8:14pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Dark 'Americans' Finale Hints Changes Are Coming
[This article contains spoilers for the Wednesday, June 8 season finale of The Americans.]
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, one of the key pieces of the Jewish High Holy Day liturgy, could also be a foundational text for showrunners crafting premieres and finales for their TV shows. What is Rosh Hashanah, after all, but the annual season premiere for a show currently in its 5776th season?
For the less Jewishly inclined among you, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer/poem/piyyut speaks to the divine judgment of the season, which launches the new year in the Hebrew calendar. On its most basic and superficial level, it connects the entreaties of the holy days to what the year ahead will hold, who will live and who will die (depicted in graphic fashion), who will find peace, who unrest, who will be raised and who lowered. In the prayer, we repeat that on Rosh Hashanah these decisions are inscribed, but the Book of Life isn't sealed until after the Days of Awe, until the end of Yom Kippur. Many Jews are uncomfortable with Unetaneh Tokef's link between 10 days of prayer and a wide-reaching decree for the next 12 months, but we're not here to get into that. It's powerful stuff.
The prayer is also the inspiration for Leonard Cohen's song "Who By Fire," from his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. See how it would fit on an album of that title? The connection is so direct that depending on the hipness of your congregation, you may have even sung "Who By Fire" during the High Holy Days as a supplement for the Unetaneh Tokef.
"Who By Fire," with its updating on the causes of death listed in the Unetaneh Tokef, is a haunting song, one of the great poetic uses of every syllable of "barbiturate," and it was also the melodic centerpiece of the fourth season finale of The Americans, a show that never approaches music as incidental or tossed off. It's a song about the rendering of final verdicts, but also answering to something higher. It's a song about payment coming due.
Wednesday's finale, titled "Persona Non Grata," was certainly about payment coming due, even if the body count was probably lower than it could have been. If you'd told me, for example, that we'd reach the finale of this season and not only would Pastor Tim have survived, but he'd actually be adding members to his family, I'd have been incredulous. But here we are. Paige's confession at the end of last season didn't lead to the end of Pastor Tim's life and he also survived Ethiopian misadventures and his wife's blackmail attempt. Pastor Tim may be the cockroach that survives the nuclear apocalypse of The Americans.
The only casualty in the finale was Dylan Baker's William Crandall, who suffered the most ignominious of demises, infecting himself with lassa fever to somewhat avoid interrogation at the hands of Agents Beeman and Aderholt. Don't spies have cyanide capsules or something? Shouldn't a spy working in biochemical warfare who's prepared to smash a vial of lassa fever into his hand upon capture have an alternative plan that doesn't involve a multi-day process of bleeding out from every orifice? Because this was an awful, awful way for Crandall to go out. Crandall's true crime? Being alone.
"It was exciting, at first," he explained to Beeman and Aderholt, referring to his work as a Soviet mole. "Like all new things. Auspicious beginnings and all that. I was committed to something and I was invisible."
Crandall lamented that felt alone and isolated, that he never found happiness in marriage, though he tried. In the process, he gave Beenman and Aderholt a piece of information they still don't know they have, referred to the unnamed Philip and Elizabeth, expressing his desire to be, "Like them. Couple kids. American dreams. Never suspect that. She's... pretty. He's lucky."
Does it really help Beeman and Aderholt to know they're looking for a married pair of sleeper agents with two kids and a beautiful wife? Well, it could. Someday. If they remember. Information on The Americans is cumulative and you never know when something will resurface or get paid off.
Part of why this fourth season was so great is that for the first time, really, Stan Beeman and his FBI cohorts weren't operating from a place of ignorance or blindness. For the first time, The Americans became a true game of cat-and-mouse and, in fact, our Russian heroes were finally pushed to the defensive. [Note: Not "for the first time," I suppose, but rather "for the first extended, sustained period of time."]
Could The Americans have unfolded this successfully if producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg had introduced the "Everybody being smart" policy earlier? Doubtful. In order to bring the audience into complicity with Elizabeth and Philip, the Russians had to get some wins, there had to be missions carried out successfully that made us root for them and also sometimes operations that made us realize how vicious and cutthroat they were capable of being. Elizabeth and Philip were reliably resourceful and swift and adaptable and even if they sometimes ended up killing people and even if they once or twice seemed in vague danger of capture, we got to know them as craftsmen, as artisans of the cloak-and-dagger-and-wig trade. Stan, in contrast, was the guy cluelessly living across the street from the spies, the man who fell in love with a key asset, who was oblivious as an underling married a spy and bugged his office, who lost his wife and, at times, his grip. Like Crandall, Stan was a cautionary tale for being alone or making yourself alone.
But this season, Stan and Dennis became methodical and I guess they proved their value as a couple, of sorts. They pushed forward and one thing after another, they picked up on the breadcrumbs that Philip and Elizabeth had been leaving. They found out about Martha. Poor Martha. They found out about the bug in Gad's office. Poor Gad. They found out about the bug that was planted in last season's "Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?" Poor Lois Smith, snubbed of an Emmy nomination. And with Oleg doubting his mission in a year of personal tragedy and confusion, they found out about Crandall. Poor Crandall.
