Mar 20, 2020
The Americans: Casablanca and EST
“START”, the almost perfect finale of The Americans, offers its surviving characters a shot at redemption, and an ending to a seasonal arc in which Mischa and Nadezhda finally have a mission worthy of their talents.
We pick up with Philip waiting for Elizabeth in a garage. We know the FBI is currently looking into all the “paid cash in advance” garages, but our anti-heroes don’t. Screaming at the screen that they’d better hurry isn’t helping. Elizabeth arrives and Philip fills her in: Father Andrei will be speaking to the FBI, and will tell them everything, poor little not too bright lamb of god that he is. Elizabeth, who thinks she’s in charge, says the plan is to grab Paige and head to New Hampshire for the boy. Philip, however, has made the decision: Henry will be staying where he is. Elizabeth argues, and is sad, but she knows he’s right.
Stan is out with some random FBI agent who might be a red shirt in another kind of show, and pulls over to make a “quick call.” He’s trying Dupont Circle Travel because if Philip is at work then he’s probably not a spy. But Philip’s not there and neither is Elizabeth, and no one is home at the Jennings’s house.
Philip and Elizabeth steal a Ford Escort. Good choice, as probably no one will even report it missing. They head over to Paige’s.
Back in the USSR, Arkady meets Igor Burov and gives him the bad news about his son. And just to dash our hopes further, he tells him their won’t be any trade because Oleg didn’t send the message back, and the people in charge of the KGB aren’t going to trade for Oleg, and Gorbachev doesn’t have control. Also, they’re probably coming after Arkady and the Burov family too. In an episode that doesn’t spoon-feed us, it’s important to pay attention, even if it means reading the subtitles. This scene is giving us the stakes, which not only involve the fate of the world, but also a few people we know and love.
Moscow, by the way, is played here by Sakura Park in bucolic Morningside Heights in northern Manhattan, a neighborhood that’s also portrayed various parts of the metro DC area over these past few years. We’ll miss the show, but we’re happy to get our parking spaces back.
Dennis multitasks good cop/bad cop playing both roles, and gets an unexpected win when Andre tells him that not only has he seen the illegal in the blurry photo without his disguise, but he’s seen the wife. Ironic that Pastor Tim kept their secret, but the priest from the Old Country betrayed them.
Stan and a random partner are now staking out a garage. Stan tells the other guy he’s going to go check something out. No further explanation needed, because as we all know from Quantico, Without a Trace, and every other FBI show that these FBI types are an independent lot. Besides, all they’re doing is watching a garage where a desperate illegal or two on the run might drop in, so sure Stan, leave a guy there alone, why don’t you?
Stan watches Paige’s building. He sees Elizabeth and Philip go in and while they aren’t wigged out, they’re both wearing caps which scream spy or celebrity trying not to be noticed. Paige’s roommate is conveniently not home. Would they have killed her if she were? They tell Paige they’ve been blown and it’s back to Mother Russia they’ll go, except for Henry, who’ll be fine without them, so pack light. We all know that Paige is not cut out for this, but her general cluelessness here raises the betting odds that someone will die.
Down in the parking garage, they’re surprised by Stan. When he pulls his gun and tells them to lie on the ground because he’s just not having any more of their lies, Elizabeth tells him that’s not happening, and reminds them that “This is Paige.” Philip stops the bullshit, and says simply, “We had a job to do.”
Stan says, “You were my best friend.” And Philip says, “You were mine too.” And for a moment we’re in a cowboy movie where the heroes have been fighting over a woman or some other distraction, but no love is stronger than their love for each other. Is Philip being honest when he tells Stan his sad story of failure and regret, or is he playing on his sympathy and manipulating him? The answer to both these questions is yes.
But honesty has its limits. When Stan brings up Sofia and Gennadi, Philip says, “We don’t know those people,” and when Stan tells him who they were, Elizabeth insists with that same face and the same tone she uses to lie to Paige, “We don’t kill people.” It’s important that Paige hears that, because we know Paige has finally figured out Elizabeth’s tells, and is now hearing her mother admit that murder (and not just sex) means nothing to her.
