‘The Americans’ End Six Years of Espionage With Poignant Series Finale

No bullets or punches. FX’s spy drama “The Americans” has decided to end a six season run with a wistful, understated finale where final secrets are revealed with quiet tension. Everything winds down after twists, shocks and turns with the Cold War as the epic backdrop. Maybe some fans were expecting an explosive conclusion to it all, but the show is ending in a more serious tone where the implications of living a double life abroad, for so long, become stark. The Jennings suddenly have to leave their “home” for home, and yet Moscow itself will soon be irrevocably changed.

The finale is one great unraveling. After losing some agents at a Chicago shootout, agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) interrogates Father Andrei (Konstantin Lavysh) to try and get him to confess to aiding two KGB spies. These spies are of course Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), who know the FBI is on to them and must now flee the United States. The situation is especially tense because they have decided to abandon their work for the Soviet government, this after uncovering a plot to overthrow reformer head of state Mikhail Gorbachev. FBI agent and best friend to the Jennings, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is already suspicious and confronts the family to confirm the worst. The Jennings have also made several tough decisions. They will return to Russia with their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) but leave behind their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) who is already attending college. Everyone is facing a future impossible to predict.

When “The Americans” premiered in 2013 it revived the espionage genre for modern television with intensity and sharp storytelling. While it seemed like a thriller culled from relics of a time past, it suddenly gained a new relevance following the controversies surrounding the 2016 elections and claims of Russian meddling. But “The Americans” never catered to the headlines, it always remained a serious work focused on telling a specific story in a specific era. In a sense it had no choice, the world has changed so much since the 1980s (Russia is now firmly capitalist). But because of its atmosphere and visceral edge, it felt strikingly contemporary, even as it wonderfully captured the styles and politics of the era. It had fun taking real history and turning it into thriller material, like a good novel by John Le Carre. The writing could be riveting with the simple notion of double lives, as the Jennings became a picture-perfect American family on the surface, all the while seeking information for the Kremlin. The final season was about things coming to a close and eras beginning to shift. Once the Berlin Wall falls, there’s a sense of unstoppable wheels being set into motion. Aderholt interrogates Father Andrei baffled, wondering why he would collaborate with a regime so determined to erase the Orthodox Church, of course today Father Andrei would have no such worries.

But what always made “The Americans” special was its personal touch. The finale isn’t so much about politics as about a family now facing a hard choice. Philip and Elizabeth were KGB operatives, but they have built actual lives in the United States. In a powerful scene Stan confronts the Jennings with real hurt in his eyes, because he truly cared about Stan and Elizabeth. “I would have done anything for you, all of you,” Stan tells Stan, his eyes almost welling with rage. It’s one thing for your best friend to lie, quite another to find out that everything you thought you knew about them was false. There’s real pathos when Philip and Elizabeth, disguised in wigs and makeup with Paige, call Henry at college to talk with him, but really saying goodbye. Except for the gruelingly tense scene between Stan and the Jennings, there are no major stand offs in this finale, no last killings or betrayals. The final 30 minutes are all one big journey as Stan and Aderholt come to terms with what they have discovered and the Jennings begin their long trek back to the USSR.

Can we call the ending happy? It depends. As the Jennings board a train to leave, Paige gets off, surprising her parents as they depart. She will stay in America, even if she might never see Philip and Elizabeth again. The final scenes are a wistful drive through a Russian landscape in the evening, the lights of a Soviet city in the distance as Philip and Elizabeth ponder their future. It is a fitting conclusion, because while we in the present know the USSR will soon be history, they do not. The writing goes somewhere deep here, as they wonder what could have been if they were never spies. Would they have ever crossed paths?

“The Americans” treated the theme of espionage with a sharpness rarely seen in the genre, which usually prefers nonstop action, stunning twists and “Red Sparrow”-style seduction. Its finale ends with a solemn note, as its characters face an uncertain future. Fiction suddenly becomes a mirror of our present.

The Americans” series finale aired May 30 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.