Before the start of the final season of The Americans—FX's brilliant show about Russian spies posing as an all-American family in D.C. in the 1980s, which ended its six-season run this week—Gothamist asked creators and showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields whether they viewed the full arc of the show as a tragedy. They demurred on answering the question, with Fields saying, "That's a spoiler. Ben, you have to ask us that after the final episode airs, at which point the answer should be out there. But I'll tell you this: we don't view it as a comedy."
After the events of the finale, that answer is indeed out there: The Americans ultimately ended with Elizabeth and Philip making it back to Russia, but not without some terrible costs. Despite making it out alive, they lost both of their children along the way. They made the decision early on to leave Henry behind, since he had no idea about his parents' true identities and was, through-and-through, an American kid living an American life. Paige was set to go with them, until the wrenching scene where she got off the train, and headed back to Claudia's now-vacated apartment in D.C.
Keri Russell said she had no idea that the story would end with such emotional devastation: "It’s such a shocker because in my mind she’s already kind of implicated by her parents— because she knows so much," Russel said. "Henry is kind of a little clearer because he’s still so clean and he’s really succeeding in his life. And to take him away from that would be cruel in some way. Maybe [Paige] just had enough. It’s such a painful choice. But I think it's just her saying, 'No, I'm me, I'm not you guys, and your decisions made for me are over now. Now I make my decisions.'"
Even though it caused extra anguish for Philip, Paige's decision surprised and delighted Matthew Rhys: "You know, I think what the boys [Weisberg & Fields] do so well is present these at times very open-ended questions to the audience," he said. "And I think that was one of them. They led us down the path so far that Paige was going to come with us and then that about turn on the train... it's kind of a violent U-turn. But it's not for shock reasons... There’s so many variables presented to you in that moment, and in a very poignant way, and I don’t think there’d be anything other than vodka in Claudia’s apartment."
But why did she make the decision then? "I think possibly she would have stayed just out of a feeling and a fear that she needed to be there to protect [Henry] because she’d been through it, the great revelation, and she kind of knew how hard that was," Rhys continued. "And I think for him to be so shell shocked by that news and that escape, I think out of a feeling of being the only person in the world who could understand his position, she would have stayed to kind of protect him. That’s my feeling."
Rhys felt that the reward of Elizabeth and Philip being able to return home was weighed down by losing their kids to such an extent that it was, indeed, a tragic ending: "There was such an expensive cost they had to pay for the price of their newfound freedom," he said. "You know on one hand, they spent their life living a lie. I’m sure the relief from not doing that would be enormous, [but] as I said before the cost of not being with your children and the betrayal and the abandonment of your children is kind of unfathomable."
The finale made him think back to the earliest episodes of the series as well: "Ultimately they’re the only allies to each other that they have, in that [theres's] someone else who understands this incredible journey they’ve been on, therefore they do need each other in that respect," he said. "You know I always harken back to the third episode of the first season when Phillip wanted to defect. And to me that was kind of brought back in those moments, where I’m sure he could have gone, you know, we could have been in a very cushy witness protection program at this moment where the kids are doing okay as opposed to this."
Similarly, Russell called the ending, which found Philip and Elizabeth looking over Moscow and reflecting on what they left behind, an "Americans-appropriate heartbreaker." As she put it, "it’s pretty devastating what the loss of children would do to a marriage." But a conversation with the showrunners expanded her understanding of the ending, and the decision made to punish the two leads in such an emotional way: "Joe and Joel, when we were talking about this scene, about those end moments, I think what they wanted to convey—which was hard at times—was no matter what, we’re going to have each other," she said. "We’ve come this far together and we’re going to get each other through this. And I think that’s what they really wanted. And ultimately it was this story of this marriage of this relationship. So I think that is their hope, that they will pull each other through this moment.
"My only hope is knowing that everything does sort of fall apart [in Russia] in a few years, and that having that little sliver of hope for Philip and Elizabeth was they could go find [the kids], makes me feel better...My hope is that in a couple of years, they’ll go back and try to repair [their relationship with] the kids, and seek them out, whether they want to or not. But that’s the only saving grace I have as a parent."