Does Stan believe Elizabeth? Of course not, though he might be beginning to realize that it’s Elizabeth who’s been doing the bulk of the killing, especially as she supports Philip’s assertion that he’s been “just” a travel agent for years. But how do we get to the point where he can justify letting them go? Is he simply going to cave based on friendship and loyalty? Nobody could have written that scene (or acted it) believably. There’s got to be more.
In its six-year run, this show has brought us into a world where all relationships are transactional, with both parties getting something. Sometimes the mark knows implicitly or explicitly that he or she is being lied to, but often these are lies the mark desperately needs to believe. Martha found love. Sure, it was weird that Clark couldn’t just move in with her, but she “believed” him until she couldn’t. Oleg’s mom probably never told Oleg’s dad the truth about how she survived in prison camp because the truth might have killed him.
Stan needs to hear Elizabeth deny that murder, but Philip needs to change the subject before Stan asks about other specific dead people, like, say, Chris Amador. Philip talks more about his shitty life, and how just like Stan’s quitting counter-intelligence, Philip got out and became an ordinary failing travel agent. By comparing his struggle to Stan’s, by forcing Stan to see them as the same—a couple of guys serving their imperfect countries—he’s both telling a truth and doing what he was trained to do behind the glass door. He’s “making it real” for Stan.
Somewhere in this atmosphere of confession, Paige blurts out that she knew about her parents since she was sixteen, but she doesn’t admit working with them. Stan asks if her romance with Matthew was part of that. She assures him it wasn’t. And everyone assures him that Henry knows nothing, which planned or not is more credible because of Paige’s confession. Philip tears up when he tells Stan that Henry won’t be coming with them.
But what comes next is the real key to the scene, and possibly the series. Philip starts talking about the uncertainty they face because of their own people, “fucking Russians”, and talks about the same plot against Gorbachev which Stan heard about earlier from Oleg, the one Russian he trusts. Philip even looks toward Elizabeth, and gives her the credit for figuring it out. Elizabeth interrupts to add the detail of the doctored reports.
Stan asks if they know Oleg, which of course is easy for them to deny since neither knows his name, but when they realize the message didn’t get through, Elizabeth and Philip both echo Oleg’s warning: The message has to get back home.
Stan tells them what he told Oleg: He doesn’t care who the leader of the Soviet Union is. But Philip’s answer is simple. It’s good against evil and “the fate of the world.” Philip is going to get in the car and drive away, or he’s going to die trying. Stan can either choose to stop him or to let him go.
Even those in the audience who want to see Philip and Elizabeth punished have a reason to hope they make it. Elizabeth, practiced liar and ruthless killer, is getting the chance to be the hero we’ve always known she was capable of being. Philip, failed travel agent, and burnt-out spy, through his relationship with Stan, and his ability to leverage that relationship, is going to make her success possible.
They go toward the car. Stan is still standing there almost in shock when they tell him to take care of Henry. By entrusting him with their son, whom Stan loves, they’ve given him another reason not to shoot them. Philip tells him he wishes Stan had stayed with him in EST because then he’d know what to do. One can almost imagine Elizabeth rolling her eyes, but in fact EST saved Philip. It was never there just there as a 1980s reference or a joke. Philip got “it”, the point of the program, which is simply the idea that we are responsible for our choices, and that we don’t need to continue past patterns and mistakes. Philip is telling Stan in a gentler way what he told Elizabeth: “Stop acting like a machine. Be human.” We know that Stan carries regret and guilt about his failed marriage, the time he lost with his son, and most especially about Nina. Now he has one moment in which the best action is not to act, not to pull the trigger. It’s like what Pastor Tim told the Jennings when they were thinking of taking the family back to Russia: Sometimes you make a decision by not making a decision.
Oleg asked Stan to do too much to get the message to Arkady. Philip’s ask is smaller: Get out of the way.
Then Philip plays the Renee card, telling Stan that maybe Renee is one of them, though he adds that he doesn’t really know. Is he telling Stan this because it’s bothered him for years that his reports about Stan’s emotional vulnerability could have led to the Center’s sending Renee? Yes. Is he telling Stan this as an exchange for letting them go? Maybe. Is he maybe saying it because he knows it’s going to be such an emotional whammy that Stan will literally be too stunned to do anything as they leave the garage? Perhaps this too, and because his training has become instinct, possibly without even realizing that this may be final push Stan needs.
