“It would destroy her.”
“To be like us?” – Philip and Elizabeth
Todd: Those are among the last lines spoken in “Echo,” The Americans’ brilliant second season finale, which works both as a great, devastating episode of television and as a capper to a season that grew more labyrinthine and more despairing with seemingly every second. There are moments in “Echo” that I questioned as I watched them, but the smart, smart script by Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields—the series’ showrunners—keeps dropping the bottom out from under viewers with every new revelation, every second. But it’s that question from Elizabeth to Philip that gets to the heart of both this series’ clever inversion of the traditional Cold War dynamic in fiction and what makes it so universal. Every kid eventually realizes they’re just like their parents, and that revelation can be horrifying. How much more so will it be for Paige, though, to realize that her parents are working for a side she’s only known as the enemy from the moment she was born?
In retrospect, everything this season has been setting us up for this final sequence, where Claudia reveals to Philip and Elizabeth that the Center wishes for Paige to be the next inductee into a program to create second-generation illegals. The first inductee was Jared. His parents said no, so the Center sent Kate to seduce and recruit him. When his parents found out (and reacted poorly), Jared killed them and his sister, and that moment that’s hung over the entire season gains an added dimension here. This isn’t just a warning to Philip and Elizabeth of what could happen to their children. It’s a warning of what their children could become, the uncertainty that results both whenever anyone enters the spy game and whenever children grow up into adults and can no longer be so easily predicted.
A lot of discussion of “Echo” is going to be dominated by its last 10 minutes, which unleash a whole host of major developments. (I haven’t even touched on Stan refusing to turn over the video footage he’s taken of the Echo program’s code, thus consigning Nina back to the Soviet Union, where she will surely be put on trial and killed.) There’s good reason for this: Those final sequences are amazing, and the season’s major spy plot (at least as far as Philip and Elizabeth are concerned) wraps up in the teaser (which, in retrospect, is deliberately drawing ties between Paige and her parents that the rest of the episode teases out and pays off). But I also don’t want to shortchange the rest of the episode, which is as thoughtful and tense as this remarkable season has been generally.
In particular, I don’t want to shortchange Larrick, who said from the first that he wasn’t the one who killed Emmett and Leanne and was accurate in that statement. He was a dangerous man, yes, and once his friends were killed, he became even more dangerous. But he was manipulated into doing what he did by a system that finds personal weaknesses in people and then exploits them until they’re completely used up. Larrick dies in the woods in upstate New York not because he was the murderer of Jared’s parents—the only people he murdered were people he knew to be working for his enemy—but because he was gay, and the Soviets could exploit that to turn him against his country. It is not so very hard to imagine a series told from his point of view—one which imagines him as the hero, as someone who only dies when he finally crosses the line and starts killing people in close quarters himself. Larrick dies because of a mistake. Almost everybody who dies this season dies because of a mistake.
There’s been some conversation in our comments and elsewhere about the heavy body count this season has amassed. I’ll admit it hasn’t particularly bothered me, because The Americans has a healthy dose of pulp buried somewhere within itself, but I could also see where that complaint was coming from. The series aims for something much closer to realism than outright craziness, particularly in its emotions and psychology, so having all of these random deaths happening to extras and guest characters pushes up against that a little bit. In this episode alone, we see the deaths of Fred (who dies alone in a phone booth after completing his mission), Larrick, and Jared, and we have the implied death of Nina (though my guess is she’ll be back in some hugely improbable fashion). But this is all part of the season’s mission statement: To enter this life is to sign your own death sentence, sooner or later. But parents instinctively want their children to live forever, even if they’re living a life in a system you inherently abhor. The idea of Paige following in the footsteps of her parents is exciting to Elizabeth, because she sees so much of herself in the girl. But it’s horrifying to Philip because it means that her life, more likely than not, ends abruptly and brutally.
I have just barely scratched the surface of this deep, multi-faceted episode, but I want to kick things over to you, Genevieve, and I’ll start with the episode’s other major plotline: Why do you think Stan ultimately decided to betray Nina, instead of his country? (Outside, that is, of patriotism and all that.)
Genevieve: It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment of Stan’s change of heart, given that he spends this entire episode looking like he could snap at any time. We don’t shout out Noah Emmerich’s performance on this show as often as we should, but tonight, I was struck by how physically he embodied Stan’s desperation; in nearly every scene, he’s hunched over or leaning on something, as if he physically can’t stand the pressure anymore. His guilt over what he’s sacrificed for Nina—his honor and his marriage, both embodied in that dream sequence featuring Vlad, the man he killed, and Sandra, the wife he lost—is literally crushing him. So ultimately, I don’t think Stan’s decision is a change of heart so much as the painful, gradual acceptance of what he’s always known he would have to do, what his subconscious and his body have been telling him must be done.
