A little while ago I did a list of my favourite TV series of all time, which was clearly a project of mammoth significance. And now it needs to be revised. The reason is that one of the rules I set for myself was that I needed to have seen the whole run of the series, because there are all too many shows that started out great and then Lost-ified themselves.
Last week, The Americans aired its last episode, I will miss it greatly, and it probably deserves a spot in that top 5. I’m going to write about it a little more today. Obviously there are spoilers below, and if that bothers you, I would suggest not reading further, because you should really give The Americans a shot. You’ll be in for a treat.
The concept of the show was a reasonably interesting one – deep-cover KGB agents in 1980s America – and that was what got me to originally give it a go. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, probably hoping for something that would at least be a decent action-y drama. That’s not what I got. What I got is what I think is one of the best written TV shows I have ever watched.
One of the great strengths of the show was that the writers were pretty good at doing things you didn’t expect. They would foreshadow things that never happened, and refused to follow what people will say are basic storytelling conventions. This past season, Elizabeth was issued a cyanide suicide pill to prevent her being captured alive. I read a lot of speculation of whether she would take it, or someone else would, or it would be used to kill someone, or as evidence of her KGB work – there had to be something, because ‘Chekov’s Gun’, after all. The cyanide pill ended up getting dumped in a hole in the woods, unused, as the Jennings’ fled America. It’s just one example of how you could never really know for sure where the show was going to take you. That was a lot of fun.
The thing that impressed me the most, though, was that where a lot of stories these days present an array of characters who are all basically unlikeable, The Americans did the reverse. Philip and Elizabeth do lots of horrific things in service of the KGB, and yet they’re still very easy to like. It would also have been very easy to make the FBI agents chasing them (essentially, the show’s antagonists) into some kind of vile caricatures of government agents, but that’s not the case. Stan Beeman is another genuinely easy to like character who, despite some of the fairly awful things he does at times as well, we also want to see end up all right.
Watching the finale was suspenseful in a bunch of ways, but the largest way for me was that the Jennings’ subterfuge is finally collapsing, Stan is closing in, and I wanted, somehow for both the Jennings and Stan to be ok when it all shook out, some kind of obviously impossible quantum state where the Jennings both were and were not captured, I guess. As it turns out, instead of getting both those things, the audience more or less gets neither. Every beat of the final hits super hard because you care, very much about all the imaginary people you’re watching it happen to. That’s what this show did really well.
The story of Philip Jennings was amazing to watch. From Season 1, he was clearly far less ideologically-committed to the espionage work he and his wife were asked to do, but keeps doing it because she is his wife and he needs to support her. It all grinds him down as the seasons wind on, through one of my favourite scenes (mentioned earlier in this blog) where he tells an asset simply “I feel like shit all the time”, because this is one of the very few people in the world he can afford to be somewhat genuine with. He goes on with it, still primarily because the idea of not supporting his wife is unbearable, until he simply can’t any longer. Philip tries to quit. Finally, he is drawn back in one more time, again because he knows Elizabeth is probably dead if he doesn’t, and it crushes him. The end of their mission in America would surely have been some kind of relief, if it wasn’t that it also meant the end of the pleasant life he had wanted so badly for himself and his family. In the end, everything Philip was trying to accomplish, and all the horrible shit he did trying to do it, ends up being for nothing at all. It was brutal to watch. It was great. That was just one character. We could run down the whole cast and get basically the same impact for nearly all of them.
I think the fact that the characters were so well done is the main reason why I liked the whole arc of the show, and its really very bleak ending, despite my preference for a positive ending, these days. Look, a happy ending wouldn’t have fit very well with the overall themes of the show, which often painted the Cold War in great swathes of grey, but I have haven’t enjoyed many a bleak story, even though the darkness may have made sense. The difference is that in this one, I was interested enough in the people to want to see where their dark paths led them.
In terms of authenticity, the writers and showrunners for The Americans got a lot right. They reproduced 1980s places with fantastic detail; the final episode gave us an entire McDonalds set that reminded me of car trips as a kid. They got Russian-speakers to do the Russian dialogue, leaving scenes between Russian characters subtitled rather than doing them in cheesy accents. I have also read commentary from more than one intelligence professional saying that The Americans got much of the tradecraft for their spies more or less correct. That was fun to know, but these details aren’t really why I loved the show. Ultimately, the show was great because of the characters, and how well and believably they were all rendered, and how very much the show made you want to follow them around and see what happened to them.
I continue to believe that this is what will always separate a good story from a truly great one. They’re all about people in the end, just as The Americans was, when you boiled it right down to the core, just really about people. I loved every bit of the journey as a fan, I think I learned a lot as a writer, and I will miss the show very much.
Thanks for reading.