Season finale review: 'The Americans' - 'Echo': Teach your children well
"The Americans" just concluded its second season in spectacular fashion. I interviewed producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about season 2, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I want to punch you in the face if you say one more thing about nonviolent resistance...
"Paige is your daughter, but she's not just yours. She belongs to the cause. And to the world. We all do." -Claudia
A great season of television doesn't require a great finish. I had an issue or two with the conclusion of "Breaking Bad," but taken as a whole, those last eight episodes make up a unit for the time capsule. Similarly, the "True Detective" finale wasn't my favorite episode of that series, but I'm going to be parked at the front of the line to watch season 2.
But when you have a great season of television that also ends great? Well, that's pretty damn special, too. The early episodes of "The Americans" season 2 convinced me that the show had taken a big leap forward in quality, and it only got better as things went along. "Martial Eagle" could be the peak of many a season, but here the story kept going and getting more intense and damaging to all involved. With so many moving parts — the tension between Paige and her parents, the mystery of who killed Emmett and Leanne, the lurking danger presented by Larrick, Stan's dilemma and Nina's possible return to Russia for trial, and, of course, Henry's hopes and fears about "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" — Fields and Weisberg seemingly set themselves an impossible task to resolve them all in satisfying fashion within a roughly standard-sized episode. And though we'll have to wait until next year to find out whether Henry cried when Spock said, "I have been, and always shall be, your friend," they managed to successfully bring down every other plate they'd been spinning — often smacking us in the face with them on their way down.
It's rare to find an hour of television with one gut-wrenching moment that fills my notes on the scene with nothing but profanity. "Echo"? "Echo" had three of those: first with Jared's confession that he murdered his parents and sister, then with Arkady reading Stan's note and realizing what this meant for Nina, and finally with Claudia explaining the full details of the second generation project to Philip and Elizabeth — including the fact that they will now be expected to recruit Paige to work for Mother Russia.
Let's take those one at a time, and start with Stan. Throughout the season, as Oleg and Arkady and Nina were arranging this elaborate trap for Agent Beeman, I was torn between a few conflicting impulses. On the one hand, Annet Mahendru has been so spectacular as Nina, that I didn't want anything to risk her presence on the show (even though it's entirely possible that we'll get a good amount of her and Anton and Vasilli next season), and it sure seemed like Oleg and Arkady had wrapped the snare very tightly around Stan without him even realizing it. On the other, Stan is a true believer every bit as much as they are, and though he has his moments of weakness and emotional volatility, it ultimately felt like he would betray Nina or hurt himself before he chose to actively betray the United States of America. Many shows would try to finesse that in order to avoid losing (or, at least, sidelining) a great character like Nina; "The Americans" recognized what Stan would do in this situation and didn't waver from that. (Fields and Weisberg say they never even seriously considered the idea of Stan turning double agent.) But even as it felt right and true, it stung; earlier, Stan's arrival at the FBI office was filmed like the walk of the condemned man, but instead Nina is the one who does that as she exits the Rezidentura, gets in the car and looks wistfully back at Agent Beeman, who wanted to be there for this moment even as he knew it was all his fault.
As for the swirling Jared/Larrick/Kate mess, and the murder mystery that provided the season with its narrative spine, they brought that home in wonderful, horrible fashion. If it had actually been Larrick who killed Emmett and Leanne, then that's a rudimentary mystery that gave a good character actor some good material for a few episodes, but ultimately amounted to nothing(*).
(*) And I like that before he died, Larrick was given some shading and redemption; you understand why he would want revenge for his fallen comrades, and you also find out that his plan was to turn himself and everyone else in and accept whatever consequences may fall on him as a result.
But making Jared into the killer? That was everything Philip and Elizabeth have feared deep down, even if they didn't know it. The premiere introduced Emmett and Leanne as mirror images of our leads, and their murder was designed to fill Philip and Elizabeth with dread over what the job could do to them, and to Paige and Henry. But never could they have consciously imagined the spy game fracturing the psyche of one of their children so utterly(**) that they would do something like this — nor that the Centre would ever try to bring their children into the family business. A week ago, I wondered if it might be revealed that the KGB was responsible for the murders, and in a way, they were. They give this information to a boy who wasn't emotionally ready to receive it, and though he seemed to be going along with the program, he was instead twisting into this monster capable of annihilating the rest of his family and feeling justified in doing so out of a juvenile, lovestruck belief in the same cause that Elizabeth is always going on about.
(**) How good was Owen Campbell in playing Jared's final confession? It reminded me a bit of Edward Norton in "Primal Fear" — this timid-seeming kid revealing his true face, and his entire physical being (or, in this case, his voice) transforming. From the person the world sees to the person he actually is.