‘The Americans’ Recap: Games Without Frontiers

This post discusses plot details of the season finale of The Americans.

And so, we end where we began, with the music. Back in the first episode of The Americans, when Phillip and Elizabeth made love in their car after dumping the body of the man who raped Elizabeth during her training in the Soviet Union, “In The Air Tonight,” a distinctly unromantic song was unsettlingly perfect for that tentatively romantic moment—and as a frame for the rest of the season. “I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am,” Phil Collins sings in perhaps his most famous single. “Well I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes / So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been / It’s all been a pack of lies…I know the reason why you keep your silence up, / oh no you don’t fool me / Well the hurt doesn’t show, but the pain still grows / It’s no stranger to you and me.”

The Americans is deeply concerned with questions of complicity, intimacy, and the difference between them, and fittingly for a show interested in those questions, it’s often its best when the camera is lingering on two people, capturing the claustrophobia or wide-open possibility that marks their relationship at any given moment. When The Americans began, Elizabeth and Phillip were the only pair who were both complicit and intimate, in murder and in marriage. But by the end of the show, their children Paige and Henry had attacked a man who may have meant them no harm and fled from the scene, and their neighbor Stan had become entangled with Nina, a staffer at the Rezidentura, at considerable cost to his own marriage. The characters on The Americans draw charmed, poisoned circles around themselves and their collaborators and lovers, and not just because some of them are spies or cops. It’s almost a condition of adulthood, the show argues, to have secrets, and a test of true intimacy to share the full extent of those ugly secrets with another person, and to accept that they won’t reject you for them. Stan’s inability to share his secrets with Sandra dooms his marriage. And it’s an expression of truly withering contempt for Claudia to tell Elizabeth “I know you better than you know yourself. And you don’t know me at all.”

The spread of that secret-keeping like a disease makes Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers,” his scathing critique of international affairs, a triply appropriate song to close out The Americans‘ first season, and not just because Gabriel’s description of figures “Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games,” is a great shout-out to the Jennings’ wig collection. “Hans plays with Lotte, Lotte plays with Jane / Jane plays with Willi, Willi is happy again,” he sings. “Suki plays with Leo, Sacha plays with Britt / Adolf builts a bonfire, Enrico plays with it.” The description of spreading nuclear knowledge in that first verse is the perfect conclusion to an episode that reveals that Elizabeth and Phillip have been risking themselves for information that is truly “incredibilis,” and that the world is gearing up for an arms raced based on clever fantasy rather than substance. Just as countries cascade into the game, The Americans‘ characters have been pulled into deception, whether as a condition of their jobs, or because adulthood is a disease that infects us all with secrecy. And for a show that depicts its main characters having a lot of unprotected—both physically and emotionally—sex with people not their primary partners in the years before AIDS became a visible public health catastrophe, there’s something chilling about the viral nature of the song.

And without belaboring the metaphor, The Americans‘ finale was successful conclusion to a terrific first season not because it wrapped up story threads in a conclusive way, but because it provided a viable setup for the story it began telling to continue in a plausible way. Over at the Daily Beast, I wrote far more extensively about the differences between The Americans and Homeland, but I think the difference between a Cold War and a hot one shows in how viable the long-term storytelling is, as well as in the kinds of conflict each show.

Part of what was fun about this episode of The Americans, and one of the marks of a deft, confident show, was how early the plot that would close out the season was signalled in the episode, and how little it mattered, given the tense mechanics that got us there, and how much they revealed about the characters we’ve come to know all season. “There’s one other choice we can make right now because who cares what the Center ordered,” Phillip tells Elizabeth as they make their plans, thinking he’s selecting the more dangerous assignment. “All they care about is that both missions get done. I will take the colonel, you pick up the tape, because Paige and Henry need you. They love you. And I get it. I get it. You see us together and you think it seems easy. That’s not it. You’re they’re mother.”

