Grading the Season Finales 2015: The Americans

I want to take a moment to thank all of you who’ve joined us here to talk about what’s been one of the best seasons of dramatic television I’ve watched in a long time. It was a true joy to write about The Americans every week, and so much of that joy came from sharing my enthusiasm for this show with other fans who love it as much as I do.

The Americans finale

Title March 8, 1983 (3.13)

Written By Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg

What Happens? When Elizabeth and Paige head to West Germany to meet Elizabeth’s dying mother, Philip stays behind and continues to deal with the fallout from what happened to Annelise (finally telling Yousaf, “I feel like shit all the time”) and Martha. After revealing his real face (and hair!) to Martha, he leaves her alone to deal with this new information, and he attempts to shutdown the FBI inquiry once and for all by planting the recorder in the apartment of Gene, the IT guy in charge of the mail robot. In order to cover up all of his loose ends, Philip kills Gene in a way that makes it look like he hung himself.

Clearly facing a crisis of conscience, Philip only struggles more after talking to Gabriel, who isn’t happy that he arranged Elizabeth and Paige’s trip without telling his superiors. Gabriel knows Philip is falling apart and commands him to “Grow up.” With seemingly nowhere to turn, Philip sits in on an est seminar about sexuality, where he runs into Sandra Beeman. She suggests that they start sharing their most honest thoughts with each other as a kind of exercise, which Philip says he’ll consider.

Honesty is also developing between Nina and Anton, as she reveals to him that she can’t keep trying to buy her freedom, which is what she was doing by getting close to him. Anton then tells her she can gain power over her captors by denying herself the things they offer her. Nina’s decision to try to find power in her situation will come in handy now that Stan discovered that—despite outing Zinaida as a Russian spy—he can’t secure her freedom. He can, however, work to turn Oleg, which becomes his latest assignment.

While all of this is happening in America, Paige finally meets her grandmother in West Germany. Instead of making her feel more at ease with the truth about her family, however, this meeting only causes Paige more distress, as she wonders how Elizabeth’s mother could send her away and if that could ever happen to her. Paige continues to be unnerved even after arriving home, telling her mother that she doesn’t know if she can keep lying to everyone. Elizabeth tries to comfort her by telling her everyone lies, and what’s important is they’re telling each other the truth now.

After Paige and Elizabeth come home to Philip, he begins to open up to Elizabeth about his confusion and moral conflict, but she cuts him off to focus on Ronal Regan’s “evil empire” speech, which begins playing on the television. As the president addresses a group of evangelicals about the Soviet Union, Paige makes a phone call to another religious leader, Pastor Tim. Through her tears, she tells him the truth: Her parents are Russians.

Game-Changing Moment When a sobbing Paige picked up that phone, I knew nothing was ever going to be the same for this show and these characters. However, Paige wasn’t the only character to change the game in that final scene. The way the final minutes were cut to go back and forth between Paige opening up to Pastor Tim and Philip trying to open up to Elizabeth was masterful. For much of this season, the focus has been on the connection between mother and daughter, but, in the end, it was the traits shared by father and daughter that might prove to be the most important of all. Both Philip and Paige have grown tired of doing what they’re told when those actions contradict what they feel is right; they both have moral compasses that have grown increasingly opposed to the things they’re being asked to do, and it’s tearing them apart from the inside out. While Elizabeth has her firm belief in the cause, her husband seems to have lost his, and their daughter never had that belief to begin with. And without that anchor, father and daughter begin to say things that could endanger them both. This was a moment of two people trying to assert their agency after being told to follow orders for the greater good, but, in the world they live in, asserting agency can have tragic consequences. This is especially true for Paige, who—by sharing her parents’ secret—has either doomed her parents or her pastor, or perhaps both.

Finale M.V.P. Every member of this talented ensemble was at their very best in “March 8, 1983,” but I have to single out Holly Taylor once again for the beautiful vulnerability she brought to her performance as Paige in this finale. Taylor gave such an honest performance that even if you still found yourself yelling “Don’t do it, Paige!” when she went to pick up the phone, you still understood exactly why she was doing it.

Paige is a good person; she has a strong moral center and deep convictions about doing what she feels is the right thing. And what’s been especially impressive about Taylor’s work this season (including in this finale) is the way she never crosses the line into heavy-handed or one-dimensional moralizing. Paige doesn’t lecture her parents about the life they lead, but there’s a definite part of her that knows she could never lead that same life. Taylor brings an innocence to Paige that never feels cloying or dishonest, and it made her confession to Elizabeth about not being able to lie feel so heartbreakingly real.