Good thing no one else came in or out of the garage while they were talking, right?
Stan recovers enough to bring coffee to his partner, and shake his head negatively, signaling that his lead didn’t pan out. He goes back to watching the garage, even though he knows no illegals will be stopping by. Like Inspector Renault, who covers for Rick at the end of Casablanca, Stan is now fighting for humanity and not a government agency. Round up the usual suspects!
We get a brief scene of Oleg looking miserable in his cell, and Burov talking to Oleg’s crying wife, but now we can take away something else: hope. If Philip and Elizabeth complete this final mission successfully, and get the proof of KGB treason to Arkady, then maybe Oleg gets to raise his son.
Might this be a good time to point out an Easter egg hiding in plain sight since episode one? Nadezhda isn’t just a common girl’s name in Russia. It’s a word. It means hope.
Philip, Paige, and Elizabeth are now in disguise and stop on the road to bury the remnants of their old life, and that fake passport Elizabeth brought along for Henry. Also buried: their fake wedding bands, exchanged for the ones they wore when Father Benedict Arnold married them. The suicide locket goes in the hole as well, possibly causing Chekhov (the playwright, not the Star Trek character) to roll over in his grave.
They stop for a brief goodbye call to Henry, in which they all have to act normal.
Henry assumes his overly effusive dad is a little drunk. His mom seems to have had a few as well. Paige can’t even bring herself to talk to him, so Philip grabs the phone again. Henry tells him, “I’ll see you next week,” and Philip says, “Yeah!” because after a lifetime of lies, why not go out on one?
Back at the FBI, Dennis takes Stan into the vault and shows him sketches based on Father Andrei’s description. Sure looks like Philip and Elizabeth. Here we see just how good Stan is at the undercover thing. He reacts exactly as he would if the garage confrontation hadn’t happened. He’s shocked, shocked to discover that that crazy hunch he brought to Dennis turned out to be right. He also admits to watching Paige’s building earlier that evening, covering himself in case Dennis finds out about his absence. Stan ain’t dumb.
The family-no-longer-Jennings pulls into a McDonald’s. Paige uses the restroom. Philip briefly contemplates staying in hiding for a year or two, so he can see Henry and maybe explain things to him. Are they teasing the audience with possibilities?
Philip orders some food for the road. As he leaves, he sees a happy family eating at a booth. Remember how the Jennings family (couple of kids, she’s pretty, he’s lucky) went for ice cream in the pilot? Philip sees his disguised reflection. He’s already a ghost.
Stan comes home and stares at Renee, who’s sleeping like an angel. Now if she were an agent, and the shit was hitting the fan, wouldn’t she be out of there? We don’t know what he’s thinking, but he doesn’t strangle her in her sleep.
It’s daylight, and the no longer-Jennings are sitting in separate sections of a train. It pulls in to Rouses Point, New York where local border patrol agents get on.
The FBI is combing through the Jennings house. Renee comes out to watch. As usual, there’s something suspicious about this. But what, exactly? The FBI is taking apart your neighbor’s house. Your husband works for the FBI. Wouldn’t you be watching? Stan hugs her, but does he trust her?
Could they not have made this show two minutes longer to explain why the FBI didn’t have actual agents checking the train? Back then, border patrol between Canada and the US was lax, and the main job of agents on trains and buses was to keep them moving. Would the FBI really just have faxed some photos of Philip and Elizabeth and left the job of capturing the illegals they’ve been looking for to Border Inspector Barney Fife? Maybe we needed that scene where Dennis asks Stan what he thinks the Jennings would do, and Stan insists they have to watch Henry’s school, and that they’d never leave the country without their kids, so no need to send agents to the trains; a faxed photo will do just fine.
Philip’s disguise fools the officer. There’s a moment of suspense with Elizabeth, but she makes eye contact and maybe hypnotizes the guy into thinking she doesn’t look like the photos. (She totally looks like the photos.) We might wonder about Paige. How will she hold up?
As the train pulls out, Elizabeth sees Paige alone on the platform, and then Philip does too.
