Season finale review: 'The Americans' - 'The Colonel': To have and to fold
"The Americans" just concluded its first season. I interviewed producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about season 1, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I have to fill out a form with 27 sections...
"Come home." -Elizabeth
As an episode of "The Americans," I think "The Colonel" works very, very well. It's tense, it's emotional and it moves a bunch of plots (particularly Nina's conversion and the KGB's interesting in SDI) along significantly. I wasn't wild about the car chase(*) after Philip rescued Elizabeth, but everything else story-wise was strong.
(*) It's very hard to do anything interesting with a car chase in 2013, let alone on the budget and schedule of a basic cable drama. I'm not expecting anything on the level of, say, "To Live and Die in L.A." (still probably the finest example of a car chase shown from the point of view of the pursued, rather than the pursuers), but if there's not a certain intensity level, my inclination is usually to wonder why the producers bothered, rather than coming up with something else to do. At least this one wasn't all that long.
My only question is about how well "The Colonel" works as a season finale.
As the last episode we're going to get until 2014 — and what could have been the last episode, period, if the ratings had been different — I feel the finale of a serialized drama like this has a different kind of burden on it than a regular episode does. It doesn't have to resolve everything (and I appreciated how many story avenues it left open for next year), nor does it have to end on some kind of stunning cliffhanger that the new season would then struggle to undo (and if Paige had found the wig/guns/money cache in the laundry room, it would speak very poorly of her parents' skills). But it has to feel like a culmination of what we watched in the season leading up to it, and I came to the end of "The Americans" feeling the way Philip must have when the colonel started to tell him that SDI is completely bogus(**), wondering what it was I had devoted all this time into.
(**) Check the Weisberg/Fields interview for insight into how the show can move forward on this without rewriting history about the '80s arms race.
Clearly, the scene where Elizabeth asks Philip to come home was designed as that culminating moment. The show is fundamentally about a marriage; the Cold War isn't exactly window dressing to that, but the spycraft is likely always going to be secondary on the show's agenda to how these two feel about each other. My problem is that, even though Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys were so good in that scene, the show went back and forth and back and forth throughout the season on which half of the couple wanted the marriage to be real, so that the impact of a seemingly significant moment like this was blunted. Yes, it's touching when Elizabeth speaks in their mother tongue to try to end their recent struggles, but the show did too many previous reversals on the state of the marriage for this scene to land the way it was intended.
Without that, "The Colonel" still has much to offer, particularly the tense early scenes where we know more than Philip and Elizabeth do about which assignment is safe and which one's the trap, and as we watch Elizabeth steel herself for the possibility that she might never see her children or her "husband" again, just like her mother never saw her again after she took the Directorate S assignment. And even Paige's sense of unease about the laundry room is the sort of thing the show can play with (particularly as she gets older and more rebellious) without going to the point of no return just yet.
But after the show had been so great for so much of this season, I was expecting more from the finale — something that made the whole of the season feel greater than the sum of its parts — when instead what I got was a strong episode of "The Americans" that was hampered a bit at the end by storytelling decisions made in earlier episodes.
Not a bad way to go into the hiatus, by any means, but the show set a very high bar over the last three months, and ideally the finale goes well above that.
Some other thoughts:
* We're a few weeks away from knowing whether CBS picked up the sitcom that Margo Martindale's in, and the finale wisely hedges its bets, Claudia-wise. If the sitcom's a go, then Grannie returns to the USSR as per Philip and Elizabeth's request. If it's not picked up — or if CBS winds up being unusually generous in allowing Martindale to moonlight on another channel's show — then Claudia's actions in warning Philip about the trap (even if it was the wrong trap) may be enough for them to change their minds about her.
* And if this is the last we see of Grannie, then Martindale went out with a bang, between the scene where she gets revenge for Zhukov on Richard Patterson and the scene with Arkady where we hear things entirely from her perspective and realize how protective she is of her charges, even after they stabbed her in the back by requesting her reassignment. If Martindale wants another Emmy for a role on an FX drama, this is clearly her episode to submit.
* I talked to Weisberg and Fields about my pleasant surprise at both Martha and Nina surviving the season, and it's interesting to see their completely divergent mindsets at this point. Martha is now preparing to redecorate her apartment for Clark's sake, and clearly plans on him being around much more than Philip does. Nina, meanwhile, has already started expertly playing Stan. Whether she has the ability to turn him like Arkady wants is unclear, but it won't be from lack of skill on her part.
* Speaking of Stan, it's a measure of how relatively isolated Philip and Elizabeth's cover identities are that Philip has to call Stan to watch the kids while Elizabeth is convalescing from a gunshot wound that very well may have come from Stan's weapon.
* Our last early '80s tune of the season is Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers," which you knew the show was going to use at some point, right?
* One other note from the interview worth mentioning here: Fields and Weisberg admit that the New York weather during production played hell on their attempt to follow a consistent timeline in the show's universe. HEre, for instance, we have the Stanley Cup finals taking place in the same period when Sanford Prince is arrested in a snowstorm.
What did everybody else think? Did "The Colonel" stick the landing for you? And now that it's done, where would you place this year among the debut seasons of the recent great drama series?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org