Critics' Conversation: Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg on "Powerful" 'Americans' Series Finale

THR TV critics celebrate and discuss the emotionally resonant series finale to FX's 'The Americans.'
Courtesy of FX

[This conversation discusses the series finale for FX's The Americans in depth and, therefore, contains spoilers.]

Daniel Fienberg: FX's The Americans hasn't even been done for 24 hours and already I'm missing it. Thanks to screeners, I've had a few days to meditate on Wednesday's series finale.

It seems to me that finales typically fall into one of two categories: There are overdetermined finales that feel like they have to solve a lot of mysteries, give as many characters as possible a resolution they deserve and put the show's world to rest. I'd put Breaking Bad in that category. And then there are underdetermined finales, which concentrate on resolving thematic issues introduced in the show, but don't care nearly as much about giving "answers" or giving a decisive narrative conclusion. The Sopranos is the classic example of that type. Neither is better or worse, though probably I more frequently prefer the latter.

The finale for The Americans split the difference nicely. It delivered some big moments that fans needed and wrapped up some storylines, but emphasized spiritual and emotional consequences instead of a torrent of arrests, revelations and casualties that I'm sure some fans, perhaps even me on some gut level, expected or hoped for.

Tim, did the finale for The Americans do what you needed it to?

Tim Goodman: I felt very much the same way. Before going into specifics, I think it's important to amplify some of those notions about finales, which can cause fans to react in all kinds of different ways. I think when we're talking prestige dramas (like The Sopranos, where I absolutely loved the ending), there is at least in my mind a different and higher degree of artistic execution that needs to take place. I mean that in the sense that series like Seinfeld and Lost are going to have a different bar (though that bar is no less important to fans). The Americans (and Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos and The Shield before it) had its own personal way it chose to wrap things up and I loved the direction that writers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg chose. I think, especially for a series with a relatively small but super loyal audience — and especially in these difficult TV times where any audience that chooses to support and stay with a series over multiple seasons feels like a rare gift or an act of trust, that this particular finale was important. I absolutely thought it had to be emotional and had to exact some kind of toll (as it had been, particularly on Philip, these last couple of seasons). I agree with you that there was just the right amount of closing loops and leaving others open or adding dimensions to the act of resolution.

In particular, I think the key elements here (and I'm sure we both might have much more to add to these that I'm bringing up and others you will note as well), were the twist of making Stan face a moral gray area, not just in Philip's last attempts to explain their friendship and how messed up he, too, was about the whole thing, but specifically the need for Stan to take care of Henry, with Paige delivering the emotional exclamation point there; Paige deciding, of her accord and as a surprise, to get off the train heading to Canada and therefore leaving her parents; and, lastly, Elizabeth suffering that 11th-hour reckoning of the life she chose leaving her childless (which the dream sequence she had on the plane reiterated, as fugue-state ironic cruelty). Among many things I loved at the end, I think the use of U2's "With or Without You" was spot on and cut to the extended scene with perfection.

DF: The garage scene with Stan is remarkable and I suspect we could each respectively talk/write about it for hundreds or thousands of words. It's the confrontation that was probably on every fan's must-include list for a series finale. 

The thing I like best about that showdown, other than that Noah Emmerich, Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Holly Taylor are all just outrageously good in it, is how open to interpretation it, like much of the final season, is when it comes to the blurring between the job Philip and Elizabeth did so well and the personal life that was often such a struggle. If you want, it's completely acceptable to read Philip's protestations of friendship with Stan as genuine and sincere. It's also acceptable, or at least I think it is, to view it as a wonderfully orchestrated piece of manipulation, playing to Stan's paternal feelings about Henry, soothing his ego about his failure to identify them sooner, equating Stan's love of country with their love of country, then throwing him off-balance at the end with the suggestion of Renee's involvement, even goading him about leaving EST. Appropriately, Philip and Paige are almost totally honest with Stan, Elizabeth not so much. Stan wants to stop them, but he also wants to believe them and they give him enough so that he can do that. It's a scene that's beautifully constructed by director Chris Long, who deserves ample credit along with Fields and Weisberg.

This scene was everything I needed it to be. I have to ask, though, did you need or want more literal consequences? Philip and Elizabeth, no matter our sympathies and empathy for them, were cold-blooded killers. Did the finale offer enough reckoning?

TG: Oh, absolutely. I would much prefer thinking about Elizabeth's mental state losing her kids (and, not long before, losing some of her steadfast belief in following rules for the good of Mother Russia), than seeing her either arrested or killed. Much of this season was about alienating Elizabeth. It was very, very artfully done. Especially with the subtle ways Fields and Weisberg used Henry in that regard. The Philip-Elizabeth divide was long running, with some course corrections, and then Paige in the last few episodes but especially the finale (the look on Elizabeth's face when she realized Paige got off the train was, to me, the very last piece of evidence Emmy voters should need in giving her an award), and then deepening her divide with Russia in this final season, which was a faster and more difficult trick. It was absolutely believable because Elizabeth is a head-down, just-do-it street soldier. She's never questioned much, certainly not like Philip. I think that passion hid her naivete, which Claudia manipulated. 