Throughout the scenes in West Germany, Taylor showed in her body language, her faltering voice, and her searching gaze that Paige was finding it more and more difficult to see herself carrying on with this lie for the rest of her life. The hesitation and uncertainty in Paige’s steps toward her grandmother fit so well with her later line about praying not for her grandmother but for Elizabeth’s mother. Paige felt more isolated and unsure of herself than ever, and Taylor brought that sense of loneliness and internal conflict to life with the kind of subtle power that has put her on the same level as the adults in this brilliant cast.

Because Taylor showed us Paige’s emotional journey throughout the episode, it made her decision at the end believable. Paige isn’t an adult; she asked for the truth, but it turned out she couldn’t handle it. And that doesn’t make her weak; it makes her human. It makes her a realistic teenage girl burdened with a secret that’s slowly draining her of her sense of self. Her sobs as she lay in her bed were almost too much for me to watch because they felt so real. And then the way she told Pastor Tim that she tried to pray but it didn’t help broke me. There was something so defeated, so lost, and so young in her voice in that moment that all I wanted to do was hug her.

I know it’s a long shot, but if I had my way, Taylor would be nominated for an Emmy along with Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell this year. Focusing an entire season on a teenage girl could have been a disaster if it wasn’t handled properly. Thankfully, in Taylor’s capable hands (and the hands of great writers), it led to the kind of brilliant season most TV shows can only hope to achieve.

Most Memorable Line “I feel like shit all the time.” (Philip)

What Didn’t Work This season of The Americans was a busy one, with storylines multiplying as the season progressed to show the strain Elizabeth and especially Philip were under. Therefore, it made sense that not all of those storylines would be able to have a place in this finale. For some, that might have given “March 8, 1983” sense of incompleteness. The one storyline I found myself missing enough to be distracted by its absence was the fallout from Philip removing the “Clark” disguise in front of Martha in the previous week’s episode. That kind of cliffhanger demanded a little more follow-up than we were given. To go nearly the entire episode without a mention of Martha after the shock of what Philip did last week was a strange writing choice. However, I understand the idea that the “de-wigging” was probably the most powerful way to end her arc this season, and I do have to admit that I’d rather watch an episode where Martha is barely mentioned but we know she’s alive than what I thought we were going to get (an episode where she was killed).

What Worked While I did find it a bit jarring to have Martha missing for this episode, her absence actually worked in the show’s favor in a way. One of the strongest aspects of this episode was the way it isolated Philip, adding to his emotional tailspin by keeping him away from anyone he’s forged a bond with: Elizabeth and Paige were in West Germany; Martha was processing what she learned about her marriage; and Henry was bonding with Stan. This show has done such a great job of highlighting the ways Philip’s ability to care for people is his last link to his humanity (and his most unpredictable quality as a spy), and by removing all the people he cares for, it was easy for us to see why Philip was so intensely questioning his own identity. And Rhys made all of that confusion, despair, and self-loathing evident with the kind of quiet power he’s become known for. The scene in Gene’s apartment was like a master class in conveying depth through silence and stillness, and it was one of the most unsettling scenes in a season filled with unnerving moments.

While Philip was isolated at home, Paige was isolated abroad, stuck in a sparse hotel room that seemed like a prison. I’ve already spoken a bit about the connection this episode made between father and daughter, but there was more to it than just their direct parallels at the episode’s conclusion. If we needed it spelled out for us, Gabriel took care of it, telling Philip to grow up and stop acting like a child. In a way, this is Philip’s rebellious adolescence, acting out defiantly against his father figure, Gabriel. But it’s so much more than that. Adolescence is the time when we grasp for ways to give our lives meaning; we saw that in Paige’s discovery of Christianity, and we see that with Philip in his decision to keep attending est seminars. Adolescence is the time when we ask questions about who we are and who we could be; when we challenge the status quo; and when we try to define ourselves on our own terms. I thought the way father and daughter were connected in this episode was both smart and moving. In that final scene, both of them were searching in the wrong place for people to understand them, and what was so sad about that was they were only a few feet and two closed doors away from someone who was sharing their struggle.

The surprising comparisons and connections between characters was one of the most interesting things about this intelligent hour of television. It wasn’t just Philip and Paige. It was Philip and Nina being tired of using and hurting others for what feels like nothing. It was Gaad and Gabriel both dealing with agents (Stan and Philip) who were going rogue because their emotions got the better of them. It was Philip and Sandra connecting over the search for honesty and understanding. And it was Philip and Elizabeth both being too consumed by their own emotions to see that their daughter was about to break. When Gabriel said Philip couldn’t see 10 feet in front of him, he might as well have been talking about Elizabeth, too. Elizabeth was so caught up in her own desire to have Paige love her for who she is that she couldn’t see the crushing impact of all of it on her daughter. For as rational as Elizabeth is about most aspects of her work, she let herself be blinded by the idealistic notion that Paige would be forever changed in a good way by what happened in West Germany.

