This Week’s Discussion Topic: The Value of Staying True to Yourself
“I just want you to be yourself, okay? Because you’re great.”
Beyond being one of the most heartbreaking lines of the entire series, this final piece of advice from Philip Jennings to his son Henry was also one of the most meaningful on a meta level. So many shows live by the “Go big or go home” motto in their series finales, and I’ll admit that all of my predictions for The Americans were in that same vein: melodramatic moments, big twists, major character deaths, shootouts, car chases, etc. But I should have known that this show would continue to whisper where other shows would scream (in a very literal way in some of the finale’s most important scenes). It’s always had its own voice, and it stayed true to that voice when it would have been easy to try to be a different show in such a big moment. The writers, actors, director, and everyone else involved seemed to take Philip’s words to Henry to heart—the show stayed true to itself until the final credits rolled, and in doing so, proved how great it really is.
The temptation seemed strong for the show to lean into its espionage elements in its final 90 minutes. Philip and Elizabeth were on the run, Stan was putting the pieces together, the FBI was interrogating suspects who knew too much, and the fate of Russia (and, in many ways, the rest of the world) rested on a message Oleg was trying to get back home. However, The Americans was never a spy show at its heart; it was a story about marriage and other interpersonal relationships. And in the end, it was that identity that mattered most. When the stakes were at their highest, the show seemed to walk itself back from the brink of becoming a different drama altogether—ending not with bloodshed and body counts but with broken relationships, and proving that the latter might be even more devastating than the former. After all, there are some fates worse than death.
On The Americans, the most heartbreaking sound isn’t a gunshot or a dying breath; it’s the strangled, pained gasp of a mother who knows she has to leave her son behind not because she doesn’t care about him—but because she cares about him more than she cares about herself. (Keri Russell could just submit that gasp, and it should be enough for her to win the Emmy.)
On The Americans, the most romantic gesture isn’t sacrificing your life for someone else and dying in their arms; it’s sitting next to a person when you know they need you—even if you can’t touch them or even look at them.
And on The Americans, the most shocking sight isn’t a dead body, a spy revealing their identity, or a person being put in handcuffs; it’s a young woman, standing alone on a train platform.
The Americans never lost sight of what made it special. In the end, it trusted its actors and it trusted its audience; it put its faith in people. And as this finale showed, that’s all that really matters when all is said and done.
“START” began with a decision I never saw coming—and a perfect example of a way to make a moment brutally sad without bloodshed. Beginning the episode with the debate over whether or not to bring Henry to Russia set the tone perfectly. It reminded the audience that this show has always cared more about the emotional and interpersonal repercussions of spy work than the spy work itself. So instead of beginning with Philip and Elizabeth in a hurry to get out of town, the show allows its characters to talk—and to come to a devastating conclusion. Watching Russell and Matthew Rhys in this scene was like watching two masters at the top of their craft. The inversion of Philip and Elizabeth’s typical dynamic—with him now being more rational and her being more openly emotional—was perhaps the most shocking thing of all. Philip knows he’ll only be able to convince Elizabeth that this is the best plan for Henry is he stays strong, and Rhys’s brilliantly restrained work in this scene showed how much physical effort it takes Philip to keep from crumbling in the face of his wife’s desperation to keep their family together.
And then there’s Elizabeth in this scene. Russell’s biggest moments of this last season came in the previous two episodes, but she’s still at the very top of her game in this finale. Elizabeth starts the scene unable to comprehend the idea of Henry staying behind, but in the end, she makes the hardest decision of her life, and it all plays out in her eyes. Her expression changes from disbelief to devastation, and the weight of their choice knocks the wind out of her, her breath coming out in a ragged gasp that might be one of the most gut-wrenching sounds I’ve ever heard in my life. And without saying anything else, she and Philip are on the same page. But that doesn’t mean it’s a page either of them wants to be on, and no words need to be exchanged to tell us that. In typical “show, don’t tell” fashion, Philip simply watches Elizabeth as she tries to gather herself—his face a mixture of anguish and love. And although Elizabeth does gather herself—with one final sob that she won’t even let her husband see (That shot of her covering her face as it’s contorted in pain will haunt me for a long time.)—we know as the opening credits roll that they’ll never be the same.
By beginning the episode with this discussion about Henry’s fate, the writers made sure we remembered that this is a show where the personal stakes matter much more than the political ones. And they never wavered from that ethos as the finale continued, even in the case of the moment the entire show had been building toward for six seasons.