But what I also loved was the nuance of not, in this final episode, completely changing Elizabeth. She did try to lie to Stan, as you said, in the garage. I think she would have been the likely one to try to kill Stan. When Philip talked about how screwed up the spy game left him, he was being honest but I'm sure Elizabeth thought it was a great ruse to manipulate Stan, since she is still so all-in. That she could be so stunned that Philip would suggest leaving Henry behind said a lot about her blinders about her work and her role as mother. It's the same reason she was so shocked that Paige got off the train. Her inability to really tell Henry anything of substance on the phone — ending with her essentially saying, "Yeah, what your father said" — was its own kind of heartbreak. I also love that it was the mother, not the father, in this construct, who is so detached from her parental emotions and bonds. So, all the things that hit Elizabeth in this ending, I'm happy with that as her "fate." That said, I also think Elizabeth, in Russia, will move on easier than Philip will. 

DF: Philip, if nothing else, has a source of Russian paternal displacement in the form of Mischa, who could fill a Henry-shaped void if he wanted him to. It's funny that Philip, who was already fairly Americanized by the pilot, returns to an estranged homeland in which he technically has a son (Mischa) and a wife (poor, poor Martha), while dyed-red-in-the-wool Russian Elizabeth has nothing. I'm not sure why that amuses me, in a sad and regretful way, of course, but it does.

I was also amused, in a comparable manner, by the echoes in the conversation between Philip and Elizabeth, speaking in skeptical hopefulness about their new life, and Donna and Cameron in the finale for Halt and Catch Fire, another of my favorite series cappers of recent years. In the Halt and Catch Fire finale, Donna and Cameron talk in hypotheticals looking back at the lifespan of a new company they have yet to start. In the Americans finale, Elizabeth and Philip, no longer necessarily joined by a marriage initially forged of professional requirement, engage in hypotheticals about how if they hadn't "chosen" this life of adventure and espionage, maybe they still might have met, maybe they still might have been brought together by destiny. Knowing what we know about both of them, it's OK to doubt that, but it's easy to understand how, with a potentially bleak future ahead of them, they're looking for solace in an imagined past. A fabricated meeting on a bus is easier to dwell on than how their kids are going to live now, Henry with Stan and Renee, Paige... Well... what of Paige, Tim? And what else stood out for you in the finale? 

TG: The Paige situation is particularly intriguing and goes back to this idea that not everything has to be spelled out in a great series. Certain people like ultimate closure, but that's almost never a good idea for a great series that doesn't peddle in easy solutions to begin with. We can read Paige stepping off the train in different ways. She's staying behind because she is, in fact, American and this is her life. She's not abandoning Henry. Or she's not "giving up" either. She goes back to Claudia's place. Either she's still in the game and wants to keep spying or she realizes she's got a pretty sweet place to crash for a bit. Leaving it nebulous is fine. Philip proving to her, physically, that she actually wasn't prepared, as Elizabeth had intimated, for the spy game was important. Finding out that her mom was two-faced and a liar was also important. Maybe Paige is the spinoff series. (He laughs, hoping that never happens.) But I'm glad they chose to leave Paige's fate up in the air. I also was very pleased how the writers used Renee. In each episode this season, they kept her juuuuuust on the fringe. Like, "Oh, yeah, Renee." I happen to believe Renee is definitely Russian. That long look she gave the Jennings house as Stan was torn up about all of this was beautifully done — held too long to be meaningless, not held so long as to be obvious. And again, going back to the U2 song, what we really know about Stan is that he's kind of a sad sack that needs to be loved. I think he's actually very good at his job and him not putting it all together isn't a black mark on his capabilities. But he needs to be loved. He needs a family. He's very simple that way. So him watching Renee sleep — a spy in the house of love! — while U2 sings "I can't live, with or without you" (which of course has resonance to all the characters) was well done. Also, when Paige steps off the train and there's that heartbreaking realization for both Elizabeth and then Philip about what's happening, it's perfectly synced to the U2 refrain, "And you give yourself away/And you give yourself away." Man, the work done in that scene was fantastic. 

Beyond that, I also loved the use of silence for long stretches there at the end, with the music as the lead. There's nine minutes of music and silence before Elizabeth, in her dream, says, "I don't want a kid anyway," and then, waking from the dream, there's another eight minutes until Philip, speaking in Russian, tells Arkady to pull the car over. That's insane — 17 minutes where only one quick line from a dream and a station agent saying "Identification please" to a passenger breaks up the silence or the music. You hear all the time in sports that the best announcers shut up when big championship moments or whatever are unfolding, and that's essentially what happened there. We even got the scene where Stan is talking to Henry in that montage (which, by the way, is kind of a mind-blowing thing to wonder about — what was said). But anyway, I just loved how they slow played the ending. Lots of emotion used to excellent effect. Anything for you that stands out or will be remembered fondly?