However, I do think Arkady makes that decision the slightest bit easier with that little bit of advice he offers Stan: “Don’t tell her you love her so much. A Russian woman doesn’t like that. She won’t respect you.” It’s advice offered in the spirit of helpfulness, but it tells Stan that not only has Nina been discussing him with Arkady (or, God forbid, Oleg), she’s also intimated—or at least Arkady has inferred—she doesn’t respect him, and that their love may not be the two-way street he’d assumed. That doesn’t make his love for her any less, of course, nor does it ease the pain of sending the woman he loves to be tried and most likely killed (though I agree with you, Todd, that there’s a good chance Nina will return somehow). But it does highlight the disparity between what he’s poised to sacrifice and what he’ll get in return. He chooses not to make that sacrifice, but ends up making another one entirely. It’s a heartbreaking victory, and a qualified one, which seems to be the only type of victories this show gives its characters.
I admit I’m not quite as high on this finale as you, Todd, though only by a very small margin. I agree that the final handful of scenes are spectacular, and provide a gut-wrenching, thoughtful capper on the themes of this season. But after this season’s patient unraveling of its main plotlines, much of tonight’s action felt rushed by comparison—particularly Fred’s death and the Jared reveal. Jared’s confession is a game-changer, and helps set the course for the rest of this show, as you’ve already explained; but the confession itself felt like the sort of exposition-dump this show is usually so good at avoiding. His blood-soaked explanation of how Kate recruited him and they fell and love and he killed his parents and sister just went on and on, despite that very fatal neck wound, giving the whole thing an undercurrent of a mustache-twirling supervillain revealing his dastardly plan.
Of course, that’s not really what this was—in the end, Jared’s exactly what we always thought he was, a scared kid, albeit one with a ton of blood on his hands. But the execution felt less sure of itself than The Americans usually is, particularly with Claudia re-explaining everything to Philip and Elizabeth a few scenes later when she tells them about the KGB’s second-generation illegals plan. Jared is the worst-case scenario Philip and Elizabeth fear when Claudia tells them about the Center’s intent to recruit Paige, but the manner of his death, which seemed to be as much about tying up plotlines as evoking emotion and intent, undercuts that somewhat.
Much more effective in that regard is Paige’s sojourn to Philadelphia, from which she returns spouting the fiery conviction of the righteous. Paige’s newly acquired passion for civil disobedience, combined with a growing disregard for law enforcement, places the Center’s plans for her in a very interesting context. She’s developing an anti-authoritarian streak that’s in need of an outlet, which she’s found in the peaceful resistance of the church youth group, but could easily be transferred to something else. (Teenagers are nothing if not fickle, after all.) On the other hand, Elizabeth and Philip are ultimately soldiers, taking and carrying out orders, often in spite of their personal feelings, beliefs, and fears about those orders. That doesn’t quite jibe with Paige’s interpretation of the police arresting the pastor for chaining himself to the gate—”The police, you should have seen them, they didn’t care”—nor with her interpretation of what constitutes action. She condescendingly tells her dad she’s not just talking about the idea of civil disobedience, she’s talking about doing it… but ultimately, what is she doing? Carrying a sign and chanting? Her mother killed a guy in a swimming pool just a couple of weeks ago for her beliefs. Hell, her mother got raped for her beliefs. Is that merely an example of how ideals progress (and are compromised) as we get older, or is it a fundamental difference in how Elizabeth and Paige approach those ideals? If The Americans indeed goes through with this second-generation illegals plot (which I suspect might be a bluff), it’ll be interesting to see how it approaches this divide between lofty idealism and crude action.
Which brings me to your point, Todd, about how everyone who’s died this season has died because of a mistake, which I have to push back on a little bit. The actual moment of impact might be the result of a mistake, but the various roads that led these characters to hold a gun in their hands, or have one pointed at them, all began with a choice: a choice to follow orders they disagree with, a choice to seek revenge, a choice to lie or tell the truth, a choice to kill or not kill. There’s not always a clear right or a wrong choice—Stan’s predicament is a prime example of the sort of no-win situation this series traffics in—but nothing on The Americans can be chalked up to fate. These are people of action, and their actions can have devastating consequences. During his never-ending deathbed monologue, Jared tells Philip and Elizabeth that Kate told him it’s the work that matters; the cause is always there, but it’s what you do to advance that cause that defines you.
Even with the major tease about second-generation illegals, “Echo” quite neatly ties up most of this season’s major developments: Emmett and Leanne’s murder is explained, Philip, Elizabeth, and their kids are more or less safe for the time being, Stan has finally extracted himself from Nina’s web. But there are some lingering questions, mainly around the future of Stealth technology (the KGB presumably has the RAM from Fred’s shoes, but Echo seems to be beyond their ability to procure). And there’s still the matter of Martha’s Gun, and everything that it implies. Now that Nina is presumably (presumably) gone, Martha assumes the title of “Americans secondary character who’s most improbably still alive”—something I personally am grateful for, because she tends to be one of this series’ few sources of comic relief, even when she is being so, so sad. For someone who’s always on the periphery and rarely affecting the main action, she feels strangely indispensable at this point. Todd, what do you make of Martha’s contributions to this season and her place in the series at this point?
