Title: Persona Non Grata
Episode M.V.P.: Everyone
This might seem like a copout, but “Persona Non Grata” was a total team effort. Each actor was given their time to shine, and each performance worked with and added to the others. Masterpieces generally aren’t painted using only one color, and symphonies don’t work with only one instrument. In the same way, this powerful finale was the sum of all of its talented parts.
What impressed me the most about this episode was the way it balanced its stories so well, giving every character we’ve come to care about an important story to tell. This allowed every actor in this brilliant ensemble a chance to do something special, and they ran with it.
Of course, there were the big moments: Dylan Baker’s heartbreaking work as William died a horrible death—made even more horrible by the fact that he was alone; Matthew Rhys’s stunning monologue about feeling sick every day before going to work; Costa Ronin’s poignant farewell scenes; and Holly Taylor’s masterfully ambiguous performance as Paige and Matthew grew closer.
But I also found myself entranced by the smaller beats in this episode, the silent moments that reminded me of the trust this show places in its actors to convey so much without words. I was spellbound watching Noah Emmerich’s face as Stan took in William’s words about loneliness, the sad understanding creeping across his features. I found myself close to tears as Taylor’s face changed from joy to longing to hopeless sorrow as she held Pastor Tim and Alice’s baby and was suddenly confronted with the reality of her own journey from childhood to the awful grownup world she’s found herself in—a world that could jeopardize the future of this little girl. I was devastated by the exhaustion and hopelessness in Lev Gordon’s posture as Arkady processed the fact that he was being sent back to Russia. I even found myself getting emotional over Tatiana, as Vera Cherny sold her sincere sadness over Oleg’s departure in a way I wasn’t expecting.
And that’s not even including the incredibly charged silences between Rhys and Keri Russell throughout the episode. Russell didn’t speak much in “Persona Non Grata,” especially compared to some of the other episodes this season, but she still delivered a knockout performance. The entire sequence of moments between Philip and Elizabeth after Gabriel suggested they return to Russia was a master class in using silence to your advantage as an actor. You could almost see the wheels turning in Elizabeth’s head as she processed what it might mean to return “home” after building a real home in America with her family. The war between officer and mother was raging inside Elizabeth, and the only evidence we saw of it was in Russell’s intense eyes. Watching her and Rhys in those scenes made me feel afraid to blink because I might miss something, and that’s when this show is at its very best.
Favorite Scene: William’s two-part deathbed monologue
“The absence of closeness makes you dry inside.” In just one line, Baker’s dying William gets to the heart of The Americans—and the heart of the human experience in general. We need relationships; we need to feel close to someone in order to feel alive. And even if we think we’re better off dry—it will make us better at our jobs, it will keep us from getting hurt, it will make our lives less messy—we’re not meant to live that kind of existence. We’re meant to be filled with love and life, not empty and dry.
One of the first details we learned about William was that he’s literally dry—his skin has stopped producing natural lubricants. Even his sense of humor is dry. But we quickly discovered that there is a part of William that hates the life that has caused him to dry up inside and out. In “Chloramphenicol,” he told Philip he was lucky to have someone to come home to, and in “Persona Non Grata,” we see how the lack of that kind of connection destroyed William.
In a literal sense, these scenes with William were horrifying because we were watching a man’s body fall apart from the inside out. On a symbolic level, this very specific kind of death represented what was happening to so many characters this season—William included—as they fell apart from the inside out in service to (or at the altar of) something bigger than themselves. And what made William’s death so tragic was that he had to continue to live with “the absence of closeness” even in his final moments. Once again, his job called for him to forcibly separate himself from others, this time stuck in a quarantined, sterile room. He died alone for a cause he didn’t even believe in anymore, and that’s the worst possible situation for these characters—dying without a connection to a person or a cause.
As William’s blood began trickling out of his body, information began trickling out, too. I found myself nervously fidgeting as he started talking about how he wished he could have been like “them,” with their “couple of kids.” While I know that—and the “pretty” comment—aren’t enough for the FBI to go on right now, it certainly was enough to make my heart race as the mumbled words kept flowing from his mouth like his blood.