DF: Me, I like the idea that Renee is just an innocent, but fundamentally suspicious, person. A human red herring. Like the opposite of Martha. Stan's always going to distrust her. She's never going to understand why. She just wanted to work at the FBI to spend more quality time with the man she loves, or because she enjoys mechanical distribution of mail. Also, I'm so glad we didn't get a landing Mail Robot cameo in the finale. Mail Robot's last scene in the elevator with Stan and Aderholt was good enough.

I just want to keep talking about that garage scene forever. Every performance choice. Every word choice. Noah Emmerich should get an Emmy nomination just for the combination of perplexity and accusation in his initial greeting to the Jennings family, the halting, "Hi, Paige." 

We haven't mentioned the final phone call to Henry and reflected on what an amazing job the show did really in these last two seasons with resurrecting Henry, a character who was subject of "Anybody remember what's up with Henry?" jokes for years and suddenly became the show's symbol of hope and heartbreak. The most powerful moment of the entire powerful season for me was actually Henry's look of confusion when Elizabeth called from the botched mission in Chicago and just wanted to talk to him, something that was foreign to his ability to process the world. You could not have had Henry as the show's moral center three seasons ago and last night I believed it completely and my heart broke a little as Henry went off to play pingpong with his friends, unaware that his parents might just have said bye to him forever. 

We haven't talked about the Jennings trip to McDonalds, capping a season in which Paige learned about Russian cuisine and culture, with this quintessentially American piece of gastronomic debasement and assimilation. The series ends with Elizabeth, in Russian, saying, "We'll get used to it," and this scene may be the proof Elizabeth and Philip can get used to anything.

A couple of times now we've touched on Emmys and this is a show that, as we've discussed many times, has been too often thwarted by the TV Academy. Its only two wins have been for Margo Martindale and at least one of those was for a season in which she had five minutes of screen time. Do you have hopes of the last season rectifying some of that injustice?

TG: That's funny (and cruel!) about Renee (and perfect about Mail Robot). So many things to talk about. But yes, the McDonald's moment was brilliant — and not just because it was the quintessential American place to eat. There's that weird moment where Philip says that maybe he should stay behind, just for a year or two, check in on Henry, that sort of thing (and my mind went to him happily line-dancing at some cheesy country music place). But as he's walking out with the food he looks over to see a family, two parents, two kids, laughing and eating together and then stares out the window to Elizabeth and Paige waiting for him. Staying is never mentioned again. Also, just to revisit the music montage and the American-Russianness of it all with McDonald's: While U2 is an Irish band, the music is rock and roll, an American idiom. During this lengthy, mostly wordless, final montage, the music changes as Philip and Elizabeth head east into the Soviet Union and it becomes classical — Tchaikovsky (Russian, of course) and the violin concerto was "None but the Lonely Heart" — again, perfect for the now childless Jennings parents. 

As for the Emmys, well, you know all too well that anything is possible there and it's impossible to predict. I think both Russell and Rhys deserve Emmys and the show should get one for writing as well (and why would directing be off the table, while we're at it?). I think there's something very rare about a TV series being this great for this long and it would be nice for it to go out on a strong, if overdue, note. 

Lastly, let me add that, while it didn't happen exclusively this way, I predicted several times that Henry would be the downfall of the family because of all the time he spent with Stan. He certainly revealed a lot to fuel Stan in these last couple of episodes, but of course Stan's intuition was poking the interior of his brain so hard by then. And yes, I agree with your thoughts on Henry being the symbol of hope and heartbreak. The series had already got so lucky that Holly Taylor developed into such a capable actress; having Keidrich Sellati grow up and really nail it this season was essential to its ultimate success. 

DF: OK, we could talk about this all day, but instead let's close with a question. Give me one spinoff or sequel or prequel series to The Americans that you would actually willingly tolerate. 

I'm taking Poor Martha, the story of a lonely single woman in a foreign land trying to balance being a single mother while also raising an adopted child and learning to speak rudimentary Russian. Set in 1996, it's a wacky female empowerment story against the backdrop of fledgling capitalist Russia that gets an unexpected twist when Martha meets a young politician, newly arrived in Moscow. That politician's name? Vladimir Putin. 

And you?

TG: Well, no fair, that's insanely hard to top. But what I would watch is essentially something that picked up a year after this ending, following both Paige and Henry, with Renee coming out of her sleeper cell slumber and leading all of those seemingly endless Americans willing to tail political marks and squeeze the trigger on walkie-talkies or otherwise volunteer for the cause. Actually, no, forget that. How about we leave it just like this, just like it ended?