The “garage scene” already feels like it has a place in TV history. As soon as it ended, I knew I had just watched something special that people will be talking about for a long time. For the show to stick the landing on a moment six years in the making is no small feat, but what’s even more impressive is that did so in a way that stayed true to what makes this show different from other dark, antihero driven prestige dramas.
The tone, the pacing, the editing, and the acting—everything about this scene worked. From the moment Stan first yelled, “Hey!,” my whole body tensed up in anticipation. It was excruciating to watch Stan treat his second family as suspects, especially as he zeroed in on the weakest link—Paige—and pushed on her. And to see all the betrayal, rage, and humiliation come roaring out him as he pulled the gun on Philip, only for it to be pushed back down as he tries to control the situation (and himself) is a testament to Noah Emmerich’s underrated range. From that moment on, with the Jenningses held at gunpoint but still outnumbering him, I found myself intensely paying attention to not just whoever was speaking but also to every other person’s reactions. Would Stan lose his cool and shoot one of them? Would Paige’s guilt lead her to do something dumb? Would Elizabeth’s tightly coiled body snap into action against Stan? (Russell’s posture in this scene tells a story all on its own.) This is the kind of scene that can be watched multiple times with a focus on a different actor without ever losing its power. For example, watching Elizabeth and Paige’s eyes as Stan and Philip talk reveals so much. Paige’s eyes hardly ever leave Stan, while Elizabeth’s are focused on her husband. Knowing what we know now about the episode’s conclusion, it makes so much sense—mother and daughter looking in different directions, with Elizabeth taking Philip’s lead in a way we don’t normally see her do, trusting him completely, and Paige never truly being on the same wavelength as her parents.
As Philip began to talk, I loved the irony that this was their last great hope. Philip’s love for talking and his ability to talk about his feelings—traits Elizabeth had always ridiculed—saves them. Philip was always a better manipulator than Elizabeth—she uses her body, while he uses his words. And when everything is on the line, he delivers the performance of his life. (The same could be said for Rhys, who hopefully earned himself a long-overdue string of awards for that scene.) There was something incredibly captivating about Philip’s ability to string together outright lies (“We would never kill people!”), half-truths (“I’m just a travel agent.”), and complete honesty (“You were my only friend in my whole shitty life.”) when it mattered most. It was a textbook example of emotional manipulation, but there was something deeper happening there, too—a sincerity in between the self-preservation.
Emmerich was with Rhys every step of the way in this scene, and I was particularly struck by the volume and tone of his voice throughout. What begins as a shout lowers to barely a whisper, a perfect metaphor for how the series approaches big moments. And his quiet, devastated delivery of one word—“Henry?”—was so painfully perfect that I think it will make me cry every time I watch this scene.
Emmerich had a hard job in this scene. His character had to do something almost unbelievable—letting the Jenningses go—and yet he had to make us buy it. And he did that by showing the audience the depth of how much Stan cares about this family and how that can’t be turned off so easily. His heartbreak, his sense of betrayal, and his anger all came from a place of love—he’s not lying when he says that Philip is his best friend and that he would have done anything for their family. And in the end, that part of him wins out. His humanity wins out.
Once Philip made it clear that they were getting in the car—meaning Stan would have to shoot them to stop them—I knew they would all make it out of there alive. Human connections are the most important thing on this show, so while it may have seemed like a shock for the show’s biggest confrontation to end with everyone alive and the Jenningses escaping into the night, it actually made perfect sense given what this show has always preached about people mattering more than politics.
However, just because everyone makes it out alive, that doesn’t mean everyone is going to be fine. Philip’s parting words to Stan will almost certainly ruin what’s left of his life. By leaving Stan with the question of whether or not Renee is a spy, Philip thought he was giving Stan helpful information, but he was really just ensuring that Stan will never be able to trust another person again.
With that line from Philip, the question of Renee’s true identity was answered in the most perfect way imaginable: We’ll never know. By placing us in Stan’s shoes, forever left to wonder if she is a spy, the show subverted expectations once again in a masterful way. And that final shot of Renee, staring across the street with an indecipherable look on her face, was genius. It doesn’t matter if Renee is or isn’t a spy; what matters is what that question will do to their marriage and to Stan as a person who’s always had trouble turning off his suspicions.
By putting that climactic confrontation in the middle of the episode, the show once again doubled-down on its emphasis on emotional honesty over plot twists. Instead of spending the episode wondering if the Jenningses were going to escape, we spent most of the episode wondering how they were going to deal with escaping—and escaping without Henry—on an emotional level.
