The Americans: A Long Goodbye to the Chameleons of Televison

Contains spoilers.

An Overview

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings were the odd couple on television. From their outward appearance, they were average Americans. Philip and Elizabeth ran a travel agency business together raising their daughter Paige and son Henry. Stan, their neighbor and an FBI agent never sees them as covert Russian spies working to undermine the U.S.  government through intelligence gathering or assassinations.

The Americans, as much as it was about covert spying, was also about marriage. There are as many scenes within the Jenning’s household as there are sneaking into a government facility or staking out an asset. Philip and Elizabeth’s progression through the show is their existential crisis of identifying values and principles that make them Russian within America. However, what they find is that living, physically being in another place of nationhood disintegrates the care they have for a home that exists elsewhere.

The Characters

Paige Jennings chooses to stay in the United States. She identifies as an American citizen despite her work in the final season as a Russian Intelligence operative. The heartbreak of the final episode is realizing that while Philip and Elizabeth have a patriotic duty and devotion to Russia, their children were born and raised in the United States. Their children do not speak Russian and have not grown up in Russian culture and society. Although the KGB believes they can groom Paige and Henry to be Russian agents, it is a farfetched plan that doesn’t succeed. The family must be split for their children to have successful lives.

Philip, despite his failing business becomes clear-minded in the last season about his identity as a Russian and a husband. He helps his wife on one last job in Chicago, a dangerous one where they were protecting an operative from the FBI. He dies in Philip’s arms as they are being chased by multiple police vehicles. They hack off his head and hands to scrub his identity. He tells Elizabeth after the operation that despite his patriotic dedication to Russia, he must always believe in the mission he is executing rather than being a pawn in a chess game.

His relationship with Kimmy Breland and most of all Martha changes how he perceives the effectiveness of his job because of the emotional pain and suffering he causes them. The attachments he also develops though, and the emotional stress of multiple relationships forces him out of his work. Philip spends more time in the last season worrying about his son Henry more than anyone else and tries to seclude himself around people he cares about.

Elizabeth on the other hand continues to be an operative committing her most gruesome, but most noble murders in the last season. Her murder of Erica Haskard, the wife of a State Department employee Steve Haskard negotiating denuclearization efforts between the U.S. and Russia, is probably her most merciful death. Erica is suffering from a terminal illness, and Elizabeth poses as her bedside nurse. The slow progression of the pain and anguish from the illness rubs off on Elizabeth day after day who chain smokes cigarettes.

Erica is also an artist who attempts to portray the suffering of her existence onto impressionistic, gothic faces on the canvas. Eventually, the emotional pain of physically seeing Erica, and the persona of her being as expressed through her paintings surrounding the room breaks Elizabeth. She kills Erica by choking her, ending her pain and the suffering of her husband Steve. She murders the assassin sent to kill Russia’s top diplomat negotiating denuclearization with the State Department, foiling an intelligence coup d’état inside the KGB to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of Russia at the time. Elizabeth chooses to side with Philip’s individualism and free choice rather than bureaucratic agents executing orders.

Final Thoughts

Ironically, their choices end up being starkly American through their adherence to ideas such as free speech and a deterministic individualism. They choose to commit their own choices in the final episode, making the decision to trust their colleague Arkady Zokov, the Directorate S Deputy Chief who supports Gorbachev and denuclearization. Stan, an FBI agent who figures out the identity of Philip and Elizabeth in the last episode has an opportunity to arrest them in an underground parking garage. He lets them go because of his bond with Philip whom he considers his best friend and the community they made for themselves living across from each other. Stan in the final scenes appears to take on the role of a surrogate father to Henry. Other Americans pick up and other spy shows will pick up where The Americans left off.

Published by

matthewpincus17

Graduate Fellow in American Literature and Cultural Studies at University of Louisiana at Lafayette

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