Tim Goodman: Was 'The Americans' Season Finale a Costly Trip-Up?

'The Americans' is an exceptional show, but, as the season finale illustrated, even the best shows make strategic errors.
FX

You can still be one of the best series on television and not make a great season finale.

In the case of FX’s The Americans, the shortcomings in Wednesday’s finale won’t completely distract from what has been an incredible season of a show that was arguably without peer for most of its season (the return of Mad Men and Game of Thrones in the last few weeks brought on the first real competition).

But those shortcomings were unfortunate, nevertheless.

On Wednesday, The Americans proved that it’s a great novel — that maybe doesn’t have the best chapter breaks. It’s hard to fault a finale that runs an extra 11 minutes and sets up what could be an emotionally devastating fourth season with even more compelling storylines.

But peeking at season four without fully wrapping season three was a thing that happened — there’s no getting around it or wishing it away just because the series is exceptional. Being remarkable doesn’t give you a free pass when you trip up.

You could make the argument that The Americans was subverting the structure of television and not bothering to do the predictable, but then you’d really be kidding yourself. This is a brilliant show that struggles to find an audience and can ill-afford to lose any of those viewers it does have because it didn’t properly service them.

Specifically, the penultimate episode of this season of The Americans — a series built on the long con — hinted very directly that one of its most meaty, entertaining and essential storylines was coming to an end. Philip (Matthew Rhys) revealed his identity to Martha (Alison Wright) in the waning seconds of that episode. Given that her stoicism in the face of an FBI investigation — after they found a bug that she was instrumental in planting — was crumbling, the implication was that Philip was going to kill her.

Instead, she didn’t appear at all in the finale (and Philip killed Gene, the lonely computer tech), and planting evidence in his apartment that would clear Martha wasn’t nearly enough resolution.

The absence of Martha was just a plotting mistake. It’s that simple. And the error was only magnified by dropping the Kimmy (Julia Garner) storyline as well. The only reason that comes to mind for why Martha’s fate wasn’t addressed is that the writers want to keep Wright, a wonderful actress, around a little bit longer (especially since the fallout of the bug in the office wasn’t concluded, either).

But the decision to avoid the Martha story altogether has other troubling implications. How can that character be believably sustained? She doesn’t even know who Philip is — love and embarrassment are the only things keeping her from turning him in. She’s clearly collapsing under the weight of lies and is thus a huge liability. If you’re not going to kill her, then you theoretically have to turn her, and that seems a stretch, since she’d only do that for love, and Philip/Clark can’t move in with her. Killing Gene instead of Martha is puzzling and maybe even dubious — what more can Martha offer the cause?

Part of the problem here is that The Americans is extremely ambitious, and that’s a credit to executive producers and writers Joseph Weisberg and Joel Fields, who do a superb job of bringing to life this Reagan-era spy story about Russians and Americans. But the finale drove home some of the problems that were becoming evident as season three marched forward — namely, that there probably were too many stories being juggled for a very large cast. And even if the decision was made earlier to leave the biggest of those stories — Paige (Holly Taylor) essentially turning against her parents — as a cliff-hanger that will fuel season four, more emphasis on Martha’s fate was essential, and loose strands like Kimmy should have been addressed as well.

Instead, we got a tacked-on story of Philip meeting Sandra (Susan Misner) for a sex seminar, which led to all kinds of assumptions about motive that we won’t find out about until next season; Stan (Noah Emmerich) finding out that his plan for freeing Nina (Annet Mahendru) went sideways but, in the same scene, implying that perhaps the bigger intent of his plan was to turn Oleg (Costa Ronin); and some very good scenes of Philip’s overwhelming discontent, while Elizabeth (Keri Russell) was off seeing her mother with Paige in West Germany, trying to forge a bond that would help turn Paige to the cause.

Now, the latter element was, of course, essential and needed to happen. It was the centerpiece of the finale. The emotional fallout was nicely handled, and the trip's failure — it didn’t bring Paige closer to her parents — intriguingly highlighted the love of country/love of family epicenter of The Americans.

Showing Philip’s mental spiraling — maybe the most fascinating part of the finale — in detail might have been the reason we didn’t have time for the Martha or Kimmy stories to be addressed.

Again, this is a plotting decision, and Weisberg and Fields no doubt have their reasons for the choices they made. But unspooling story, no matter how magnificent and fruitful those arcs eventually may become, isn't fully worthwhile if you don’t reward viewers for the time they’ve already put in during the season. People definitely will want to see the Paige story (keep your head on a swivel, Pastor Tim), and Philip very clearly has been set up to make a bigger break from Elizabeth and Mother Russia, which could be riveting. But not addressing Martha and Kimmy — much less bringing closure to either — was a huge risk that could alienate less dedicated viewers.

And while Nina working Anton (Michael Aronov) for information is a worthy storyline, an easy argument could be made that wrapping up Kimmy and Martha was vastly more important.

The Americans is one of the very best dramas on television, coming off yet another impressive season that boosted its reputation, and its hard-core fans will not be bothered by this slight trip-up in the storytelling. But every viewer matters with this show, and giving anyone a reason to look elsewhere is unwise.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

comments powered by Disqus