The Americans’ Season Four finale opted for a simmer instead of a bang, but what else is new for the best show on television?
This job wasn’t meant to be forever.
Yet another stellar season for The Americans. Ho-hum.
Always being a few days behind on the show gives me a chance to react not only to the show itself, but to the reaction of critics and fans as well, and while the show’s fourth season finale “Persona Non Grata” has been met with the usual acclaim (and underwhelming ratings), there’s another sentiment bubbling up in small, quiet corners of the television blogosphere: that’s it?
The Americans ended its fourth season not with a bang, but with the whispers of emotional tension, paranoia, and familial strife, and if that wasn’t satisfying to you, I can only ask one question. What show did you think you’ve been watching this whole time? The greatest bait and switch is that The Americans isn’t really about the espionage at all. It’s the best family drama on television, and the main characters just happen to be covert Soviet agents.
Curiously, “Persona Non Grata” did open with a pretty spectacular FBI sting. Biochemical scientist William Crandall couldn’t escape the swiftly-closing net around him when Stan, tipped off by Oleg, discovered him living under the identity of a dead man on his lab’s employee rolls. Unable to pass his weaponized lassa fever sample off to Philip, he made the fateful decision to infect himself with it as the FBI closed in on him. William was rushed to the hospital, but Stan and Dennis Aderholt could only hope that he would spill his guts about his KGB connections before the virus liquefied his insides and he literally spilled his guts in a different way.
What has been interesting about William was his cold and clinical nature. The chilly, cynical opposite of the passions that enflame Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship, he worked and lived alone, and it was always hard to know just what he was doing the espionage work for. He seemed too cynical to be passing biological samples to the KGB out of something as idealistic as love of country. But as he enters the final death throes, he admits to previously hidden jealousy of the pair. He never gives up their names, but he speaks of his fellow agents, a married couple, and how lucky they are to have each other. It seems that the KGB once tried to get him to marry, and he did, but it quickly fell apart. Afterwards he decided to work alone. believing that it would be easier, but you can sense his regret in his final moments of a life spent in isolation. “The absence of closeness makes you dry inside,” he whispers, perhaps wondering how life would have been different if he’d had his own Elizabeth in his life.
William’s sudden disappearance forces Philip, Elizabeth, and Gabriel to consider (correctly) that he’s been captured and that he’s possibly revealed their identities. At midseason I discussed how Elizabeth and Philip’s seemingly expanding web of connections left them exposed, and William’s capture along with the FBI’s discovery of the bug inside the mail robot, and their realization that the Bureau’s sketch artist is terrible at his job, are indicative of the noose slowly tightening around the Jennings family. Add to that the knowledge that Pastor Tim’s wife, Alice, left a confession tape about Elizabeth and Philip’s activities with her lawyer, and it’s easy to wonder if Philip and Elizabeth should take Gabriel up on his offer to extract them.
Accepting Gabriel’s offer would mean uprooting their entire family to the Soviet Union, and you can image the upheaval that would cause. America is all that Paige and Henry have ever known, and poor Henry doesn’t even know about his parents’ spy work. I’m sure the memory of Martha’s emotional pain during her extraction wears on Philip, who spends his EST sessions confessing his hatred for his job. The truth is that the Jennings are a real family living a fake existence in America. As William is breathing his last gasps in a DC hospital he longingly says that no one would ever suspect “them” of espionage. They’re the American dream with the two kids, the loving dad, and the pretty mom. But that dream is a fantasy for Philip and Elizabeth. It may be a very convincing one, but no fantasy can last forever. Eventually they will have to face their futures and decide whether that includes defecting to their adopted country, or returning to their homeland with Paige and Henry in tow, regardless the consequences.
Elizabeth and Philip aren’t the only ones facing a newly uncertain future. Stan’s new boss, Agent Wolfe (Peter Jocobson, House) gives Rezident Arkady Ivanovich 48 hours to leave the country after William’s capture, leaving the Rezidentura in a state of transition. Tatiana, previously planning to become Resident in Kenya, agrees to stay on until Arkady’s permanent replacement can be found. She offers Oleg the position as her second-in-command, but he accepts a job back in Moscow with the domestic services in order to be closer to his family, seemingly bringing their growing romantic relationship to a close. Will we be seeing a completely new set of faces at the Rezidentura next season?