Before we got to that ending, Philip, Elizabeth and Paige came face-to-face with Stan. It was a tense confrontation that was six years in the making, and included some of the best acting Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich had done on the entire show. That whole scene was shot in one grueling day, and Russell said it was amazing to watch the two actors nail their very long monologues. "Plus I love that Stan doesn’t turn them in," she added. "I think that’s the complication that Joe and Joel present so well is there is no bad guy, there is no good guy. You like a lot of things about people that do shitty things."
It was one of the densest scenes in the entire run of the show, one that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate every nuance of the standoff. Trying to determine the moment Stan decided to let the family go, I asked Rhys about why Philip said he wished Stan had kept going to EST. Here's what Rhys said:
I think he qualifies it in the line by saying, "because you'd know what to do in this moment." Which I think is about seeing a possible bigger picture. And we talked a lot about whether Phillip in that moment is playing Stan or not even aware that he’s playing Stan, and kind of appealing to his more human nature. I struggled so much with that line as to what it was and even though we talked a lot about it, you still kind of have to make it your own.
I think it worked on a few levels... One, in that moment, your primal instinct is to defend your family, to protect your family, and therefore you need to get them out of that parking garage. You would do anything that allows you to do that. By appealing to his human nature, Stan's feelings, going, "I wish you could see this bigger picture that I was just trying to take care of my family, and we have jobs to do." I love that line, Philip kind of finally breaks the fourth wall and goes, "We had a job to do." That's what it is. That's what it boils down to get them out of there.
There's dual meaning to it: I wish you had stuck with [EST] because you’d see in this moment what it is. But also the flipside you could say well he’s also playing Stan just so he can get out of the parking garage.
So is that also the reason Philip dropped the huge Renee bomb on Stan at the end of the scene? The biggest dangling thread left for fans to ponder over is whether Renee, Stan's wife, was a Russian agent herself. Philip couldn't say for sure, but he told Stan his doubts, which clearly shook the FBI agent to his core.
"There was talk," Rhys said. "This final parting shot from Phillip, whether it’s good or bad, is it worth saying or not? And I feel that ultimately Philip generally loves Stan and in another world would've loved having him as a best friend. For all intents and purposes Stan was his only friend in this world of pretend that he lived in. Stan was the only friend he’d ever had and, you know, just the irony of everything else that came with it. So there’s genuine concern for Stan there but I just think he couldn’t leave it unsaid, which is where I felt it finished with me."
For his part, Rhys doesn't think Renee was a spy. Russell wasn't as sure: "That seems pretty creepy to me," she said of the last shot of Renee looking over at the Jennings' resident. "But that’s just my take on it."
A few more tidbits from the stars:
- The hardest scene for Rhys was the final phone call with Henry. "As a new father, it came very easily to put [myself] in that situation although I can't even fathom doing this to my own son. So I did, and still, think that is one of those heartbreaking moments on our show."
- Russell felt that Elizabeth's turning point happened in season six, due to Philip leaving the spy game and the lines between work and home blurring more than ever: "I think the reason Elizabeth was such a good soldier was she was able to not see that. She was able to be the better soldier and not let things distract her. And I think in her unraveling in this season, being so tired and working on her own. not having anyone to help you or support you, you start to make mistakes and you start to slip up. And in her case, mistakes are becoming more human, and developing a conscience about things."
- Russell's favorite thing about Elizabeth is that she avoided the wife/mother cliches: "A lot of times the female part is like the doting wife or the comforting wife, so it feels incredibly satisfying to begin this process six years ago when we did and then to start to end here. I mean just I just relished it was a real treat to get to do this job," she said. "Elizabeth got to stay Elizabeth for such a long time, she didn’t have to be good or she didn’t have to fit in or she didn’t have to get soft. And she did have a reckoning of some sort in herself but, I loved that she stayed the way she was for so long."
Reflecting on the scene toward the end of the show in which Philip tries on a new suit, Rhys added,"It’s a real immigrant story, and regardless of who they were, spies or whatever, it’s a kind of an immigrant story that they came to the U.S. and tried to achieve the capitalist dream, they wanted to succeed. And there’s moments you kind of go, well these material trappings, do they make you happy and at what cost? It’s kind of in a swirl I think at that moment, where he’s going, 'what is this' and 'what does it really mean having a fancy suit?' It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t help benefit anything, but yet he still kind of wants it, you know?"
But there is one thing Rhys won't miss about the show: "If I never wear another wig in my life it’ll be too soon."