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.