The Americans' Ending Was Right In The Very First Episode

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/FX.
Warning: This story contains spoilers for the series finale of The Americans.
I screamed when Paige (Holly Taylor) stepped off the train. Even after all this time, I somehow believed that this family of spies that I've come to love and root for would make it out whole. (Well, minus Henry, but who ever counts Henry?)
In the weeks leading up to the series finale, it seemed like everyone had their own theory of how this was all going to end. Would Philip (Matthew Rhys) die? Would Elizabeth (Keri Russell)? Would they both? Or Stan (Noah Emmerich)? Someone would die for sure, though right?
But of course it was always going to end this way: Cornered by Stan, the Jennings have to run. In a heartbreaking exchange, Philip and Elizabeth decide they cannot take Henry (Keidrich Sellati) with them, and instead take Paige, grab their remaining wigs, and jump on a train to Canada. For a while, it seems like they'll get away with it. And then they glimpse Paige, standing on the platform alone, as the train pulls away.
The last scene of the show, six seasons in the making, finds Philip and Elizabeth back in the Soviet Union, overlooking a cold, bright Moscow. Even here, in the homeland they've spent decades fighting for, they're on the outside looking in, alone but for each other. Their biggest fear has come to pass: Despite all that careful planning, their children have been left behind.
That's always easy to say in hindsight, but in the case of The Americans, it's true. I know this, because after watching my advance screener of "Start," I went back to re-watch the season 1 pilot. And lo and behold, the answer was in front of us the whole time. Well, kind of.
Co-creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg have said that they knew how they would end the show early on, settling on the exact variation a few months ago. Many showrunners say this, but few manage to put their money where their mouth is. And yet, that first episode introduces us to themes that are present throughout the entire series, and reach their ultimate conclusion in the final hour: Philip's ambivalence towards spying, Elizabeth's blind patriotism, their marital relationship, and their nagging worry that one way or another, their children will become victims of the life they've chosen.
Paige, who has been training to follow in her parents' footsteps, will, at the very least, have to live off the grid. More likely, she'll face arrest and questioning by the FBI. Henry, on the other hand, will grow up to be as regular an American as can be under the circumstances.
It's an outcome that has its roots planted firmly in the first episode, and so, since it's been a while (almost six years!) here's a quick refresher: Our comrades have been sent on a mission to capture a major Russian defector by the name of Timoshev (David Vadim) and deliver him to their bosses for transport back to the Soviet Union. The mission goes awry, and they have to bring Timoshev back to their house for safekeeping until they figure out what to do with him. At the same time, FBI agent Stan Beeman moves in next door, a strange coincidence that causes Philip to wonder if it's time to throw in the towel, much to Elizabeth's dismay.
After delivering homemade brownies to their new neighbors, Phillip and Elizabeth reconvene in the garage to discuss what to do with their captive. Philip wants to put his family first, which means giving up Timoshev, taking the reward money, and moving on. Elizabeth refuses: Even after all these years she's a KGB agent, first and foremost.
When Philip suggests they just tell the kids the truth, she's flabbergasted. "We swore we would never tell them," she says. "So that they could grow up and live their own lives, they're not to be a part of this."
"If they're not to be a part of this, they will be American, and you can't stand that," he replies. "I see it every day."
"I'm not finished with them yet," she counters. "They don't have to be regular Americans, they can be socialists, they can be trade union activists."
"They're not going to be socialists, because this country doesn't turn out socialists," he says.
"To know that it was all a lie, they would never speak to us again, Philip," she answers.
In the end, they're both right. Henry will indeed be an American — he's a prep-school hockey star well on his way to becoming a finance bro. But by stepping off that train, Paige has proven herself more capable of self-sacrifice than her parents ever were, despite their lofty ideals. It's the ultimate act of altruism: sacrificing a potentially fulfilling life in order to ensure that her brother isn't alone in this world.
Season 6 has been a slow journey towards full circle: Stan, who initially suspected his neighbors, is the one to catalyze the action; Elizabeth, always convinced that she was working towards a greater goal, has been betrayed by her own; and Philip, once so gung-ho about living his real Jennings life, has realized that the American dream he craves isn't so easily attained.
It's a testament to the great storytelling of this show that their last conversation is a distorted reflection of the one from the pilot. After musing about what could have been if they'd chosen a simpler life as factory workers ("Maybe we would have met on a bus."), Elizabeth says: "They'll be okay."
Philip agrees: "They'll remember us. They're not kids anymore. We raised them."
The Americans has always been a show about a marriage masquerading as a spy thriller, and that's how it concludes — on an appropriately bittersweet note. We've seen Philip and Elizabeth's relationship evolve, mature and deepen, and they're still going strong (at least, for now — KGB leadership isn't too happy with them), although at the cost of their children.
It’s never easy to say goodbye to a show, especially one that’s as good as The Americans has been. These characters are real to us, we care about them, down to even their most minute interests (line dancing!) and dislikes (ice cream olympics). But when that show has been as meticulously crafted as this one, part of the fun is to go back and re-watch, catch new meanings and subtext that weren't apparent the first time around.
There's a reason this final chapter is named "Start." The Americans may have said "dasvedanya," but that’s also our chance to go back to the beginning and say "privyet."

More from TV

R29 Original Series