Paige always was the wild card. While it’s a shocker, it shouldn’t be a surprise. She was into the fantasy of a mission, and maybe the fantasy of a family, but we saw her disillusionment last week when she called her mother a lying whore. She hasn’t had time to think things through since they came to get her, but she wasn’t happy about a plan that meant leaving Henry, and you can like Russian movies without wanting to live there. (Also, her mother is a lying whore who murders people.)
Earlier this season, she told Elizabeth she didn’t fear dying, but she was terrified of being alone. Within this episode she’s expressed the fear that Henry will be alone. If we go back and look at the earlier seasons, Paige was always taking care of her brother, and he took care of her too, like that time he hit the creepy guy upside the head with a beer bottle. Henry is Paige’s real family, more so than her often absent parents.
Maybe she made the decision when her parents were burying their stuff and she watched Elizabeth and Philip put on their wedding bands. She could be their third wheel or her own person. She chose autonomy, even though it carries risks.
We watch Stan talking to Henry. What’s he telling him? How much does he tell them? There’s no dialogue, only the on the nose music: “With or Without You”. Plus one for it being from 1987; minus one for it being way too obvious, and seriously, haven’t they used it before?
Elizabeth has a dream. She’s in bed with Gregory. She bums a cigarette, and he points to her baby bump.
She tells him she doesn’t want a kid anyway. Then she sees the paintings on the wall, and the one behind the bed. It’s the one she burned, as reproachful as ever. Gregory is gone. She’s in an empty bed with that painting hanging behind her, and there’s a sad-eyed photo of her kids or maybe it’s a painting too, in Erica’s style. She wakes up on a plane.
It’s good we saw Gregory again in some form, as it was only his death that made it possible for her to emotionally bond with Philip. The dream works as a dream: a short, coded message about her ambiguity. She had kids because Russia told her to. She didn’t want them but she wound up loving them fiercely. Just like Erica who at the end wished she’d spent more time just being with her husband and less time painting, Elizabeth, or more accurately, Nadezhda finally understands that the tragedy isn’t the time she won’t have with her kids in the future. It’s the time she didn’t spend with them in the past.
Paige goes back to the safe house where they met with Claudia. Tchaikovsky plays on the soundtrack and maybe in her head. She grabs some vodka and has a drink.
Mischa and Nadezhda are driving somewhere in Europe. Tchaikovsky is still playing. They reach the Russian border. Nadezdha says something to a guard who makes a call and waves them through. They meet Arkady somewhere on the road in the night.
Here’s what we don’t know: How was this meeting set up? How did they get word to him? What’s the plan? It’s just him. No other driver, and the drive takes a long time. Will Elizabeth be presenting a report to the Central Committee at the Kremlin? To Gorbachev himself? Some information might have been useful here. Will Oleg be getting out of prison? We don’t need everything cleared up, but something would have been nice.
Mischa says the first words we’ve heard him say in Russian. He asks Arkady to pull over. He and Nadezdha get out of the car, just to catch their breath, and to look at Moscow at night. Mischa and Nadezhda speak in the only language they’ve ever used together with each other, English. She tries to imagine the lives they might have had if they hadn’t left. They talk about the kids that aren’t kids anymore. He tells her it feels strange. She tells him in Russian that they’ll get used to it. It’s clear she means together. As she told Tuan, as William realized, life is easier when you have a partner.
So we didn’t get the flashforward to the signing of the START treaty in 1991 that the title implied and your humble recapper hoped for, but there’s got to be a happy middle between the Sopranos blackout and the Six Feet Under TMI. I’d love to have seen Oleg holding his son. I’d like for Arkady not to be the victim of a suspicious death. Henry will be okay, and maybe he’ll even be able to visit his parents some day, if he ever speaks to them again. Paige’s future is more complex. Does she go to Stan who helps her work out a plausible story that will keep her in the United States, and out of jail? I’d like to think she goes to South America for a while to help Pastor Tim change the world. The new guy at the travel agency takes over. He hires back Stavos. They see the future of the internet and start adding services. Tax returns? Internet cafe? Henry, who still has a stake in the business, helps them out.
And as for Renee….
Your theories about everyone’s future are welcome.