Thursday, May 31, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Americans' - The Entire Jennings Family and Stan Have to Make Several Heartbreaking Decisions in 'START'

FX's The Americans - Episode 6.10 "START"

The Jennings face a choice that will change their lives forever.

"START" is a stunning series finale for The Americans. This was a stunning and perfect final season. One of the best, most intense but emotional I have ever experienced covering television. It was so rewarding in so many ways. But it was also completely unexpected too. Heading into this final season and in actually watching it, the audience probably had so many ideas about how the show would end. It seemed likely that a tragic fate was bound to happen to a number of characters as punishment for all of their actions over the course of the show. It seemed likely that one or both of the Jennings would die - with the other potentially living a fate worse than death. Oleg would never be able to return to his country again and reunite with his family. Paige and Henry's lives would be completely changed and devastated. And Stan's career would be in jeopardy because he lived next door and was best friends with Soviet spies for so many years. Instead, the show opts for such a different ending that is completely surprising but still emotionally resonant. The bar was set so high for the show to provide a satisfying ending. If one aspect of this story doesn't work, then the entire thing comes crashing down. And yet, the writers, director and actors all find a way to make it work because of the introspection on the characters and understanding just how devastating and intense the personal stakes are. The show easily could have chosen a series finale that was essentially a bloodbath. Characters would be killed off and that would feel completely justified. The characters of this show killed many people for the sake of their countries. It feels like the just punishment for them as well. However, the show always used the spy craft and espionage stories to fuel conflicts that resonated about a marriage and a family. As such, it's just as moving and devastating to see how the choices made here will forever impact the Jennings family. Elizabeth and Philip have been discovered by the FBI. They need to run for their lives. Their family in America is done. But it's also clear that tragedy is awaiting them in the Soviet Union because of the decisions they have made since they first came to America all those years ago.

All of the espionage stakes of this story basically come to a head in Stan's big confrontation with Philip, Elizabeth and Paige. In that moment, all he has is his suspicions. He had to check to see if his friends were at home or work while all of this was going down. He thought it best to check out Paige's apartment to see if they would come there to pick her up. He catches a huge break in seeing them walking out and in a hurry. He decides to confront them. That's such a foolish decision for him to do. The entire time I'm screaming at him for not telling anyone where he was or calling in backup. Philip and Elizabeth have killed countless people. Some of them were more personal than others. Sure, it would be difficult for either of them to kill Stan but they would do it if he poised a threat to the future of their family. And yet, Stan is the only one with a gun. From the moment he lowers that weapon though, it becomes abundantly clear that he isn't going to fire and the Jennings aren't going to kill him. It's still such an incredible tense moment. The family believes they can continue living their American lives at first. This is all just a misunderstanding that Stan has concocted into this grand conspiracy. And then, Philip tells the truth. It's such a stunning moment that produces such a memorable reaction from Elizabeth. She can't believe that he is being open and honest with their friend, the FBI agent. Of course, it's not the complete truth either. Philip understands the importance in talking about it just being a job. A job for a cause that he no longer believes in. He needed to do it for the good of his country and in order to have a purpose in his life. It's a job he hasn't done in awhile. He has retired because he could no longer stomach what his country was asking of him. The friendship was real. They never killed anyone. It's in that last detail where it's clear that Philip and Elizabeth are distorting reality for the sake of both Stan and Paige. Paige had such a huge reaction about Jackson to Elizabeth last week. She knows more about the true realities of this business. And yet, she still needs to be sheltered from some of it. Philip and Elizabeth are still essentially putting on a performance in order to get Stan to let them go free. And in the end, he does. He could easily kill them or arrest them. Instead, he wants to believe them and allow them to deliver their message to their country in the hopes of it making a difference.

