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'The Americans' review: Series finale provides a perfect, tragic ending

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in the series

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in the series finale of "The Americans." Credit: FX / Jeffrey Neira

THE SERIES "The Americans"

WHEN|WHERE Series finale aired Wednesday on FX

Spoiler Alert: This review contains key details about the series finale of "The Americans."

And so — in a long, slow dirge set to Tchaikovsky's "None But the Lonely Heart," during a long, slow drive through the frozen Russian landscape — "The Americans" came to an end Wednesday night. One of the great series of TV's new golden age wrapped as no one expected or predicted: Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) returned to the homeland, under cover of darkness and in silence.

No hero's welcome awaited them. After seven or eight minutes of on-screen silence, other than the Tchaikovsky — "The Americans" did more with silence than any series in TV history — Philip tells his driver, Arkady Zotov (Lev Gorn), to pull over. Elizabeth and Philip get out of the car, and walk to a handrail. Behind them is the tower of Moscow State University. In front of them, the spread of Moscow itself.

In Russian, Elizabeth then delivers the last line of the series: "We'll get used to it."  

Used to what then becomes the hanging question — one without answers, but not without context. The year is late 1987. Within three years, the KGB would stage a coup, effectively ending Mikhail Gorbachev's historic period of "glasnost" and "perestroika." As "The Americans" explained, the KGB was a rogue state within a state, intent on deposing the Soviet leader as early as 1987.

Out there in Moscow's darkness was the dreaded Lubyanka Square, home of KGB headquarters where countless people had disappeared over the decades. In the morning, Philip and Elizabeth would almost certainly head there for their debrief. Where else would they go?

But what fate awaits them? We can surmise: As Arkady himself said earlier in the episode "they will come for me." "They" are the leaders of the coup, still firmly in charge of the KGB. Both Philip and Elizabeth had failed in their mission: Philip had tipped off Oleg (Costa Ronin) with the dead drop which told of the attempt to depose Gorbachev, and the dead drop had been intercepted. Elizabeth, meanwhile, defied Claudia (Margo Martindale),their KGB supervisor, by foiling the plot to kill the Soviet arms negotiator (that happened in last week's episode).

Recall Claudia's parting words last week when she learned of Elizabeth's treachery: "The damage you have done is indescribable, far worse than all the good you've done."

Yes, "they" will come for Elizabeth and Philip. too.

There's an almost primal urge on the part of viewers to want blood in their finales, in the sort of purging that constitutes closure and moral clarity. In TV's ultimate finale — "The Sopranos" —  David Chase defied that urge by forcing viewers to choose: You want Tony dead or alive? Take your pick. It was the Heisenberg principle of TV closures: Tony was both dead and alive.

In the finale of "The Americans," the same principle applied. No one died. There was no blood. Elizabeth and Philip were alive, but of course dead as well. Daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) had stranded them on the train platform. She was their last link to their American past but she remained behind to take care of her brother, Henry. Of course a lifetime behind bars awaits her.

Henry would ultimately hear the story of their lives from FBI agent/next-door neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). What would Henry think?

Henry, like Paige, would be stripped from their lives forever.   

"They'll remember us," says Philip. "They're not kids anymore. We raised them."

"Yes," says Elizabeth, who clearly believed otherwise.

 And so... the end. A great TV series about identity, human purpose, marriage, family, Russian history and the futility of ideology comes down to one word — "yes" — which really means "no." The fate of Philip and Elizabeth will be the fate of so many millions of others who disappeared into the Gulag or in the basement of Lubyanka headquarters. Their lives have come to nothing. No children. No ideology. No country.

It was a tragic ending. It was a perfect ending.

BOTTOM LINE A perfect finale, clarifying an entire series and — far more than immediately obvious — the fate of its two protagonists. 

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