Saturday, June 2, 2018

Ending "The Americans"

As Shakespeare put it, “our revels now are ended.” Or, in more contemporary terms, “The Americans” is over. True enough, it was one of the best that television has offered. It was exceptionally well acted and written, and mostly sustained itself over six seasons. On Wednesday evening it ran its final episode, and happily for all of us, it was a great episode. Those of us who remember the last episode of Seinfeld know how easy it is to botch such a task.

As it happened, the most important and greatest scene of the episode was the facedown between FBI agent Stan Beeman and Philip Jennings. Elizabeth and Paige Jennings were also in the scene, but as Angelica Jade Bastien notes, the mano-a-mano confrontation was the core of the scene. It was a chance to see two great actors at their best.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings was also in the scene and she has been excellent throughout the show. Daughter Paige was the weak link in the scene and in the last two seasons. In my humble opinion, once the show moved more of the focus onto Paige, it lost interest. Truth be told, the actress playing Paige was not in the same league as Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. Thus, no one could really care about her. You cannot hold audience interest in a drama led by an actress whose performances ranged from wooden to leaden.

Bastien correctly remarks the importance of the scene, but she lards over her analysis with girl talk, raising issues about intimacy and vulnerability. In truth, it’s not about intimacy or real vulnerability; it’s about friendship and betrayal.

Stan and Philip had become friends. They had become good friends. And yet, Philip had hidden his true occupation, his defining lie from his best friend, who happened to be an FBI agent assigned to counterespionage.

Bastien describes a crucial moment:

Stan’s devastation leads him to veer from making threats toward the Jenningses to questions of a more emotional sort, like when he simply asks “Henry?” It’s a question ripe with the desire to understand how deep this betrayal goes. It’s his love for the family that leads him to stand frozen when Philip first mutters, crestfallen, “We were just doing a job.” Questions linger in the air between them about loyalty and honesty and how much of their relationship was real. When did things shift from being a job to being a genuine friendship?

Bastien sees Philip baring his soul, which is not quite correct. He does speak honestly, but he does not whine or beg. She is correct to point out how brilliant Matthew Rhys is in this scene. His acting is memorable. We do not see it often.

Rhys’s performance creates an anti-hero defined by his contradictions and vulnerabilities. “You were my only friend in my whole shitty life. All these years, my life was the joke, not yours,” Philip says before revealing how he quit his work as a spy. Instead of cowering or begging or turning to violence, he bares his soul.

We do not know whether Philip really believes this, and we can have doubts about whether he had become a true friend to Stan. Why would a master of disguise and deception not be lying here, too? And yet, Stan accepts it, and maintains his loyalty to a friend.

In the garage scene, Philip gave Stan a choice: between loyalty to his friend and loyalty to the FBI. The choice is made that much more difficult by the fact that, even though the Jennings were responsible for more than their fair share of homicidal mayhem Philip had walked away from espionage in the entire last season. In the recent season, however, he had put a few feet back in the water. And we see later that they need to don their last disguises to pass through Canadian customs. Moreover, both Philip and Elizabeth had turned against their handlers and had undermined a plot to overthrow the recently installed Gorbachev presidency.

We were watching a complex moral calculus, of conflicting loyalties and duties. As you know Stan let the Jennings family escape… he could easily have shot them or arrested them. Some have suggested that this action made him a tragic figure. I do not think so. It made him someone who faced a moral dilemma and made a decision where there was no obviously good choice.

In the end Stan Beeman rides up to the Jennings’s son Henry’s boarding school, to take on his new role of surrogate father. You see, the Jennings flee the nation and the West to return to the Soviet Union. But they decided not to take their son Henry with them. Good decision or bad decision… you decide. But the fact that Stan is going to take over parenting the boy strikes a good note… one that suggested that Stan’s decision has yielded something positive.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

I haven't watched network TV in a loooooooooooooooong time. IIRC, these were Russian spies?