That sequence is absolutely devastating though because of the final action that Philip decides to take. He never backs down in this discussion. Stan tells the family to get down on the ground numerous times. Philip and Elizabeth have the strength to resist the orders of a federal officer because they understand who Stan is at his deepest level. They knew that he can't kill them just like they can't kill him. All of this could be seen as a freeing experience for all involved as well. Philip and Elizabeth could have the relief knowing that the man they trusted wasn't ultimately betrayed by their secret identities. They don't mention the many times that they have compromised his investigations because they were working against him. Elizabeth exploited this connection not too long ago too. She was the one who killed Sofia and Gennadi. Those are the only deaths that Stan took personally and wants to confront them about. If they admitted to that horrific act, then they would be dead. Instead, they are allowed to go free. All of this could be freeing to Stan because he does get the confirmation that he was right. He had this sneaking suspicion about his best friends and neighbors. He couldn't find any proof that it was right. But when he made that confrontation, they confessed. He still won. But it's so deeply tragic that Philip decides to warn Stan that Renee is possibly a Soviet agent too. Philip never got confirmation of that suspicion. It was just a fear of his. He never explored it again in a meaningful way. But he feels the need to warn Stan about this to ensure that he isn't betrayed by more than one person in this regard. And yet, it's such a cruel thing to do as well. It will essentially destroy Stan and Renee's marriage regardless of if she is a spy. Stan is destined for a life where he could investigate this claim and deal with whatever the truth may be or choose to forget about it and live in the happiness of that relationship. Either way, it seems likely to put distance between him and Renee. Once this suspicion is in his head, it will always inform his thinking about every decision and action that she does. In a way, it's the perfect ending for that mystery. The show never provides clarity on if Renee is a Soviet spy. Instead, all that the audience has to interpret is that final private look as she sees the FBI processing the Jennings house. That moment could be read any number of ways. Like Stan, the audience is left in limbo which only increases the tragedy because there is also the potential that Stan keeps his job because Aderholt knew about these suspicions and was comforting instead of angry when presenting the truth to Stan.

And again, that segment of the finale basically brings an end to the espionage corner of the show. Yes, there is still tension as the Jennings family bury all evidence of their lives and put on disguises to sneak into Canada. Their fake documents or wigs could finally fail and they would have to deal with the consequences of being arrested in America - just like Oleg will be doing. But instead, they are able to sail through all of that. They make it out of America and back to the Soviet Union. They are able to deliver their warning that a segment of the KGB is plotting to overthrow Gorbachev. It's a mission they believe in completely. They knew that they had to risk the safety of the entire family in order to deliver that message - especially after they learned about what happened to Oleg from Stan. All of that could have created more mysteries and tension. But it's still a journey that ultimately proves successful. Instead, the true heartbreak and drama comes from the family side of the series. That has always been where the most personal stakes of this story came from. At the top of the finale, Philip and Elizabeth have to decide what they are going to do with Henry. It's easy to just assume that they have been discovered and need to sneak the children out of the country with them. They will return to the Soviet Union as a family. It will be a life Henry will hate because he has no idea that it's coming. This family knows just how difficult and devastating this news can. It's so crushing to have one's life completely change in an instant. As such, it's an incredibly freeing moment when Philip and Elizabeth make the decision that Henry is simply better off living in America. It's the only life he has ever known. His life will be ruined by the scandal of knowing who his parents truly are. But they also believe that Stan will do right by him because there is so much love there as well. It makes it such a bittersweet moment when they say their goodbyes to him though. Henry is just focused on the ping-pong tournament in his dorm. But his family is essentially saying the last words they will ever share with him. They can't just come out and say what's really going on either. It's all just one cryptic conversation that will mean nothing to Henry until he learns what has happened. It's then so equally heartbreaking to see Stan appear at hockey practice with that smile realizing that this is the last perfect moment Henry will have in his life believing in what his family was pretending to be.

But all of that makes sense too. Philip even has doubts as the family makes the journey up to the border. He believes he could stay behind for a year to reach out to Henry when appropriate to try to explain what happened and why his family needed to leave. It's just a possibility he's thinking about but doesn't actually explore though. He still gets on the train that will take him, Elizabeth and Paige to Canada. And that's where Philip and Elizabeth are confronted with the truth that Paige won't be traveling to the Soviet Union with them either. She went on this entire journey with them as a family. She was concerned about Henry but made her peace knowing that she needed to run too. But the more time she had to think about it, the more it dawned on her that she would hate it in the Soviet Union and she would only resent her family more for making her move there. She may not know the true extent of what her parents did as spies. But she also has enough suspicions to know that they were both lying to her about the true realities of their jobs even when they promised to be completely forthcoming. All of her training was for nothing. She is a girl in America but without a family or a home. She makes this decision because it's the right one for her to personally make. It's her decision as well. The audience can see that concerned look on her face as she is walking down the aisle of the train. There's the fear that her fake passport will be the one that is caught by the authorities. But instead, she gets off the train by her own free will. This is her decision. She may still have a future in this country as well because Stan chooses not to tell Aderholt about the confrontation he had with the Jennings in the parking garage. He is the only one in the FBI who knows that Paige was completely aware of what her parents truly did for a living. And yet, her life will still be ruined because of all of this. For so long, the greatest worry was that Paige would be severely messed up because of what her parents did. And in the end, that ultimately comes true. All she has is Claudia's vacant apartment and the alcohol left behind. It's a reminder of the life once lived and what could have been. She could have had a job in the State Department. But now, she's completely alone in this world. She and Henry may be able to find their way back to each other and survive together. That won't change the fact that one of them was abandoned by their parents and the other abandoned them.