The fact that much of that emotional development was handled without words is another example of The Americans staying true to itself when it would have been easy to lean into melodrama. For example, the montage to “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits reveals so much about so many different characters without any dialogue. Oleg curled up in his cell, his father watching his family process the news of what happened to him, Stan staring off into space after his entire life has been destroyed—these images don’t need words to hit us like a truck. When you have actors who are masters of storytelling in silence, adding words would just cheapen the moment.
Perhaps the best example of that is Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige burying all evidence of their old lives. The moment Elizabeth’s fingers linger over Henry’s passport before dropping it into the hole just about broke me, but nothing wrecked me like the sight of Philip and Elizabeth taking off their wedding rings, only for Elizabeth to pull out the ones from the real wedding that was both the best and worst thing to ever happen to them. In one small gesture, Elizabeth holding the ring out to Philip and the two of them putting their rings on in perfect sync, so much was conveyed—forgiveness, trust, partnership, and love—that could never have been conveyed as honestly with dialogue. And the quick shot of Paige watching them recommit themselves to each other in this way—always on the outside looking in—lands perfectly on second viewing, after knowing what decision she’s about to make. Philip and Elizabeth have a part of themselves they can still hold on to in Russia; everything Paige is gets buried in the American woods.
Philip and Elizabeth have a connection they can’t share with anyone else—even their kids. That becomes clear in the moment outside the McDonald’s, when Philip wonders if he should stay behind to help Henry. The pain in Elizabeth’s entire being is palpable as she pictures a life without her husband and her son, and Russell is once again heartbreakingly good at letting just enough vulnerability out to show how much Elizabeth cares about her family—and how much she doesn’t want to be alone. (The little flinch she gives when Philip shuts the car door says more than any dialogue ever could.)
Ultimately, Philip never brings up the idea again. He says his final farewell to the American lifestyle he’d come to love with a longing look at a normal American family laughing in a McDonald’s—the ultimately symbol of the country he was supposed to undermine but had come to admire. It was another moment that perfectly wrapped up a part of these characters’ lives without needing any words, trusting the editing and Rhys’s performance to tell us everything we need to know about Philip’s state of mind.
The McDonald’s scene begins the montage that is right up there with the garage scene as the highlight of the finale. As U2’s “With or Without You” plays, we see flashes of characters in emotional turmoil—Philip who can’t live with or without America and Russia; Stan who can’t live with or without Renee—before we settle on Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige on a train bound for the Canadian border. (Watch this montage again and pay special attention to the fact that Paige is shown walking down the train’s aisle to the same part of the song that’s playing when we discover her on the platform. It’s one of those moments that gets better with each viewing.)
As the music cuts out and the border patrol agents begin checking passports, I was sure someone was going to get caught. It was such a stunning piece of misdirection, and I should have guessed that the emotional wallop wasn’t going to come from anything I could have predicted. After holding my breath for what felt like years, I joined Elizabeth in exhaling when the music started again—not even thinking about how we hadn’t seen Paige’s ID get checked.
And then, with Bono beginning to wail, an already brilliant finale became the best I’d ever seen on television.
What followed felt like a perfectly choreographed dance, as Elizabeth’s hands hit the glass as soon as the music really kicks in, and we see the reason for her panic: Paige is standing on the platform, not by force but by choice, taking back the agency that had been surrendered the moment she learned the truth about who her parents were. Paige chose herself, her home, and her brother. The only thought that kept playing through my mind—maybe because I was watching it with my younger sister next to me—was that she couldn’t leave Henry. On a show about the dangers of being alone, Paige is willing to risk everything because you don’t leave a comrade behind. For a young woman whose greatest fear is being alone, to stand on that train platform is the bravest act imaginable. Paige became her own person in that moment, and seeing her walk down that platform as Bono sang about giving yourself away filled me with incredible sadness but also incredible pride. In Season Three, Paige told her parents that they look out for each other more than they look out for her and Henry, so it made sense that when it all came down to trusting her parents with her future or trusting herself to make her own way in the world and to help Henry do the same, she chose herself. It was a powerful symbol of adulthood, and it was one of the most subtly badass things I’ve ever seen a character do.
Just because I was proud of Paige for asserting her agency doesn’t mean I wasn’t wrecked by what her choice did to her parents. It moved me like few things ever have on television before—and it was all because of Russell and Rhys. Unable to yell Paige’s name or even to cry, Elizabeth can only fall apart in silence, her mouth quivering with the force of her stifled sobs. And Philip’s shock immediately turns to action as he springs up from his seat to find his wife. The way his steps matched perfectly with the lyrics “And you give yourself away” was like a sucker punch; Philip is willing to risk giving himself away—revealing the connection between him and Elizabeth by sitting next to her—because she needs him and he needs her as their world falls apart. Paige risks everything to assert her independence in the hardest moment of her life, and Philip and Elizabeth risk everything to be together in the hardest moment of theirs. As the camera lingered on their faces, awash in a shock and grief they couldn’t show anyone but each other, sitting side by side but unable to touch, I was struck by how powerful the connection is between Philip and Elizabeth—and between Rhys and Russell. They don’t need to talk or even touch to create intimacy.