I was so impressed by the layers and depth given to Elizabeth in this episode. There were moments when I felt so deeply for her that I cried and moments when I felt so frustrated with her that I wanted to scream. She impressed me, and she disappointed me. And that depiction of a complicated woman in all her messy glory should be celebrated. Russell was simply wonderful once again in this finale. “March 8, 1983” was an episode about our deeply human desire for connection, and that ability to connect has been something Elizabeth has struggled with as long as we’ve known her. Elizabeth connects with ideas and causes; it’s much harder for her to connect with another human being. But what I’ve loved about Russell’s work—especially this season—is she lets us see Elizabeth trying. She let us see Elizabeth reach out to her daughter as she holds her own mother’s hand with tears in her eyes. She let us see Elizabeth listening intently to Philip’s stumbling confession about his doubts. She let us see Elizabeth at her most vulnerable, a little girl who had to grow up too soon looking at the mother who let her go and still loving her after all these years.

But Russell also let us see Elizabeth fail to connect. She let us see Elizabeth sitting on the floor as Paige prayed, unable to share that moment with her because she doesn’t understand it. And she let us see Elizabeth turn away from Philip’s earnest bearing of his soul because duty called. That shot of Elizabeth, clear in the foreground, watching Reagan’s speech with single-minded focus as the rest of her family is falling apart was pure perfection, and it’s an image that’s still haunting me today.

Elizabeth’s struggle to connect with her loved ones reflected the main theme of this episode: our desire as human beings to be understood. It’s in our nature to form relationships. We want to know we’re not alone. We want to connect. And sometimes that desire to connect is a strength, and at other times, it’s our biggest weakness. This episode was as thematically cohesive as it gets while still avoiding a heavy-handed tone. It let each story play out naturally, and it was only when Philip and Sandra talked about being understood that the pieces of the thematic puzzle came together. And when it did, what a stunning picture it made.

The trip to West Germany was all about Elizabeth’s desire to connect with both her mother and her daughter. The shot of the three generations of women holding hands was so simple but so powerful that it made me cry. And for Elizabeth, it was a success. But for Paige, it was a failure. She couldn’t connect to the truth about who she really is and where she really comes from. She couldn’t connect to her mother or her grandmother (hence calling her Elizabeth’s mother), and, even more sadly she couldn’t connect to herself. That’s why she called Pastor Tim at the end of the episode. He’s always made her feel understood, and in a moment of desperation she reached out to another person to share her secret with so she wouldn’t feel so alone.

Stan and Oleg’s story was about forging a connection based on a shared understanding of what it meant to lose Nina. But now Stan is going to use that connection for his own gain. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Nina was meant to use her connection to Anton for personal gain, but she couldn’t do it anymore. They understood each other, and that made her change her mind and defy her orders. Even Philip telling Yousaf that he feels like shit was a way of showing the other man he understood his guilt; it was a way of reaching out to another person about something deeply personal. And Henry playing his game with Stan at the end of the episode showed his desire for a connection he doesn’t have with his own father and Stan’s desire for the connection he doesn’t have with his own son. While Elizabeth was staring at the TV and Philip was lost in thought, both of their children were seeking connections with someone else.

And when Sandra and Philip connected, it was a lovely moment between a woman who felt like she’s never been understood by anyone and a man who’s still not sure he understands himself. One of the most touching parts of that scene was the certainty in Philip’s voice when he said Elizabeth really understood him. However, that just made my heart break more when Elizabeth seemed unable to understand his internal conflict. They love each other, but there are some things they will never understand about each other. And that’s true of any relationship. This episode—like all episode of The Americans—took big themes about relationships and used them as the catalyst for spectacular drama. And that’s a proven recipe for success.

Finale Grade A–. Other than the absence of Martha, I genuinely loved everything about this finale. It was thrilling on both a plot level and an emotional one. It connected characters in new and exciting ways, and it made me gasp and cry—sometimes in the same moment. It was a great end to a fantastic season, and the only thing that I’m angry about today is the long wait until Season Four.

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9 thoughts on “Grading the Season Finales 2015: The Americans

    • Paige is a 15 year old girl that has had her world turned upside down, and in a moment of extreme pain she reached out to the one person she trusts. Maybe the action itself can be catorigized as “stupid” but I think it’s 100% understandable. Even Elizabeth and Philip have made unwise decisions during moments of extreme stress, and they have had years of training. Grief and mistakes are part of what makes these characters in extremely unique situations relatable to the audience. I can’t wait to see where this plot goes in the next season.