So, Philip and Elizabeth succeed in returning to the Soviet Union. What was once a dream has somehow become a reality once more. They were willing to sacrifice so much for their country. It's because of their country that they found each other and fell in love. They built a life, a marriage and a family in America. And now, that has gone away. All they have now is each other. That may be something they should feel blessed to have. They are returning to their home as changed people. They will be able to build their lives again here. But this country has changed so much since they were last here. And it's going to experience even more change in the immediate future because Gorbachev remains in power. That will lead the Soviet Union down the slippery slope into becoming what Russia currently is under Putin's leadership. That could be absolutely horrifying to Philip and Elizabeth. They may come to regret their final actions of the series. And yet, they must find peace in looking out at the city that they once recognized. They need to understand that this family will always have the memories of their lives together. They may never see Paige and Henry again. They loved those kids so much even though they only had them because the Centre told them to. It was what was required in order to blend in as an American family. But now, their lives are filled with so much suffering and loss. They believe they made the right choices. They made the sacrifices they saw as right. They must find peace with that. Returning to the Soviet Union will be a huge change for them that will take time getting used to. And yet, they are able to live out their lives together wearing the wedding rings that actually symbolize their true status as a couple choosing to be together. They have lived such profound and chaotic lives. They lost so much because of their country. They made these extreme sacrifices. And now, they only have their marriage to show for it. That has to be enough. And they will learn how to be in their country once more.

Some more thoughts:
  • "START" was written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg and directed by Chris Long.
  • Of course, there's so much potential for the Jennings to explore in the Soviet Union as well. They may still be worried about Claudia and her fraction of the KGB targeting them. But they could also reach out to the people they've known while in America. They could forge a new bond with Gabriel. Philip could finally meet and love his other son. Philip could even reunite with Martha if he really wanted to. But right now, it's important to see them choosing each other in the face of extreme uncertainty.
  • Aderholt rarely got private moments of his own during his time on the show. He was frequently just positioned as Stan's partner. Though he came to know Philip and Elizabeth as well. And here, it's rewarding to see him get his moment to shine at work. He's the man who ultimately gets Father Andrei to turn on his country and his vows by telling the FBI about the man and woman he has been interacting with for the past three years.
  • Stan only comes to believe Philip and Elizabeth's story and the importance of delivering the message to Arkady because of Oleg. That's what makes it so tragic that Oleg will be held in America for a long time for espionage. That's such horrific news that Arkady has to deliver to Oleg's father as well. It's heartbreaking to see him in one of the montages needing to share the tragedy with Oleg's wife too.
  • This show has always used music so well. It was able to take big, popular songs from the 1980s and use them in unexpected but rewarding ways. It also used less known songs for surprising moments as well. And yet, the show pulls out the most iconic and well-known song with U2's "With or Without You" for the finale. That's a song that even I know well despite not being born until the 90s. Plus, it's so well utilized here as well - especially in the moment where it dips away as the passports are being checked only to come wailing back as soon as Philip and Elizabeth learn that Paige has gotten off the train.
  • Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich and Holly Taylor do such mesmerizing work throughout this entire finale. As has been said frequently over the course of the series, they deserve to be showered with awards. This was such a phenomenal series for all of them. So much of the acting was subtle. But all of their stories in this final season were so expressive in a number of ways. They deserve to win as many awards as possible. And so does the show's writing and directing team. This was a perfect final season.