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Is The Americans a Good Show, or a Great One? The Next 2 Weeks Will Settle the Question

I’m anxious about The Americans. It’s impossible not to be. There are only two episodes of this slow-burning 1980s-set espionage drama left, and it’s possible that a finale has never mattered more. That’s because for all of its critical accolades, The Americans, in its sixth season, remains niche entertainment. Why? It has a prickly, sometimes glacial pace, a drab normcore palette (brown on brown on brown), and the complex cloak-and-dagger plotting serves mostly to map the emotional trip wires of marriage and family. Don’t get me wrong: This is a remarkable drama with landmark performances from Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. The way showrunners Joseph Weisberg and Joel Fields have deepened the stakes around Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, deep-cover Soviet agents in suburban Washington, D.C., season after season, has made loyalists of many of us. But is The Americans great? Seventy-three episodes in, I’m not sure—and can’t shake the feeling that the show still has something to prove.

This is not the way high-profile finales typically work. The last episodes of Breaking Bad had us by the throat because that show had long ago become blue-chip entertainment. Ditto Friday Night Lights. Ditto The Sopranos. Ditto Mad Men—which never put up impressive ratings but achieved consensus status nonetheless.

The Americans is in a similar boat: unimpressive ratings but consensus status. Or almost. If it’s not all the way there, that’s because the show has never rewarded enthusiasm. Many of the episodes—particularly these past two seasons—have taken perverse pleasure in withholding, in silence and misdirection. The Americans can be subtle to the point of stasis, and it can be shockingly violent.

No more so than in these past weeks. I have watched with something close to horror as Russell’s Elizabeth has become an automaton, a mix of humanity and sociopathic menace. Her killing spree this season is astonishing—as is her two-seasons-long cultivation of her daughter, Paige, as a Soviet spy. She’s guaranteeing Paige a life of violence and tragedy—and yet she remains an incandescent heroine: steely, hyper-confident, glamorous.

Meanwhile, Philip is a black hole of ambivalence. The tragedy of watching him try to extract himself from his Soviet minders, connect with his oblivious son, and try to find his moral core is the most affecting part of the show. Rhys has an incredible variety of hangdog expressions. He’s an encyclopedia of misery and stymied hope.

What happens to these two matters. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling both a need for them to be okay and a need for them to pay for what they’ve done. There’s a reason an Americans death pool is circulating on the Internet. I don’t see how both of them can survive, or escape justice (and Elizabeth is wearing that cyanide pill around her neck). Certainly, the Jennings as a family cannot remain remotely intact.

So we need a tragic ending. It’s what the show has been building to. But will The Americans deliver one? Will it actually punish the characters we’ve come to love? If it pulls its punches and manufactures some quasi-happy resolution for Elizabeth and Philip on May 30—a retirement dacha in the Urals, perhaps—I fear the show will be forgotten, discarded, a curiosity that had its moments but never amounted to anything. But if something awful happens, if the sky-high stakes pay off, this show will be legend.