Critic's Notebook: The One-Two Emotional Gut Punch of 'The Americans' and 'The Leftovers'

Two of TV's best series were tough to watch in their simultaneously airing recent seasons, but they made for an indelibly powerful pair of viewing experiences.
Left, courtesy of FX, right, courtesy of HBO
'The Americans' (left), 'The Leftovers'

(This column contains spoilers for recent finales of The Americans and The Leftovers.)

Two of television's most brilliant series, FX's The Americans and HBO's The Leftovers, ended their seasons (and, for The Leftovers, its entire run) recently, and the emotional fallout from both is still lingering.

It probably will for some time.

In recent memory, only AMC's Mad Men and SundanceTV's Rectify — two other all-time greats — were as masterful at exploring the human condition, the existential crises people face as they examine their lives and come up, mostly, at a loss to understand things intellectually and navigate them emotionally.

In The Americans and The Leftovers, the complexities and depth of feeling, combined, made for a richly compelling but wrenching experience for viewers to endure. It was cathartic, powerful television (even more so if you binged a bunch of episodes).

These shows tell wholly different stories, The Americans rooted in real life and The Leftovers trespassing into exuberant leaps of logic, faith and metaphor. But the truths both shows were searching for and the emotional journeys of their central characters as the stories unfolded (and, with The Americans, continues to unfold) turned this pair of simultaneously airing series into the most rewarding one-two punch of the Platinum Age of Television. We just saw two top-tier dramas, each having asked so much from viewers, culminating within five days of each other in a flurry of sensations — grief, happiness, disillusionment, melancholy, sentimentality, stoicism, disappointment, acceptance. It was a wide-ranging spectrum.

Before getting into that, it bears repeating that oftentimes the best television is the most challenging television — where it takes time getting there, demands introspection and doesn't always provide the answers you might be looking for, or any answers at all. Any treatise on great art will cover that kind of contract between creator and viewer. So if The Americans moved too slowly for you this season or The Leftovers left you confused, your satisfaction and entertainment mileage may vary. Neither are mass-appeal series, and finding the angle of these gems that glints most favorably into your eyes is a personal thing.

But being open to thinking and feeling is part of the deal.

The Leftovers was largely a meditation on loss and grief, faith, meaning and the search for happiness and purpose. As such, it was more universally relatable than The Americans, where marriage and family are emotional cornerstones and the viewer's experiences with each greatly add to the dramatic impact of the story. But The Leftovers is infinitely bleaker (and, weirdly, more hopeful) because it relentlessly focuses on loss, while also emphasizing the disturbing notion of randomness of fate and the slippery notion of purpose (both of life and of self), which often circles back and intersects again with that idea of randomness. Those interlocking considerations lend the whole thing a heaviness that for some is hard to endure.

In The Americans, the entire fifth season was either about butting heads with a boulder that can't be moved (Oleg and the rigged Russian system; Martha and a life she didn't ask for) or worrying about the boulder rolling right toward you (Elizabeth and Philip coming to terms with Paige and the spy life). Of course,The Americans also delves into a different kind of loss; as Russian spies recruited very early in their lives, Elizabeth and Philip really didn't have a childhood and they have to confront how they've essentially taken away Paige's "normal" life and how snatching up Henry — who, unlike Paige, doesn't know his parents are Russian spies — and taking him back to Russia will crush the bright future he can finally see and has strived for in school.

The heaviness of the scenario that the Jennings face only achieves its greatest impact if viewers have children. There's been so much written about how loss (and also the fear of losing someone) is greatest when you love something more than yourself. And by degrees, that something could be a beloved pet, a parent or even a spouse, but your own child is a step further still and it's something that The Americans is masterful at toying with.

The gradations of loss in The Americans run from losing a lifestyle (the comforts of America) to losing innocence to losing the closeness of a child (Henry potentially going off to boarding school and how that stirs up so much of Philip's memories, or lack thereof, of his own father) to losing your family if your spy life is discovered to the ultimate loss, death.

All of that is heavy on the minds of Elizabeth and Philip in season five, and their dealing with the potential fate in front of them might have seemed ponderous to some but was no doubt heartbreaking to others. Sure, it could have been tighter in spots, but it's not like this series has ever been built on thrill-seeking speed. Bridge years to final seasons are difficult because they are more setup than resolution. And, in fairness, we needed to see Elizabeth and Philip on a number of taxing assignments (it's long, drawn-out and boring for them, too, and it takes away from family, which is mostly the point). They need to be overburdened in the spy game and they need to face crushing doubts as parents — introspective wallowing was crucial to feeling the weight.

Like Mad Men before it, The Americans is ostensibly about something (advertising in the former, spying in the latter) that enabled viewers to opt in on those storylines while allowing the creators to hide what they were really trying to explore underneath (an existential crisis in Mad Men, marriage and family in The Americans). In both series, some fans wanted more of the bait and less of the switch.

The Leftovers ratcheted up this emotional riot not only because it's a heavier series in general, but also because it was very specifically coming to an end (while, true to form from the start, being very open to interpretation in that ending). A series that's powered by grief and faith and loss (much like Rectify) needs some humor and/or weirdness to offset it, and The Leftovers was often sublime in that regard (watching and listening to Scott Glenn was a particular delight).

The final season of The Leftovers might go down as one of the great TV endings of all time, but only if you were already in love with its mystical deep dives, its refusal to explain the defining event in its premise (two percent of the people on Earth vanished in what was called "The Departure"), its alternate realities and fugue states and, finally, its vagueness. The Leftovers didn't seem particularly concerned with telling you how things happened, but was more about guiding you through the various emotional reactions after they happened. And holy hell, there were a lot. Having Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston and the entire, enormously talented cast guide viewers through it was a real pleasure, if there was any true pleasure in the experience.

That final season was a tour de force of brilliant writing, directing and acting. It was a triumphantly odd examination of hurt people. And while it could be unimaginably bleak at times, it found moments to bring joy and light and even an odd kind of resolution. Particularly at the end, when Coon, as an older Nora, years having seemingly passed by (unseen by viewers), explains to Theroux's equally aged Kevin where she'd been, what she'd seen and how she dealt with it. You can choose what to believe in her story. But it seems clear that it was only a story, a necessary construct to not so much "get over" her grief but to allow herself to get beyond it, not be held back by it for the rest of the life she needed to lead. There's optimism and happiness and comfort in that ending, which may have been the most unexpected thing in the entire show.

The Americans and The Leftovers don't have the biggest audiences, but they had the biggest impact as they forced you to feel as much as think about difficult issues.

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