“With or Without You” ended with a final string of images designed to destroy us—including Stan sadly smiling at Henry’s final moments of innocence and then comforting him after giving him the news that would change his life—and another long stretch of silence began, punctuated only by Elizabeth’s statement in her dream that she never wanted kids. That dream gave us so much insight into Elizabeth’s evolution from a woman who never wanted children and didn’t love her husband to a woman whose family had become the most important thing in her life. (The way she looked at Philip on the plane after waking up was stunning.)
And then, as Tchaikovsky’s “None But the Lonely Heart” plays, Philip and Elizabeth return home to Russia and Paige returns home to Washington. The final shot of her downing vodka from Claudia’s safe house reminded us that in this world, asserting your true self has consequences. Paige may have done the brave thing—and probably the right thing—but what happens to her now? I can only hope that Henry forgives her for keeping their parents’ secret and that they can still have a relationship going forward.
And as for Philip and Elizabeth, they’re technically home, but it’s clear from the looks they share in the car after crossing the border that home doesn’t feel the same anymore. But in the back of Arkady’s car, they find a moment of comfort—a moment of homecoming—curled up against each other.
That question—What is home?—hangs over every beat of the episode’s closing scene. As Philip and Elizabeth walk, their steps are perfectly in sync (one of my favorite details in the whole episode), and their thoughts are, too. They’re both wondering what would have happened if they would have stayed in Russia and never taken their American assignment. Elizabeth imagines a life where she manages a factory, which earns a downright adorable eyebrow raise from Philip (because of course she’d manage the factory), and then turns to her husband. Before what seems like an admission that he would have gotten married, she stops herself, not wanting to talk anymore about a future that doesn’t involve them together. After a look of gentle tenderness from Philip, she goes on to indulge in a rare romantic moment for this character who often keeps her feelings close to the vest. She imagines them meeting on a bus, and the thought makes him smile for what seems like the first time all episode. Because there’s no version of their stories where they don’t end up together. They refuse to believe that. It’s one of the few hopeful beats in the finale—the character who was once so afraid to love her husband now unable to imagine a life without him.
Philip and Elizabeth need each other more than ever—they’re all they have now. As they spoke about their children not being children anymore, it occurred to me that this scene was doing what so many great The Americans moments have done before—taking a universal part of married life and making it achingly specific for this married couple. Philip and Elizabeth are empty-nesters now, parents who raised children who are grown and who couldn’t stay with them forever. That’s what this whole finale was about—parents and children. “START” was an episode about parents raising independent children who make their own choices and become their own people. Elizabeth and Philip leave Henry behind because he has his own life in America. Paige makes her own choice to declare her independence on that train platform. And even Oleg’s father must deal with the fallout of having a son who made a choice to put his country above his family.
“START” was also an episode about home. Paige and Henry are Americans; it’s the only home they’ve ever known. And Philip and Elizabeth have to adjust to life in a home that doesn’t feel like home anymore. “It feels strange,” Philip says, gazing out into the Moscow midnight. And Elizabeth replies in Russian with the words Philip once used to comfort her when she was struggling at the start of Season Two: “We’ll get used to it.”
It all comes back to we. In Season Five, Philip told Elizabeth, “It’s us, Elizabeth. It’s us.” And now more than ever that’s true for them. They went from young strangers who left their parents to live together in a new country to married partners who left their children to live together in a country that feels new after so many years away. But facing an uncertain future and living with a past filled with a loss no one else will ever understand, they still have each other.
That’s home for Philip and Elizabeth. It’s not Russia or America—it’s not a place at all. It’s a person. Home is the person they can lean on when the exhaustion overtakes them. It’s the person they can share their grief—and their good memories—with. It’s the person who shares their past, stands with them in the present, and faces the future by their side. They’re each other’s home.
The Americans never lost sight of the fact that it was a show about human beings. It was a show about marriage, family, and friendships—and that’s what mattered in the end. It stayed true to its deeply personal sense of tragedy and tentative hope and, in doing so, created one of the most unique and deeply moving series finales of all time.
How are we going to survive without this show?
We’ll get used to it.