For three seasons, Philip and Elizabeth did the expert spook work and left the bodies in their wake. This season, Stan and Dennis did their jobs and did them well and there were consequences, but more than the culmination of a season, it was the culmination of four seasons for them.
All the while, Philip and Elizabeth struggled and at the culmination of those struggles, having lost Crandall, they faced a tough conversation with with handler Gabriel (Frank Langella, who I thought was wasted last season and remarkable this season, finding the magic in the quietest of beats).
"It's been a hard year," Philip admitted accurately, echoing the Rosh Hashanah/Unetaneh Tokef/"Who By Fire" themes of the episode and reminding us of that big time jump earlier in the season. The events of the finale weren't isolated. As with any good piece of arced drama, they were the results of the journey.
"The problems pile up," Gabriel observed. "It's hard to know when it's too late."
Stepping out of the snow-blindness of the situation, Gabriel suggested that it might be time for Philip and Elizabeth to pack up the family and move back to Russia. Would this a death of sorts, for the construct of "Philip" and "Elizabeth"? Is it a rebirth for Nadezhda and Mischa? And who makes the determination? "Wh Is Gabriel the God in this situation? As with Unetaneh Tokef, can good deeds and repentance blunt his decree? [In the original prayer, there's no question that a divine force has control. Leonard Cohen asks the more metaphorical "Who shall I say is calling?" In cable drama terms, this is probably the equivalent of Walter White being the one who knocks.]
Gabriel implied they have free will, telling them, "I want you to go home and get your kids and get yourselves to a safe house. But of course it's your decision."
Do we believe him? This was the moment in the finale at which "Who By Fire" actually played, contrasting this potential professional death with Crandall's literal death with Pastor Tim's new baby with the Arkady Ivanovich Zotov's much more official professional demise, evicted from the country by FBI officials, again for the cumulative barrage of offenses, all amusingly/tragically related to Philip and Elizabeth.
And serving as a sweet, but also sad, backdrop to the end of this ruinous year for Philip and Elizabeth were two young people coming into maturity with hopeful uncertainty. For the first time, we met Philip's son, back from Afghanistan, temporarily locked up in an asylum and now heading to America to meet his long lost "travel agent" father. It's a fulfillment of destiny. Is Paige also moving to a fulfillment of destiny as she asked her mother for self-defense lessons, as she continued to nurture and develop both Pastor Tim and Matthew as her first assets? I love how Paige's relationship with Matthew has been both sweet, but always shaded by the things she's been learning about herself, a clash between hormones and this avocation she never knew she'd be a part of. The Americans built up the Paige/Matthew relationship organically and never once overplayed the Romeo & Juliet card. Even the reaction of their parents has been fresh and different, from Stan's tension-breaking giddiness at catching them fumbling on the couch to how original the underpinnings of Philip's disapproval are. Does he not want his daughter's heart broken? Does he not want his daughter to grow up? Does he not want his daughter to expand her espionage skillset in this direction? Does he worry about anything circumstance that would bring the two families closer than racquetball at this moment? Who knows. Matthew Rhys nailed that ambiguity, as did Keri Russell, watching everything unfold from the window. And Holly Taylor has been great all season, delivering a performance of evolving openness against the increased weariness of her TV parents.
The finale didn't end with any huge disasters or even cliffhangers. The lassa virus got no further than Crandall. Stan learned a lot, but he didn't have his Leaves of Grass On The Toilet moment. The Jennings family is either on the move, which would be ultra confusing for Henry, or else they're going to stay and we can await the arrival of Philip's other son.
Only two seasons remain.
Who by fire?
Who by water?
Who by high ordeal?
Who by common trial?
Who should Philip and Elizabeth expect to be calling?
A few other thoughts on the Americans finale:
*** I forgot one casualty. The Redskins, 38-9 losers in Super Bowl XVIII. That's almost as bad as lassa fever. And why did Henry watch the Super Bowl alone rather than securing an invite to be a third wheel with Matthew and Paige?
*** Everything is going to be different at the embassy next year. Arkady is going back to Russia and Oleg is leaving as well, choosing to be a "good son" to support his parents, rather than following Tatiana. But Arkady's dismissal means that Tatiana got screwed out of her rezident job in Kenya. Extra screwed. Only moment Tatiana was going to be in charge of her own posting. Then she was stuck with a temporary job in Washington knowing she'd never get the permanent job, but at least she could have more loud sex with Oleg. But now, Oleg's leaving and Tatiana's in a job where she'll just be keeping a seat warm. That's tough.
*** Was this Philip hitting bottom? Not only did he share his dissatisfaction at EST, but Gabriel acknowledged that his heart hasn't been in this for a long time. Remember Urban Cowboy-loving Philip from the pilot? Is he dead forever?
*** Will we ever see Arkady again? Will we ever see Martha again? Will we ever see Kimmie again? Will we ever see Claudia again? Will Elizabeth ever cook another Korean dinner?
*** In the premiere it is written, in the finale it is sealed.