One of the most wonderful things about The Americans is that it acknowledges that human beings can feel more than one thing at a time, and that includes the audience. William’s last words made me incredibly anxious, but they also made me incredibly happy for and proud of Philip and Elizabeth. William said they were living the “American Dream,” but what this show has taught us is that such a dream has no nationality; it’s a desire we share as humans to find what Elizabeth and Philip have found with each other—partnership, intimacy, and closeness. They worked through the fights and the conflict that seemed to tear William and his wife apart, and they grew stronger through it. Like William and his wife, they started their marriage as an assignment, but they managed to turn it into something real and beautiful. It’s no wonder William holds them up as something he both envies and admires.
This isn’t the first time William called Philip lucky. And after watching this scene—even knowing everything Philip’s been through this season—it’s easy to see that he is. Because Philip isn’t invisible to everyone; Elizabeth sees him, and his kids see him. And even though Philip might also be feeling like he’s falling apart from the inside out for a cause he doesn’t believe in, he’s not going to fall apart alone. On this show, that’s a better fate than most meet.
In a just world, these scenes would earn Baker at least an Emmy nomination—if not the award itself. His performance was devastating in its vulnerability. William’s life of loneliness was far more terrifying than the disease that actually killed him. The invisibility he once saw as his power became his curse.
All we want as people is to be seen by someone—truly seen. Being seen can get a spy killed, but a life lived in total invisibility might be a fate worse than death. And that delicious dichotomy between what’s good for a spy and good for a human heart is what makes this show so ceaselessly compelling.
• For as much as I love the unconventional pacing and painfully quiet tone of this show, there is a part of me that still wanted something more from this finale than what we ultimately got. As time goes by, I’ve become more and more satisfied with the ending, but in the immediate aftermath, I genuinely thought there was no way the episode could end where it did. That final scene seemed like a strange one to end the entire season on, but I did love the shot of the house at the end. It was a powerful way to symbolize that “home” is no longer a place most of these characters want to return to. And specifically for Paige, her home is no longer a safe space. I thought that last shot was a wonderfully foreboding way to end the darkest season yet of this very dark show.
• If I had one other complaint about this generally wonderful episode, it would be the insertion of the Mischa story. I just didn’t care as much as I know I was supposed to. (I actually would have liked the revelation that he was real and heading off to find Philip to have been the ending to the season, but I know that was too cliché for this show.) I liked the parallel of both him and his father being dissatisfied with the Soviet government and the cost of its actions, but I didn’t feel the immediate emotional connection to Mischa that I wanted to feel. But maybe I’m just being too protective of the Jennings clan and can only see how Mischa finding Philip would cause trouble for them. However, I am completely expecting to be won over by the time the Season Five premiere is over; that’s how much faith I have in this show.
• I am not ready to say goodbye to both Arkady and Oleg, but if this was the end for them in their roles in the Rezidentura, it was a lovely way for them to go out. I teared up both times Oleg was called “a good son,” but it was the way Arkady said it with such pride that really got to me. And if Oleg really does return to Russia, can he end up meeting and falling in love with Martha? A girl can dream!
• Philip’s EST speech would clinch Rhys’s Emmy nomination in the same just world where Baker’s last scenes clinched his. Once again, this show proved that it excels at connecting both the specific and universal. While Philip’s speech was clearly much more specific than he was letting on, it was also a really great examination of a universal truth: We pick a career path when we’re basically a kid and then follow that path for our whole life. What happens when you change as you grow?
• At the end of that speech, I was struck by the question posed to Philip about his family still loving him even if he didn’t want to be a “travel agent” anymore. That’s essentially been the core conflict of his character since the pilot. And this season, Elizabeth has made it clear more than once that she knows he’s not happy being a spy, but unlike in previous seasons, that hasn’t made her pull away from him. Instead, they grew closer this season, and even though they ended it in two physically different spaces, they’re finally on the same page.
• I love what this show has done with the relationship between Paige and Elizabeth in these last few weeks. The scene between the two of them on Paige’s bed was a sincerely beautiful moment. Seeing Elizabeth soften at the idea of teaching her daughter how to kill someone shouldn’t have made me emotional, but it did. I also loved the layers present in the scene in which they talked about visiting Tim and Alice’s new baby. They were both a mother and a daughter talking about a pastor and a spy and her protégé talking about an asset. And when Paige offered to cook for Elizabeth, I almost broke down. Paige is taking on more responsibility than she needs to in order to help her parents; she’s growing up too fast in order to do what she thinks her family needs. And that moment was a lovely symbol of her inner conflict and mental state, which Taylor played perfectly.