Todd: One of the things I love about The Americans is how it has a huge variety of end games in play right now. Stan’s mute acceptance of Nina’s fate constitutes one of them, and it’s playing out in the second season finale. But we also can be relatively certain (at least if the show follows most established rules of drama) that Martha will find out the truth about her husband—a truth she’s already starting to suspect somewhere in her subconscious, if these last few episodes are any indication—and that Philip and Elizabeth will be exposed to at least the FBI but also perhaps to their children and all of their neighbors and friends. And those are just the two most obvious ones. Every single character on this show is balancing on a tightrope that gets harder to navigate with every single year—and that’s to say nothing of the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, which the audience at home knows is coming in less than a decade.
Martha fits into this framework as a kind of delayed tension—a rubber band we know will have to snap eventually, but one who also offers the show different notes to play than we’re used to hearing. (In this case, she’s the most forthrightly comic character on the show, and the series is increasingly comfortable turning to her for laughs, because she’s not quite as oblivious as we all assume—just really, really close to being that oblivious.) She’s also vital because she’s one of the few tenuous links the show has between two of its many worlds. Structurally in season two, The Americans broke down even more into a series of islands hermetically sealed off from each other than it did in season one. With Martha providing a slight but reliable link between the KGB and the FBI (even if she’s unaware), she paradoxically becomes one of the safest characters on the show—even though she’s in incredible danger at almost every turn.
But that sense of the show sending its worlds colliding into each other pervades “Echo,” and it’s what has me most excited about the show going forward. On the one hand, I kind of agree with you, Genevieve, that Jared’s monologue is a bit clunky. But I think it’s clunky with a purpose: Its intent is to relax the audience, to get us to a place where we think the mystery is solved, only for the show to yank a long series of rugs out from under us. The first is the thought that Jared might have just killed his parents by acting alone (or out of misguided love). No, the KGB was using him. The second is that the second-generation program will end with jared. No, the Center wants Paige. And the third is that the bond between Philip and Elizabeth is unassailable. No. These two very basic things—their children and their country—can and will ultimately divide them again. When Philip tracks down Arkady to warn him to stay away from Paige, it’s a thrilling reminder that all of these people exist in the same world. But it’s also a reminder that when these islands begin to collide, nothing can stop the inevitable cataclysms.
You’re right, ultimately, that the characters who die this season don’t die because of a “mistake” or even just because they were mostly in the wrong place at the wrong time. The vast majority of them have made choices at some point in their lives that put them in the path of slow-motion tragedies. In some cases—like that poor Afghani restaurant worker in the premiere—that was as simple as going to work that night. In others—as with Larrick—the case is more cut and dried. But what makes The Americans’ second season so remarkable, so unlikely to be topped by anything else on my year-end top 10 list, is the way it makes all of these people into people, the way that it lets you see the boulder coming to squash them from four or five seasons away, then refuses to have them listen to your shouts of warning.
Todd’s grade: A
Genevieve’s grade: A-
- Want to read more about the show from its showrunners? My season-ending wrap-up interview with Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields is live. They drop some great thoughts on the season’s process, the show’s use of psychology, and that dream sequence. [TV]
- Speaking of Stan’s dream, here’s an excellent little detail from it that’s easy to miss (and that I swear I caught before Weisberg and Fields mentioned it in that interview): When Stan greets Martha as he enters the office that morning, she’s putting files from the mail robot into her purse. Stan’s subconscious knows, even if he doesn’t. [TV]
- So to recap, Philip and Elizabeth’s “surprise middle-of-the-night vacation” for their kids involves the world’s most depressing hotel room, strawberry Pop-Tarts, and a quick lunch in the park on the way home. No wonder Paige wants out of that lunatic asylum. [GK]
- Actually, that surprise vacation sequence explained so many things about my childhood… [TV]
- I’m not sure what that drawn-out sequence of Sad Stan wandering the bridge was supposed to accomplish other than making us think he might kill himself, which never seemed like a remote possibility to me. [GK]
- We talked a lot about Nina and Stan in this review, but Oleg is just as heartbroken by the disappearance of his lover. I loved that shot of him staring down as she descends from him into Hell and he is powerless to follow, no matter how adept he might be at navigating the system, no matter how much money he has. I hope this guy sticks around for another season or two. [TV]
- Another thing about that moment: I may have been imagining it, but when they share that final look, Nina makes the tiniest, subtlest kiss movement with her mouth. It’s barely perceptible, and surely wouldn’t be noticed by anyone but Oleg, but it’s a beautiful goodbye between those two characters. [GK]
- I’ve been waiting all season for The Americans to give us another “Tusk” or “Games Without Frontiers” musical moment, and tonight we finally get… a scene set to “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring? What happened, did they use their music budget on that Townshend original (which was also not very good)? [GK]
- Whatever happens next season, I really hope Mail Robot sticks around. [GK]
- Words of wisdom from Philip Jennings: “If she talked any more about nonviolent resistance, I was gonna punch her in the face.” See you next year, everybody! [TV]