Writing about the final season of a show can be difficult. It’s all too easy to let an overview of the season become a post-mortem on the finale. That goes doubly in a case like FX’s brilliant series The Americans, where the finale was so incredible – and stuck the landing so well – that it threatens to overshadow just how good this final season was.
And that’s a shame, really, because the final season of The Americans may well go down as one of the all-time great final seasons of a show. After what would easily be the show’s weakest season, which felt like all set-up and repetition (with a purpose, I think, but repetition nonetheless), the sixth season had no small amount of work ahead of it. Not only did it have to justify the (intentionally) wearying, exhausting grind of the fifth season, but it had to find an ending worthy of this compelling, tense series – one that balanced the show’s complex portrait of a fraught marriage with the labyrinthine spy work that gave the show its hook. Not exactly a small task, and that’s not even counting all of the loose plot threads that needed to be tied up.
But somehow, The Americans pulled it off, making clear something that’s been evident for some time: that for all of the show’s joy in depicting spywork and craft, this has always been a show about a marriage – about parenting, about working together, about the secrets that a marriage evolves to accommodate, and so much more. That’s not to shortchange the show’s commitment to the world of espionage, of course; after all, this season dove into the cultivation of Russian assets, the slow tightening of the noose that comes when an investigation finally cracks open, the tension that comes in an interrogation, and the difficulties when you as a spy begin to suspect that those commanding you are playing you as just another piece in their own games. Indeed, in some ways, this was the best season of the show in terms of its spycraft, with long-term infiltrations mixed with desperate extractions, with slow-burn investigations sharing time with hunches and unease. And by bringing all of that to the foreground, the show was given a tension and uncertainty even more extreme than what it’s always had (an extremity no doubt influenced by our knowledge that this was the final season and the end was coming soon).
More importantly, though, the final season focused in on the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth, as the two of them found themselves on opposite sides of a rapidly growing divide that took a toll on both their marriage and their emotions. It was a brutal season at times, one that never forgot that partners in a marriage are more capable of inflicting pain on each other than anyone else in the world. So as Philip and Elizabeth fought over the children, each other’s priorities, and the goals of their marriage, we saw how that internal fighting distracted them from the tightening noose around their necks, and wore them down more even than the other tensions in their lives.
It was a choice of focus that became most explicitly clear during the second half of the finale, as the show became about the fate of the Jennings family. Would Paige and Henry be okay? Will that marriage survive? Would there be happiness after everything else?
That last question was maybe the most important, because few shows since The Sopranos have focused more on the devastation left behind by our nominal protagonists. Over the course of the final season, especially during the finale, and even more during three all-time great scenes (a garage confrontation, a family phone call, and a gutpunch of a moment on a train), The Americans made clear that our “heroes” left trauma behind them, and that whatever they told themselves about their jobs, they weren’t the good guys they wanted to be. What was remarkable, though, was that the show wasn’t always about the lives taken or the injuries doled out – it was about the emotional pain and wounds that would never heal.
It all added up to a brilliant ending to a superb final season to a truly great television show. Like the best shows of its era, The Americans gave us a great hook – what if an all-American family was really a Soviet sleeper cell? – and used to simultaneously tell a tense, riveting spy story and to explore the inner tensions and difficulties of a marriage. Anchored by two incredible performances (that neither Matthew Rhys nor Keri Russell has been awarded for their work is absurd, and that doesn’t even get into Holly Taylor or Noah Emmerich’s incredible work this season), written intelligently and carefully, and impeccably crafted, it ends as it lived: unexpectedly but brilliantly, approaching its subject matter with thought and depth that sneaks up on you.