Our knowledge of what was going on made watching both halves fo the equation come together tremendously fun. “We’ve arranged for Weinberger and Baker to have an actual meeting in the Weinberg study tomorrow,” Gaad said with tremendous pride, totally unaware that something much more consequential was planed. “We also made sure the KGB heard about it, along with the word Spetsnaz, which is all it takes to drive them crazy.” Stan, still flushed with affection for Nina, who’s become more important for him as a backup plan given Sandra’s resistance to his overtures, can’t resist continuing to play powerful, and tells her he’ll be able to fulfill his promises to her. The poor guy just wants to be able to give a woman something. It’s precisely the opportunity Nina needs to prove herself, and it’s a lot of fun to see Arkady, who has previously been a rather inert figure, spring into action with a spray paint can, his sleeves rolled up and tie loosened. Like Gaad, he’s nervous and excited about his own ingenuity, and like Gaad, he wrongly believes that the operation he knows about is the only one going on. Claudia, who normally enjoys letting people see what they want to see in her, and missing the lethality behind the old lady who locked herself out of her niece’s apartment before competently dispatching Richard Patterson, makes her capacity visible when she sees Arkady’s abort sign, roaring onto the square in the park to warn Phillip. Phillip’s reaction is emotional rather than necessarily strategic, speeding off to rescue his wife in a way that both risks him getting stopped for reckless driving, and confirming the FBI’s theory that there’s a team functioning. Elizabeth, even after she’s shot, strives for control, telling Phillip “We should still take the kids to that hotel tonight…It’d be nice.” And there’s something extraordinary and sick about Phillip’s calm as he calls the man who shot his wife to paper a domestic facade over a two-sided espionage disaster. “We’re driving up now, and I think Elizabeth may stay up for a while and take care of her,” Phillip spins a fiction about a great aunt and a set of stairs. “Well, we’ll take care of the kids,” Stan reassures him. Phillip, in a demented way, has given Stan something that he needs: someone to do a favor for.

It’s impressive that The Americans could pull off this Rube Goldberg device as well as it could, and to weave all the character material together in it so well. But it’s even more intellectually impressive that it does something that almost no espionage or action show ever does. Rather than a dynamic where our heroes are confirmed in their belief that the world is going to hell even though no one else believes them, The Americans had Phillip come to understand something very different, and perhaps even uglier. The Soviets and the United States are playing a game of brinksmanship based not on a real threat, but on a fiction. The need for war is a bureaucratic imperative. “I’m giving it to you now, but you’re not hearing me,” the Colonel tells Phillip when they meet on a park bench, after mocking the call sign he dreamed up (Gabriel would be proud). “The technology. It’s incredibilis. At best it’s fifty years from being remotely operational. The damn thing’s a fantasy.” Colonel “Some people say the president only hears what he wants to hear. Some people say it’s all one big psyop, a way of getting the Soviets to spin themselves to spin themselves into oblivion trying to keep up with a technology that’ll never span out. And really, that’s what the world needs, another crazy arms race. But this time it’s in space.” Games without frontiers, indeed.

And the thin blue layer of atmosphere isn’t the only boundary at risk of being broached. The night before the mission, Elizabeth listens to a tape her mother sent her. “They brought me a picture of you this year, with your children. And husband. Your family is so beautiful,” she muses. “I look at it every day. You look happy, Nazdeha. I know I”ll never meet them, but knowing you have them makes me happy. They are my family too.” But while Elizabeth and Phillip managed to get through the season without putting their children in danger of physical harm, beyond their knowledge, Paige and Henry have been coming into their own knowledge of the world. And another one of the accidents that marked this season of The Americans threatens to pierce the veil between Paige’s understanding of her American life, and the very complicated one her mother has been living. “Henry. I had a nightmare,” Paige wakes up her younger brother, seeking out her sibling and the person who shares her biggest secret, the attack on the driver, rather than her parent. “I’m going to wake up Mom.” “No, you’re not allowed and you know that,” Henry tells her. But Paige goes ahead anyway, looking at her mother’s eerily made bed and then running into her in the hall. “You’re doing laundry in the middle of the night? I don’t hear the washing machine,” Paige asks her mother. “I was folding. Why don’t you go up to bed, sweetheart?” Elizabeth tells her. But it’s an excuse that doesn’t put her daughter, who appears to have inherited her mother’s ability to turn an idea over in her mind, completely at ease. And the first season of The Americans ends with Paige, using her homework as an excuse, going down into the basement to check her mother’s story. Looks could kill. But only if Paige knows what she’s looking at.