    • Like Shauna said, I can see how you could categorize Paige’s action as “stupid” because of its far-reaching consequences that she, as a realistic teenage girl who is under more stress than most people will ever experience, didn’t think about beforehand. But I don’t think it makes her stupid. I think it makes her human. And this is a show about humans and the way their messy, complex selves function in a world as cold and impersonal as the world of espionage.

      Paige was told a truth that she ultimately couldn’t handle, and I can’t blame her for not being emotionally equipped to deal with discovering that her entire life has been a lie. In fact, I think she held onto that secret a heck of a lot longer than most people would have in her situation. And even when she told that secret, it didn’t feel to me like a choice of “the flag” over “blood.” If that was the case, she would have called Stan instead of Pastor Tim. Instead, it felt like she was choosing herself and her values over the parents she doesn’t even really seem to see as blood right now. Was it a selfish choice? Yes. But was it a choice I understand completely? Yes. And that’s all I really ask for when I watch a show; give me a reason to understand why characters do things, even when it breaks my heart to watch them do it.

  1. This finale was light on the action, but boy was it heavy on the emotion.

    While some of the plot points throughout the season fell a little flat for me (I still dont know why they spent so much time on the defector plotline) I have LOVED the season long focus on Paige. I love that throughout the season we got to see the progression of Elizabeth and Phillip having to deal with the thought of Paige knowing and perhaps becoming a part of their world, to them telling her the truth, and then all of them having to deal with the aftermath. Them telling Paige the truth could have easily been a season finale moment, but I am so glad they chose to use it as the season’s climax instead. We were allowed to see the fallout and it has brought us to a cliffhanger that has an even greater sense of danger to it.

    It was hard not to have Martha in the finale, but you are right about her absence adding to Phillip’s isolation in this episode. Its nice to know that she is still alive, and not only that, Phillip is still doing everything in his power to protect her. Even things he hates himself for. I loved that moment in the beginning of the ep where he just stops trying to justify his actions and tells the truth – he feels like shit.

    I was legit crying during the scene between Elizabeth and her mother in the hotel room. For me the moment I found the most powerful was her mother turning to Paige and saying her name. It was a lovely reminder that even though this is the first time Elizabeth has seen her mother since she left for America, they have still remained close. I could even feel the affection that Elizabeth’s mother had towards Paige simply because she knows what Paige means to Elizabeth. But while Elizabeth’s mother knows all about Paige, Paige knows practically nothing about her grandmother. This is not affection that goes in a circle. I love how Elizabeth’s two lives were drastically split in half in that scene. I also loved the scene following with Paige in the bathroom praying. Once again, Elizabeth cant connect to her daughter the way she wants to. All she can do is share the space with her.

    I think the build up to Paige telling her Pastor her family’s secret was perfectly done. When she first found out, she was angry and in denial, and even then she was able to hold it together. She gave herself time to process and think. She asked a bunch of questions. She even went to Germany with her mom to meet a part of her Russian family. There was nothing about what Paige did here that seemed rash. It was a slow decline to a place where she finally broke. As you pointed out, Elizabeth told Phillip that she thought the trip was “good” for Paige, yet it was so clear to us as viewers that was so far from the case. What Paige saw was her mother being paranoid the entire trip, worried they were being watched and followed. What Paige saw was Elizabeth’s mother, who sacrificed her own daughter for the “cause”. Paige came home thinking that her future is a life of lies and constant fear. Fear of not only someone from the outside hurting your family, but fear that your own parents would choose their country over you. Paige is terrified. And alone. She turned to the only person she truly trusts. When Martha was breaking, she called her parents. Paige doesnt have that option. I am not angry with her, my heart is broken for her. As much as I want peace and happiness for Elizabeth and Phillip, the truth is, they chose this life. They have to face whatever consequences come from it. But Paige and Henry didnt. You dont get to choose your family. And the longer Paige accepts her parent’s truth the more she gets dragged in with them, and its the last thing I want to see for her. A part of me does want Paige to leave. To go live with her Pastor and his wife and remove herself from the situation, because nobody deserves the pain she is feeling right now.

    And finally we have Phillip. I LOVE that Phillip went to an EST sex seminar. It fits so perfectly in with the sex/intimacy theme they have been touching on all season, and one I expect to be explored more next season as well. Who would have thought one of my favorite lines from the season would come from Sandra: “the sex part’s not really about the sex…It’s about everything”. After so many years of having to “make it real” with marks in all for mother Russia, its no wonder Phillip doesn’t recognize himself anymore. “Sex-expression is self-expression”.