• I was so uncomfortable watching Matthew’s hand slide up Paige’s shirt, and it was all because I can’t help but feel that at least some of Paige’s actions with him are motivated by a desire to keep him close for her family’s sake. On one level, it’s nice for her to be able to talk to another kid who grew up with an absentee parent. But it’s also clear that at least some part of her is using that connection (and her body) for a more strategic purpose. And that’s something that I—and certainly her parents—don’t want for Paige at all.
• Philip forbidding Paige from seeing Matthew was another great example of this show taking a common part of family life (a father disapproving of his daughter’s boyfriend) and raising the stakes exponentially by tying it into the world of espionage.
• Best line of the night (and probably the whole season): Aderholt asking William, “Would you like a Coke?” after William called himself a dead man.
• That concludes this season’s posts about The Americans! It’s been a true pleasure to discuss such a brilliant season of a brilliant show with all of you every week. Thanks for coming along for the ride, Comrades, and I’ll see you next season!
Katie, thank you for your amazing Americans posts all season! I love reading these because I can tell how much you love writing them, and they bring out some of your best writing. And I am always down to gush about how great everything about this show is.
I love what you said at the end about us all wanting to be seen, and how for a spy that creates such a dangerous desire. Its where some of the show’s best tension comes from. I have really enjoyed the storyline of Philip attending the EST seminars, because its such a strong representation of this idea. The irony of the double meaning in everything Philip says combined with the tension that at any moment he might reveal too much have been some of my favorite scenes. Its also been a way for us to see inside his head that we wouldnt quite get any other way.
I am with you in feeling like this episode ended a bit awkwardly. It was such a strong episode, and even that end scene was great, but it just didnt quite feel like a natural place to end. But I have felt that in other episodes as well. If this show does have a flaw (and its VERY hard to find any) I think its their sometimes clunky episode endings.
I like how you bring up that on this show characters are allowed to have more than one motivation for something. I think Paige is a great example of that. I do think a part of her does have honest intentions with Matthew, but they are also mixed in with this desire to protect her family. Its not one or the other. And being a teenager is hard enough without the stress of your family being spies. I think Paige is drawn to the sense of control spending time with Matthew gives her. She is constantly left in the dark by her parents, but in her relationship with Matthew, she is getting information that helps her feel like she knows the level of threat around her. Is there even an option for Paige at this point to have a relationship that in some way wouldn’t be dishonest? These are things none of them even considered when Paige first found out, but all of them are learning new consequences of that decision every day.
All in all another fantastic season. It was sad to see Martha go this year, but I am ok saying goodbye to characters when I feel like it was best for the story, and I am glad we dont have to watch Martha suffer anymore. I dont think I got a chance to comment on her farewell episode, but her wishing Clark well before she got on the plane even after all she had gone through and what she had to sacrifice proves that Martha is the best of them. Because even after everything, Clark did “see” Martha for who she was, and Martha knew that. All we can hope is she finds someone else to see her in her new life.
Now its time for the Emmy prayer circle. Everyone on this show deserves a dang Emmy. Lets throw in a best ensemble SAG award while we are at it.
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We just watched this finale last night. The moment when the episode ended snuck up on us, as it often does on this show. It was a quiet, odd ending, but I think it worked. And then we clicked onto the next season and discovered it isn’t available for free yet! Argh! So now I get to share in the torture that is waiting for new episodes of The Americans…
A few episodes ago Paige asked if they were ever going to tell Henry and I said to myself “not as long as Henry is all buddy-buddy with Stan and has no filters when he speaks.” And now Paige is getting close to Matthew and I can’t help but think that not only do her parents not want her to follow them into the “family business” (using sex to get information) but maybe they’re also worried about what secrets she might spill if she gets too close to him. They know better than anyone how much power there is in intimacy. I don’t think Paige has figured out exactly what the “family business” is yet, but it seems she’s a natural. eek. Hopefully she also just likes Matthew.
I didn’t like Oleg when he first appeared on the show, but he’s really grown on me, and I’m sad at the thought that he might leave. I quite liked him with Tatiana too, and I was moved by the way she broke and then quickly recovered herself when she learned that he would be leaving.
Well, anyway, it’s been really awesome watching, and now I’m sad that we have to stop. I thought we had 13 more episodes to enjoy this summer, but I don’t quite love the show enough to pay for the most recent season. We’ll have to start on something else instead… I’m thinking The Handmaid’s Tale, if my husband will go for that, and then Orphan Black, and then maybe Sense8.