'The Americans,' an understated television masterpiece that never once jumped the shark, heads to its final episode on Wednesday

Real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell have brilliantly played Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings for six seasons of must-see TV

click to enlarge Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans" - Pari Dukovic
Pari Dukovic
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans"

Much like the KGB spies it depicts, The Americans (Series Finale, 10 p.m. Wednesday, FX) has methodically played the long game, setting up storylines like dominoes until, at the end of the series, they all come tumbling down.

For six seasons, audiences have followed Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), seemingly all-American travel agents and parents to Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) by day, lethal KGB officers by night, as the line between those disparate identities became increasingly blurred — especially after Paige learns the truth about her parents in Season 3. (Meanwhile, young Henry — almost comically absent from the Jennings household — hasn’t a clue.) We’ve seen the evolution of Elizabeth and Philip as individuals — him being more emotional and affected by the brutal work that they do while she’s more of a stone-cold killer ready to do anything for the cause — and a couple, as their relationship grows from a cold business arrangement to a true loving bond, complete with a secret Russian Orthodox wedding to make it official. We’ve held our breath watching countless spy missions riddled with bad wigs and almost always resulting in way-too-close calls, all while they live next door to FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who also happens to be Philip’s best friend. That’s a lot of dominoes.

This final season heats up from a simmer to a boil as we anticipate Stan finally discovering the Jennings’ true identities as Philip and Elizabeth’s conflicting views and ideologies come to a head. And with just one episode left, we’re still waiting for that sort of defining moment.

The current Season 6 opened with a fitting three-year time jump to fall 1987 (just before Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the Washington Summit). Philip followed through with his intentions to get out of the soul-crushing spy business and focus on the travel agency full time. Haggard and overworked, Elizabeth appears to be making up for his absence, constantly working and, for the first time it seems, questioning her assignments as Gorbachev begins to steer the Soviet Union in a new direction. Perhaps most excitingly, Paige — now a 20-year-old college student — is following in mom’s footsteps under the tutelage of Elizabeth and her handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), and has even begun to take on some missions. (Henry is away at boarding school.)

Elizabeth has a lot on her plate, but Philip is far from fancy-free. The business is tanking — so much so he has trouble paying Henry’s tuition. It’s devastating to him not only financially, but also symbolically. Everything is falling apart. Elizabeth grows understandably more distant, his daughter is heading down the most dangerous path despite his concerns, and he’s spent his life working in opposition of his only true friend.

It would seem like the show is poised to set Philip and Elizabeth against one another — and they certainly have major clashes — but The Americans at its core is about marriage and family. They (both Philip and Elizabeth and the show’s creators) are not about to just throw that away. Elizabeth faces some humanizing encounters that warm her ice queen persona a bit while Philip becomes more disillusioned by the American Dream as it fails him. And these experiences help bring the two closer.

As the walls close in on the Jennings, they must decide if they want to stick together — and for two people whose lives have essentially been prescribed to them, there’s almost a sense of freedom in that choice, even if it is to go down together.

The Americans is the definition of a slow burn, so don’t expect there to be some over-the-top climax and resolution. That’s not what this show is about. The series succeeds in wringing out every drop of tension in a scene, making a conversation between two people as gripping as a guns-blazing undercover spy mission.

This is a series that flew under the radar, receiving nominations but few awards, getting critical love but diminishing ratings. It’s done what it does well, an understated masterpiece that never once jumped the shark. While I could watch the Jennings and their revolving door of disguises for years to come, this satisfying ending feels spot-on.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern

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