    I also like the parallel this episode made to the pilot. When we first meet Phillip he is about to break, but he doesnt, because his love and devotion to Elizabeth and his kids pulls him back. That devotion to his family has gotten him through these 3 seasons, but now he has reached his true breaking point. Even his family isnt enough to justify his actions anymore. Its almost like we are back at the beginning, with Phillip ready to break, and Elizabeth firmly devoted. Only this time things are much more desperate. There is nowhere else for Phillip to turn for comfort.

    I keep asking myself how long a show like this can go on without someone getting caught, but they have done a great job making the progress feel realistic. This doesnt seem like the kind of show that can go on forever, or the kind of show where everyone gets to live happily ever after, but I hope they find a way to keep the story interesting and engaging in the seasons to come, because what we have gotten so far is phenomenal.

    • There were actual moments while reading this that made me cry, Shauna. Your empathy for these characters is so strong, and it makes me feel less alone in being so attached to all of them.

      I loved your comparison between this episode and the pilot in terms of Philip’s state of mind. In the pilot, he still had his kids—even if he wasn’t sure he had Elizabeth. But now Henry is at Stan’s and Paige is in another room telling Pastor Tim their secret. That connection to his children is as weak as its ever been, and it’s because of what he does. However, I did think it was interesting that Elizabeth was clearly trying so hard to understand him before she turned away. In the pilot, talk of falling apart led to Elizabeth going to their superiors about questioning his loyalty. Maybe it’s just the optimist in me, but I don’t think she’d do the same now. But the distance is there and the disconnect still exists; Philip is loyal to the people he loves above anything else, while Elizabeth is loyal to her cause. They might love each other for real now, but sometimes love isn’t enough.

      The same can be said of Elizabeth and Paige. That scene between the three generations of women in the hotel room had me crying, too. And, like you, it was Elizabeth’s mother using Paige’s name that really got to me. It showed her trying to connect with her granddaughter, even if Paige couldn’t connect to her. And that shot of Elizabeth and Paige in the bathroom was so haunting. You could see Elizabeth trying to understand her daughter’s fervent praying, but she just can’t understand believing in anything other than her cause that strongly. So all they could do was share a room, looking in different directions—physically in the same place, but emotionally worlds apart.

      Your paragraph about Paige made me an emotional wreck, so I can only say well-said, friend. Like you, I feel so deeply for Paige because she didn’t choose this life. She didn’t sign up for this. All she wanted was to know she wasn’t crazy for thinking something was wrong with her family, and what she thought was a question she needed to ask turned out to essentially destroy her life and her sense of self. The idea that Paige can’t do what Martha did—she can’t call her parents to ask for help when she’s falling apart because her parents are the ones who caused her to fall apart—just broke my heart. I’m not sure any character needs a hug more than Paige Jennings.

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  3. What an incredible episode! That final shot with the focus on Elizabeth growing larger while a blurry Philip shrank in the background was so striking and will stay with me over the very long hiatus.

    I want to hug Elizabeth as much as I am frustrated with her. She sees so much of her own passion in Paige but what she fails to see is that Paige isn’t her. They grew up very differently and value very different things. The scene in the bathroom summed up their divide so beautifully. Paige’s faith and devotion to God are very different than Elizabeth’s to Mother Russia but I think Elizabeth is afraid to see that. She only sees the positive parallels and doesn’t see how much this is all hurting her daughter. When Paige asked if Elizabeth could ever let her go for the good of her country, she wasn’t looking for reassurance that she would never be asked to leave. She needed to know that her mother’s love for her ran deeper than any cause. She needs something real in her relationship with her parents to fall back on and she doesn’t feel like there is one right now. So she called the person that she does believe cares about her – independent of any cause. It is a decision that could have horrible ripple effects on next season but all I could see was the scared, very alone 16-year-old girl crying on her bed and all I want is for her to feel safe and secure again.

    My heart is also breaking for Philip. He’s given so many little pieces of himself away as he’s pretended to be different people that he’s lost who he is at his core. He cares about his family and their well-being and I think he genuinely cares for Martha and Kimberly, but those connections only serve to put him in danger and make his life harder. The actions he’s been forced to undertake this season and in previous ones have slowly eaten away at him and how he’s at a breaking point. Watching Elizabeth walk away from his heartfelt confession to watch Reagan’s speech hurt. He needs her now more than ever and needs to know that she understands him and WANTS to know the real him, doubts and all. It makes me more curious about the possibility of him opening up to Sandra, not about his real job, but maybe about how trapped he feels.

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