With one episode left to go in the series, we know one thing for sure about The Americans. As Soviet agent Elizabeth Jennings, Keri Russell is giving a performance for the ages.
This final season has been one long endurance test for the character and the actress, an endless stream of spy ops, wigs swapped, assets fatally shot or fatally seduced. Elizabeth hasn’t lost her knack for shapeshifting. Her interaction with Senate intern Jackson (Austin Abrams) was a master class in personality espionage, steadily undressing the poor boy via Manic Pixie Cinephilia (ah, yes, Rififi!) and the dangling promise of a glamorous new life in the private sector. It’s almost Westworldly, the way she digs herself into narratives for these lonely souls, working overtime as Host and Programmer and gun-toting QA.
But her exhaustion is palpable. She’s a soldier near the end of a very long war, juggling battles on many fronts. Some of the best moments on TV recently have been Elizabeth quietly smoking cigarettes. She can look tough, tired, confident, confused, desperate, savvy, murderous, kind, sometimes all at once.
Wednesday’s penultimate episode is titled “Jennings, Elizabeth,” and it’s both a showcase for Russell’s ice-and-fire energy and a pivotal turning point for Elizabeth.
(WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk!)
Having uncovered the hidden KGB plot to toss out liberalizer Gorbachev, Elizabeth trails Nesterenko (Alex Feldman). She’s anticipating that Claudia (Margo Martindale) will send another assassin in her place. It’s one of Americans‘ relentless-tension slow-burns. Things boil over when Elizabeth sees a woman approach Nesterenko. One stealth assassin is killed by another; R.I.P. Vera Cherny’s Tatiana, you really should’ve gotten that gig in Nairobi.
It’s an exciting sequence, and I didn’t really buy it. This season has leaned hard on the idea of Elizabeth as, like, a stealth-mode Death God leaving bodies scattered around greater Washington. Now here’s a gunshot in front of a building, surrounded by onlookers, an assassination averted at the absolute last minute.
I don’t want to quibble over the authenticity of the scene, per se. (The history of Cold War spying reads more surreal than real, anyhow.) But the lead-up to this moment felt unconvincing. We saw flashbacks to Elizabeth’s younger self, pre-Americanized Nadezhda in the training-wheels days. On an operational run through Russian city streets, she walked onto a tableau of terror: a motorcycle crashed into a horse. The motorcyclist reached out to Elizabeth, body twisted in baggage-fit directions, begging “Help Me.”
Following mission protocol, Elizabeth walked away. But later, her mentor chastised her: “You don’t leave a comrade on the street to die in Moscow.”
Lesson Learned: There are rules above the rules, higher directives to obey. Russell’s performance as Young Elizabeth was a quiet marvel, magnificently communicating youthful inexperience. Was this all necessary, though? Parachuting a deeply theme-y flashback in the midst of all this tension felt expository — and added to my overall feeling that there’s a flaw, a cheatcode to gravitas, in the design of this final season.
The Americans is not a show with an obvious moral compass. No one’s a pure hero, everyone’s some kind of traitor. Arguably, the most noble figure on the show is Oleg, who spent this season sidelined into Urban Transport education before suddenly getting arrested, poor fellow. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Philip have continued down a path that a more Greek Tragic-minded series might consider “irredeemable,” a dead fed here, a strangled dope there, some faceless security guards.
But this season has introduced a trope peculiar to even the best morally ambiguous TV: The Really Bad Guys. Consider this season’s traitorous KGB officers the dark-drama siblings to Uncle Jack’s Neo-Nazis on Breaking Bad, malevolent capitalist George Hearst on Deadwood, or McCann Erickson on Mad Men‘s final act (whose culture of overt Joan-chasing misogyny made 1970-era Sterling Cooper look nigh-woke by comparison). These are people you can’t possibly root for, whose mere presence would grade-inflate the most murderous anti-hero into heroism by default. (The White Walkers seem to be serving a similar function on Game of Thrones, though that feels justified insofar as they literally appeared before any other character in the show’s first scene.)
The Americans‘ variation on the theme feels least convincing. Elizabeth has spent her whole career engaging in bloody, miserable work, believing that the higher ideals of her side can justify pretty much anything. And maybe you think Elizabeth’s decision in this episode is complicated — an act of disobedience and betrayal (from Claudia’s perspective), a dedicated act of loyalty and selfhood-redemption (from Elizabeth’s perspective, and probably Gorbachev would agree).
But it feels a bit simple, too, especially viewed from our privileged 2018 perspective. Like, duh, Elizabeth is gonna do everything within her power to avoid the Gorbachev coup. The noble Glasnost-enabling rightness of her actions feels explicit, like The Americans has never been. Elsewhere in the episode, Philip summed up the show’s perspective on his wife: “She cares about the whole world.” A noble cause, but the show tipped the scale in her direction, I think, pulling history and narrative in the direction of her highest ideals.
Russell ruled this episode, made me believe even the broad-daylight assassination. Her final scene with Claudia was an actors’ showcase. “You never really understood what you were fighting for,” Claudia tells her. “What’s left for you now? Your house? Your American kids?”
Martindale was Emmy-worthy as ever, but I’m not so sure this scene’s as complex as it wants to be. Was this what Elizabeth was fighting for? I assume Elizabeth would say, confidently, “Yes.” She just helped rescue the big boss’s biggest boss; she didn’t leave a comrade to die in the street, just like Obi-Wan told her in flashback. We know, from history, that the Communist society she believes in will radically transform. But her big choice in this episode was, like, Good Communists who believe in diplomacy and Bad Communists who used her for a coup.
More interesting, I think, was the night’s other showdown. Paige (Holly Taylor) came home with a story: a boy who was clearly Jackson, drunkenly spiraling through a mad tale of sex, lies, and audiotape. This was the final red line for Elizabeth and Paige: the moment daughter realized her mother hadn’t told her everything, after all.
Russell’s performance in this scene was stunning, a transformation on a dime from peaceful domesticity to fierce warrior tension. “We were proud to do whatever we could,” she said. “What was sex?” You felt that Elizabeth in this moment was defiant and embarrassed, struggling to explain herself, furious at what she deep-down probably perceives as Paige’s helplessly American naiveté.
This felt dangerous in a way this season’s whole Summit plot never really has. Has Elizabeth lost Paige? Was this what she was fighting for? By episode’s end, Elizabeth had received some kind of doomsday alert from Philip, was packing up their bug-out bag. Elizabeth Jennings saved history, but can she save her family?
The Americans series finale airs next Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.