Sure, there will obviously be operational consequences if Arkady, Tatiana, and Oleg are all shipped out of DC, but it’s yet another example of the show’s focus being on relationships over espionage. Tatiana’s crestfallen face at learning Oleg won’t stay with her is as painful as anything effecting the Jennings family. And what about Oleg? Is he really going home to be with his family? Or does Stan’s recent severing of their tacit friendship have a role to play?
Ultimately, The Americans is a show about family. The one constant in Elizabeth and Philip’s stressful work is their ability to return to each other and their children at the end of the day, but that too may soon be upset. “Persona Non Grata” features scenes of a young adult Soviet man meeting with his grandfather after his release from prison for comments against the Communist Party. His grandfather gives him a bundle of fake passports and cash in different denominations, and the young man speaks about finding his father in America. All he knows is that his father is a travel agent and Soviet Spy in the US. Sound familiar?
This is Mischa, the previously mentioned but unseen child Philip unknowingly fathered before leaving for the United States with Elizabeth, and he seems set on finding Philip in America. How will this new element upset the already precarious homeostasis of the Jennings family? Will it have any more effect than Paige’s burgeoning relationship with Stan’s son, Matthew?
In the finale’s closing moments Philip is shocked to discover that Paige’s relationship is much more than the friendship that he and Elizabeth had assumed. As he ushers her out of Stan’s house he expressly forbids her from seeing Matthew anymore, to which a confused Paige can only gape in confusion. Hadn’t Philip recently told her to be friends with Matthew Beeman if she wanted? But being in a relationship is something completely different. Philip knows the complications of romantic involvement as related to spy work all too well, and Paige getting involved with an FBI agent’s son is a bridge too far. That’s a dangerous game that a novice like Paige is not prepared to play, and the entire Jennings family would hang in the balance.
As Philip ushers Paige towards their house I can’t help but remember how The Americans ended last season, with the Jennings family all together under one roof, together sharing the secret that binds them together. This season, that same house seems so much more confining. It’s less a refuge than a cage, and the Jennings’ greatest predator lives across the street.
Season Grade: A
The Dead Drop
- There are so many great scenes that I didn’t get to cover this year now that I’m only covering The Americans sporadically. There was Frank Gaad’s death, Martha’s extraction, the hilariously uncomfortable “Dinner for Seven” when Pastor Tim and Alice dined with the Jennings family and realized that Stan is an FBI agent. My favorite story, though, Elizabeth’s relationship with Young-Hee. Elizabeth has always been the much chillier True Believer to Philip’s uncertain spy, but this season gave us the first glimpses of Elizabeth actually opening up to a friend. She and Young-Hee had a real friendship, and then Elizabeth was forced to sacrifice it in the name of a mission. Beautiful, heartbreaking work from Keri Russell.
- The great news is that FX has committed to two final seasons for The Americans. Against all belief, it looks like we’re going to see this story through to the end. Now that ratings aren’t really an issue, it’s time to worry about the next big problem facing the show: lack of Emmy recognition. On any other series Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Noah Emmerich would be shoo-ins for nominations. Dylan Baker and Alison Wright would have outside shots.
- Ok, ok. We don’t know that William Crandall is dead. We never saw a dead body, but I’m going to assume he’s gone until the show says otherwise. But If this was Dylan Baker’s only year on the show, his performance as William will go down as one of the all-time great one-season wonders.
- How great was Stan Beeman’s impression of Matthew and Paige getting caught necking? Noah Emmerich has a gift.
- Appropriately, the Super Bowl tangentially mentioned in “Persona Non Grata” was Super Bowl XVIII. The Raiders blew out the Redskins and Ronald Reagan called the Raider locker room to say that Marcus Allen was a super-weapon and the Soviets wanted him dismantled.
See you for Season 5!