Final seasons are always laden with portentous emotion. Sometimes its inherent in the writing of the show (Six Feet Under, for example), and other times it is brought by the cumulative weight of anticipation from audiences and creators. It is an emotion wholly unique to TV, where not only do shows have screen hours that dwarf what a film can manage, they have years and years of sustained existence in their audience’s imagination.
That’s a lot. It makes every small beat, every line of dialogue, each turn in the tale echo through the lifetime of the story and back again. A small moment can mean twenty things. Final seasons are semioticians’ dreams.
In what is otherwise a lean, table-setting episode, The Americans burdens us with the immovable expectation that this will all end soon. The Jennings’ marriage – concocted, fabricated, broken and renewed as if it were real – is unlikely to last the final season’s storm. Elizabeth notes how she is calculating the odds, she knows the end may come. In exposure, arrest, or violent death. She carries a cyanide pill around her neck. She hastily arranges a meeting with a target in the State Department cafeteria. She finds herself managing the orchestrated death of another target’s wife. And, most tellingly, she is pushed into an extortion of an old source that feels like it’s off the rails before it’s even began.
Something is going to give. Elizabeth wanders through the Jennings house like a corpse, Philip unable to breech the tiptoeing silence with the conversation he wanted to have last week, and so is resigned to playacting the concerned husband who is already playacting as a husband while his spying on America has now turned to spying on his wife.
The death that may come is more than likely going to be their marriage, sooner before either of them realise.
And if The Americans were simply a story about two spies pretending to be married, that ending would be relatively straightforward. That their pretence has assumed the air of a real marriage in the last couple of seasons, and they have two children – one partially indoctrinated to the cause – adds to the ramifications and complexity.
Elizabeth’s meet-and-extort with a general that brings the episode to a bloody end also brings the concern with Paige to immediate reckoning. Earlier in the episode, Elizabeth believed she had potentially drawn Paige away from tricky territory when she brought up the use of sex as a tool of espionage. That Paige is astute beyond her years (and three years older this season) offers a potential growing suspicion that her mother is shielding from her, something that might play out over the season.
Instead it lasts about 15 minutes of TV time until Elizabeth finds herself covered in the general’s brain matter, and Paige stumbling onto the scene. That the general shot himself, rather than any of the numerous murders Elizabeth has already committed is a moot point: Paige now realises the danger and violence that comes with the spying profession.
Will she continue as the dutiful pupil? Will she side with Philip’s reservations about spying’s soul-destroying potential? Will this be a turning point for Elizabeth where she realises there is no safe future for Paige in the game, or will she double down on her socialist dream?
For Elizabeth, there are some answers to come from her work with the Haskards, especially the ailing artist, Erica. Elizabeth’s dismissal of art as a useless waste of time is an easy way of avoiding difficult answers. Prompted to interpret one of Erica’s sketches, she can barely look, let alone read and respond. It’s too hard. But there’s no getting out of it: Erica forces her to sit, to pick up a pencil and look. Look and don’t look away. Look only at the dark.
Elsewhere, Stan is easily manoeuvred into a situation where he will need to confront Oleg, probably as soon as next week. It is fascinating how a show that for a long time seemed as if the three main strands of its plot (the Jennings, Stan, Oleg) would all run their separate directions without any connection. For a long time it looked as if the show would end without Stan even realising the truth about his neighbours across the road. It didn’t even seem as if The Americans needed to do this. And in the space of an hour all three have suddenly become irretrievably linked.
Stan, for so long out of the game, is being compelled to reconnect with Oleg, himself also a long time out of the game. Oleg is in America to safeguard the future of a peaceful Russia by dealing with Philip. Philip is now expected to spy on Elizabeth, not just for the future of a Russia he may not even believe in, but also to potentially return his wife and family from the brink of destruction.
Philip’s actions with Elizabeth will undoubtedly impact on Paige, and the open family conflict that will arise will have consequences, back-bearings that will run back to Oleg, to Stan, and to the entire intricate network of deceitful alliances The Americans has so carefully crafted over five seasons.