Sometimes in pop culture there are clear end points, and — effective or not — they can provide insights to a whole series, oeuvre, or discography.
In a beautiful convergence of historical fact and playful narrative irony, the FX series The Americans concluded its six season, seventy-five episode run with an episode titled “START.” Reminiscent of The Sopranos finale from a decade ago, the creators behind The Americans remained true to their firmly established voice, resisting any exterior pressure — real or imagined — to deliver bombast and resolute closure. They instead trafficked in the aching ambiguity that was a hallmark of the entire series. In the real world, stories don’t really end. Some branches simply wither away as others sprout. Certain implicit promises needed to be kept, and in this The Americans did not disappoint, notably with a lengthy set piece in the stark chill of a parking garage. But it faded to black with as many questions lingering as answered.
In general, the final season of The Americans revived a series that had just barely started to sag. Blessed and cursed at once with a renewal order from FX that laid out a clear, decisive, two-season pathway to the final episode, the creative team started quietly folding up chairs in the back of the room in the middle of the fifth season, and it could feel a little bit like they were biding time. In retrospect, I still believe in the fairness of that impression, but the fifth season also minutely recalibrated expectations about how catastrophic events would become. Earlier, The Americans was ruthless enough that it was the sort of series where it was advisable to not become overly attached to certain characters as they waded deeper into the swamps of Cold War espionage. With a mischievous wit, the show stirred anxiety about the fates of fictional beings, and often proved those worries to be founded. The nervous viewing instinct lingered, even as the body count plateaued, at least when it came to major characters.
The change was so slight as to be nearly indiscernible, and yet the effect was profound, heightening the tension by playing to prolonged stillness bursting with woozy expectation. Watching much of the last season — especially the back half of it — was a compulsive exercise in breath holding, waiting for the bang that would deliver harsh justice. Rather than commit to a mad rush of incidents, The Americans doubled down on themes that ran through the whole series: the precariousness of family, the pliability of identity, the rickety nature of institutions, and the prevailing uncertainty of it all. Abetted by actors who excelled at nuance (Keri Russell, in particular, gave a long-form performance for the ages, and Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich each had quietly staggering moments in the finale), showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields built a series around spy trappings — disguises, deadly missions, complicated assignments — and tethered it to the most recognizable human conflicts.
The Americans was magnificent, all the way to its fitting, moving, tender end.