev, Philip says to Stan, “You should probably shoot me. But we’re getting in that car, and we’re driving away.” Stan doesn’t stop them as they tiptoe to the car.
And then as a final zinger, Philip throws in an “Oh by the way…” when he tells Stan that his wife Renee might in fact be a Russian spy as well.
Poor Stan. All he can do is step aside and stare in shock as they drive away. He lets them go, and he doesn’t tell anyone at the FBI about this encounter. I’m not sure if Stan made the right call here. But ultimately I think it was his friendship with Philip, and the family’s plea for Stan to take care of Henry (“He loves you, Stan. Tell him the truth.”), that convinces Stan to allow them to leave the country.
After finally being able to exhale once this scene ends, the first music montage of the episode kicks in: The Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms.” (This song was also used in the Season 2 finale of The West Wing.) Mark Knopfler sings in the anti-war song “We’re fools to make war/On our brothers in arms.” It’s the perfect summary of what just went down: two people in Stan and Philip who technically should be enemies ended up being friends. It’s foolish for them to be at war.
While the song plays, we see Stan head back to his original lookout, still shocked. We see Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) trapped in prison, for what will likely be a long time. He really got a raw deal in all of this.
And the Jenningses bury their possessions and IDs and bring out new passports before changing into disguises (what would an episode of The Americans be without some good disguises?). Included in the burial is a fake passport for Henry, who will not be coming with them.
With the Jenningses driving north, Paige suggests they stop and see Henry one last time. Philip thinks this will be too risky but finally relents to the idea of calling him on the phone. As long as it’s quick.
They call Henry from a payphone. Philip wants him to know they love him and they are proud of him. “I just want you to be yourself…because you’re great,” he tells him. Oblivious to the true reasoning behind the call, Henry can only assume his dad is drunk and being overly sentimental.
Elizabeth gives a brief goodbye and Paige refuses to get on the phone. This scene is incredibly sad. Not only do they know this is the last time they will speak to their son, but they know that once he learns the truth, he will be devastated. His life will be changed forever.
But between the two children, who is better off? Paige, who was eventually told the truth and allowed to make her own decisions? Or Henry, who was kept in the dark, and was allowed to live his life as an American—but alone? We are shown at the end of The Americans series finale Stan explaining the truth to Henry, and he’s understandably upset. His parents, as a whole, were a lie. They abandoned him in a world they were trying to destroy. But they left him for his own protection. We don’t know how Henry will live on, but he’s a smart, bright kid. And he has Stan. I’d like to think things work out for him.
‘And You Give Yourself Away’
Another song montage leads into the conclusion of The Americans series finale—U2’s “With or Without You.” I’m not a huge fan of U2 or this song, but it works well in this episode. As a final act as “Americans,” the Jenningses stop at McDonald’s—can’t get anymore American than that.
Philip gazes at a happy family enjoying their meal, while he wonders perhaps what could have been, before bringing the bags of food back to the car. As always with this show, very nice touch on using the authentically ’80s-looking McDonald’s packaging.
The next morning, Elizabeth, Philip and Paige are on a train bound for Canada. They all sit in different sections of the train. The train comes to a halt for a passport check, and the officers have Wanted posters with the Jennings’ faces on them. (At this point the FBI has identified them, not because of Stan, but because of Father Andrei.) One last instance of anxiety in this episode!
Philip passes his test quickly, with the officer quickly handing back his passport. The officer who checks Elizabeth takes a few looks. She doesn’t look all that different from the sketch on the poster. But eventually he returns her passport as well. The train resumes moving, and now it would appear the Jenningses are in the clear. They have done it, they’re home-free.
But then in one of the most surprising moments of the series, we see Paige standing on the train platform. She has decided to stay. Philip goes to sit with Elizabeth, as it’s the parents’ turn to stare in shock as they try to hold back tears. They have now lost both of their children.
I did not see this coming at all the first time I watched the episode. It obviously brings up questions about Paige’s future. Where will she go? Will she try to hide out and start a new life somehow? Will she go back to her life, admit the identity of her parents but deny she knew of it? She will be around to help Henry, at least.
Paige was probably the toughest character on The Americans, so I’m dying to know what happens to her. Maybe there will be a reboot someday. The last we see of Paige, she has returned to the apartment in which Claudia (Margo Martindale) and Elizabeth trained Paige in Russian culture. She takes a bottle of vodka from the freezer and takes a shot. Is this her way of cleansing her past, erasing the training she received? Or does it mean she will always keep that part with her? I think it’s the latter, although I don’t see her trying to sabotage America or anything.
The episode ends with Elizabeth and Philip overlooking the city of Moscow, a place they hasn’t been their “home” for many years. They wonder what their lives would have been like if they never went to America. “It feels strange,” Philip says. Elizabeth responds in Russian, “We’ll get used to it.”
We don’t know what happens to them after this moment. Will they be celebrated? Will they be scrutinized, or even jailed, for disobeying orders? Something tells me they’ll find a way to survive, like they always do.
One of my favorite aspects of The Americans series finale was how it handled the mystery of Stan’s second wife, Renee (Laurie Holden). Throughout the show, it was hinted that she may actually be a Russian spy. She expressed interest in working for the FBI, and then of course in Philip’s parting message to Stan, he says Renee might be “one of us.” But the finale didn’t reveal it one way or the other, in addition to all the other questions left unanswered.
Near the end of the episode, as the FBI is raiding the Jenningses house, Stan gives Renee a hug and drives off. She stares at the raid, with a certain look on her face. Is it just genuine interest in FBI work? Or does she know more than she lets on?
I’m sure Stan will always be suspicious. And it likely won’t go over well if he asks her about it. I absolutely love that this loose thread is left unresolved. My guess? Her final look at the raid says to me that she is a spy. But we’ll never know for sure.
Some great TV shows have unfulfilling endings but are still overall a success. But even though the show may have lulled a bit in its middle seasons, The Americans is a great show with an incredible ending.