‘The Americans,’ at Last, Lets Us Exhale

Posted May 30, 2018 8:12 p.m. EDT

Spoilers for the series finale of “The Americans” follow.

FX’s “The Americans” is the kind of show I think of as a “pause-buttoner.” You watch with one thumb on the remote, hitting pause every so often because — ugh — the tension. The dread. You just need a moment.

Wednesday’s devastating series finale — dryly named “START,” for the 1980s arms talks — gave my pause button a workout. This despite the fact that no one died. There was no violence, just a drawn gun that never fired.

To the end, the deepest blows on “The Americans” were the ones that didn’t leave a mark. The show featured its share of gruesome mutilations over six seasons, but the only thing broken and stuffed into a suitcase in this finale was your heart.

This, of course, raises the essential question of why you should have felt bad at all about anything that befell the covert Soviet agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys). “The Americans” was in one sense a typical ambitious cable drama of its era. It invited you to feel a complicated identification with protagonists who had done terrible things.

As I’ve written before, the series’ broad-strokes arc was not unlike that of “Breaking Bad.” Just as Walter White ran his drug operation under the nose of his DEA agent brother-in-law, so did Philip and Elizabeth ply their trade for years across the street from Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent. Both shows had a sense of slow-rolling, inevitable doom — eventually, the game would be up, and it would not be pretty.

But unlike Walter White, Philip and Elizabeth were not in it for themselves. They had a cause, even if it was deluded and wrong. If much of anti-hero TV is about what happens when you abandon principle, “The Americans” was about how principle can lead you astray — and how it can then lead you, if not to redemption, at least to restitution.

It was also a series — even if this is strange to say about a show filled with long cons, disguises and betrayals — about loyalty and partnership. This too separated “The Americans” from its predecessors, which focused on, and ended with, an anti-hero’s individualist journey: Walter White alone with his lab equipment, Don Draper sounding his solitary “Om.”

Not Philip and Elizabeth; they had entanglements, a family. The final season began by putting their loyalties at odds. He dropped out of the spy game; she was drawn in to a KGB plot to undermine Mikhail Gorbachev, which Philip eventually discovered, to his horror.

Another series might have gone “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” pitting the pair against each other. Instead, the show dug into its root concern: Which family — your nation, your team, your blood — has the deepest claim on you? When Elizabeth learned, for instance, that Philip had been leaking information about her efforts to undermine the summit, she reacted as if he’d confessed an affair: “How long has this been going on?” (The betrayal was more intimate than the infidelities that were all in a day’s work for them.)

In turn, when she realized that she’d been used and turned against her spymasters, her handler Claudia (Margo Martindale) dismissed her act of conscience: “You never really understood what you were fighting for.”

To Claudia, the homeland (her specific, proto-Putinist idea of it, which she believed Gorbachev has betrayed) was the family, one that had suffered losses in the millions and was therefore owed unquestioning fealty. To put moral qualms over duty is vanity, and it leaves one unmoored. “What’s left for you now?” she asked. “Your house? Your American kids? Philip?”

In the end, yes: Elizabeth and Philip had each other. Their final mission was not a blood bath, but the painful process of shedding everything else, home, friendship, even their children.

That cleaving took place in a pair of breathtaking (and breath-holding) scenes. The first was the confrontation with Stan, where the series’ great secret finally comes out into the open.

As well as a story of a marriage, “The Americans” was a story of male friendship between two essentially lonely men. Philip’s confession to Stan was a complex bit of verbal cat-and-mouse: He lied, then told the truth, but selectively, gaming his language second to second, one eye on the exit.

But it was also a breakup scene. Philip was telling Stan that their entire friendship had been a lie, and simultaneously that it was real. To assume Philip’s confession must be either strategic or sincere would miss a great theme of “The Americans”: Things can be both, just as the Jenningses’ marriage was a contrivance and true love.

So Philip and Elizabeth, along with Paige (Holly Taylor), drove away free. Did they deserve it? There is a point in all these anti-hero sagas, around the finale, where the viewing process turns into a kind of moral people’s court, where fans debate the precise retributive price the series should exact.

But treating drama like a courtroom sentencing denies the sort of realization that art brings us: that a punishment can be well-deserved, insufficient even, yet unspeakably sad.

The punishment came, regardless, in the finale’s second stunner of a scene, which I did not remotely see coming.

Chris Long, directing a script by the creators, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, deftly hoodwinked us. The three Jenningses (having said a short, vague and anguished goodbye to Henry) were on a train, a stone’s throw from Canada. Border guards, carrying wanted posters, executed a passport check. You waited for it: The Jenningses would be caught, or maybe only Paige would, and bloody hell would break lose.

Only it didn’t happen. The train heaved forward, inviting you to exhale and loosen your grip on the remote. Until you saw a flash of horror on Elizabeth’s face and then Paige standing behind on the platform.

If we are going to play King Solomon here, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting punishment for the Jenningses than surviving yet losing their kids, not to death, but by becoming dead to them in life. My one nit to pick of “START” is with the ending, if only in comparison with what came before it. It felt right to see Philip and Elizabeth in their native yet foreign country, wondering what’s next, wondering what might have been. But unlike the best series-closing moments, it didn’t feel inevitable: That is, it felt like the episode could have as well ended five minutes earlier or five minutes later.

But I’ll take all that for the sight of Paige pulling out an icy bottle of vodka and knocking back a shot to steel herself for — what, exactly? Hiding? Jail? We don’t know, just as Philip and Elizabeth may never know. There is no epilogue here, no jump cuts to the future to let us know how everything turns out, personally rather than geopolitically.

In the end, for “The Americans,” there is no pause, no rewind, no fast-forward. Only time moving ahead, like a train past a border you can never recross.