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'The Americans' series finale review: A great series comes to an end

The spies portrayed by Matthew Rhys, left, and

The spies portrayed by Matthew Rhys, left, and Keri Russell in FX's "The Americans" were often in disguise. Credit: FX/Eric Liebowitz

THE SERIES "The Americans"

WHEN | WHERE Series finale airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX

WHAT IT'S ABOUT  At the outset of this final series episode — titled "START," for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — the husband/wife team of Soviet "illegals" — or spies — Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) have rebuffed the demand of Claudia (Margo Martindale) that they kill a Soviet arms negotiator as part of a plot to depose Mikhail Gorbachev. Now what of children Henry (Keidrich Sellati) and Paige (Holly Taylor)? Meanwhile, FBI agent and best friend of Philip, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), has finally begun to suspect his neighbors.

Offering any further elaboration from the finale would drift deep into spoiler territory, so instead, my series appreciation follows.  

MY SAY In 1947, at the outset of the Cold War, John Steinbeck and World War II photojournalist Robert Capa traveled to Stalingrad, or what was left of it, to research a book. The world-famous novelist later recalled that just below the window where they stayed was a mound of garbage, and next to that a "gopher hole" from which a girl crawled each morning to eat "melon rinds, bones, potato peels."

"She was covered with years of dirt, so that she looked very brown. And when she raised her face, it was one of the most beautiful faces we have ever seen. Her eyes were crafty, like the eyes of a fox, but they were not human."

He wondered how many other children were out there in the rubble who had "snapped" or whose "minds could not tolerate living in the 20th century any more."  But this particular face "is one to dream about for a long time."

Decades later, on "The Americans," this girl or others like her had grown up to become KGB officer Tatiana Vyazemtseva (Vera Cherny), former KGB officer Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru), KGB minder "Claudia," and especially one Nadezhda. We knew her as Elizabeth Jennings, born in the rubble of Smolensk.

Before "The Americans," there had never been Russians on TV with real lives and tragic pasts. Reduced to caricature, Russians always had the thick accents. Americans were the good guys, Soviets the bad. "The Americans" scrambled that old formula, and forced viewers to reverse their point of view. It forced them to read subtitles too because whole scenes were spoken in Russian.  

We had to look through the eyes of Elizabeth and Philip, and reconcile all those murders with that placid suburban family life. It was a jarring reversal, but worked for six seasons because "The Americans" never lost sight of the Russians' humanity nor inhumanity. For that matter, it never lost sight of ours. 

A certain fatalistic gloom cloaked the show and characters, male and female, including Oleg (Costa Ronin), Arkady Zotov (Lev Gorn) and Gabriel (Frank Langella). "First there are no choices and now there are no good choices," Claudia once said. "I'd say we're making progress."

Russia's centuries-old struggle to embrace or reject the West was also implicit in "The Americans," this last season in particular. The West was "decadent," but the East of the KGB, the gulag and pogroms? What about that? 

"The Americans" didn't sugarcoat this. "The Americans" was about how identity could cloak one's humanity — the depraved parts as well as the virtuous. Who specifically was Elizabeth? Mother, wife, Soviet patriot, also chameleon and assassin? We had to reconcile all that too.

In recent episodes, she spied on a nuclear arms negotiator by playing a nurse who cared for his dying wife, an artist named Erica. Each of her portraits were faces of women frozen in agony or horror, except one, which stared reproachfully at Elizabeth, as if to say: I can see right into your blighted soul.

Elizabeth took that one as a gift after Erica's death. She burned it in her basement.

Little wonder the ratings of this classic were so low. Steinbeck and Capa, however, would have admired it.

BOTTOM LINE A great one comes to an end.

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