The Season 3 finale of The Americans was a surprisingly low-key affair. Of the myriad confrontations we’d been bracing ourselves for, none really materialized in any significant way. I think I understand what the creators, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields (also the episode’s co-writers), were trying to accomplish by concluding the season with such a quiet, reflective episode. In one respect, they were declaring what their show is not. It is not one of those other Washington D.C. based shows, constantly throwing outrageous plot twists and cliffhangers at you (cough cough, Scandal, ahem Homeland, looking at you, House of Cards). Instead, we are a character driven show about family, honesty, identity, and loyalty. If there were any doubts about this before, Season 3 definitively answered those questions. Weisberg and Fields have crafted a tense, melancholy show utterly unique to itself, all while providing a slew of memorable, often cringe-inducing scenes.
By that measure, last night’s episode, “March 9, 1983,” was a success. It was another well-acted, emotional, soul searching hour of television. Unfortunately, this wasn’t just another episode. This was the finale, the supposed culmination of carefully and intensely plotted storylines that appeared destined for head-on collisions. Yet Weisberg and Field chose to either neglect these heavily foreshadowed conflicts, or, in one glaring instance, conclude it in a tepid, unsatisfying way. The result was a finale that left me wondering whether I’d made a mistake about this being the last episode of the season or if there was actually one more airing next week. I’m pretty sure that’s not the best reaction one should have to a season finale, even one that was as well made as this one.
But before I start sounding like this guy, let’s break down what actually happened in last night’s episode.
“March 8, 1983” begins with Paige (Holly Taylor) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) leaving for West Germany to visit Elizabeth’s dying mother. Paige appears to have slipped easily into her new reality, casually lying to Henry (Keidrich Sellati) about the purpose of their trip. While in West Germany, Elizabeth and Paige continue to bond, and Elizabeth does get to say her final goodbyes to her mother. But by the time they return home, Paige is plagued by doubts about her new life, telling her mother that she doesn’t think she can live a lie. Elizabeth responds with what was the underlying theme of the episode (and, one could argue, the series) by telling her, “Everybody lies, Paige. It’s part of life. But we’re telling each other the truth now. That’s what’s important.”
This sentiment echoes throughout “March 8,” but particularly so for Philip (Matthew Rhys). Free to do anything he wants while Elizabeth is out of town, Philip finds himself at, of all places, an EST meeting. When we see that Sandra (Susan Misner) is also attending the meeting, my first thought was that this was a ploy to thwart Stan (Noah Emmerich), who seems to be closing in on Martha (Alison Wright). It quickly becomes apparent, though, that this is a genuine attempt by Philip to find some type of meaning in his life. The EST leader counsels the attendees to listen to their guts. Philip’s gut has been telling him for a long time that he’s acting immorally. As he bluntly tells Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), “I feel like shit all the time.” This feeling is even more pronounced after Philip murders Martha’s officemate, Gene (Luke Robertson), in an effort to save her from Walter Taffet’s (and Stan’s) investigation.
Stan, perhaps the most bottled up of all the characters, has at least been listening to his gut about Zenaida (and also his moral obligation to Nina). His recruitment of Oleg (Costa Ronin) finally pays off when the Centre all but confirms their suspicions about Zenaida (Svetlana Efremova) being a plant. Stan’s plan goes awry, however, when Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas), incensed by Stan’s deception, recommends Stan’s dismissal. Further dispiriting for Stan is the fact that the U.S. is going to trade Zenaida for a high-level CIA asset instead of Nina (Annet Mahendru). At least Stan is eventually rescued by the Director, who finds Stan’s maverick tendencies to be the necessary antidote to Gaad’s bureaucratic sensibility.
Speaking of Nina, she is another character who becomes infected by the honesty bug. After confirming that Anton (Michael Aronov) is not trying to deceive anyone about his work, she comes clean to him about her real motivation in befriending him. While I understand why she might confess to Anton, I have to admit to some confusion about her feeling of hopelessness. She tells Anton, “I can’t keep doing this, buying back my life. I don’t know if it’s worth it.” But why will she have to keep doing it? Wasn’t she charged with finding out whether Anton was being honest or not? Now that she has proven he is, doesn’t she get her freedom? Or does she only get it if she proves Anton was deceiving the Centre? Apparently so, since it seems clear that Nina will begin next season in basically the same situation she found herself at the beginning of he season, a ward of the State with no hope of release.
The final sequence is a riveting cut between Philip, desperately trying to be honest with Elizabeth about his feelings, and Paige confessing to Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). While Paige is able to unburden herself about her parents being Russians, Philip’s attempt to confide in Elizabeth is unsuccessful. Just as he seems on the verge of articulating his misgivings about their work to Elizabeth, her attention is drawn to the television where President Reagan is giving his famous “evil empire” speech. The camera zooms in on Elizabeth seething over Reagan’s accusations, while Philip slumps in defeat at their personal disconnect.
And that’s how the episode ends. A solid hour of television. Nothing wrong with that, until we realize that we’ve reached the end of the season with most, if not all, of the important storylines going unresolved. I wouldn’t go as far as Agent Gaad, who tells Stan, “It’s a day of big disappointments for all of us,” but I found “March 8” lacking in many important respects. I understand that the writers are under no obligation to deliver fireworks or shocking twists just because it’s the finale. I’m good with understated. But they should at least address the principal conflicts they have spent much of the season ominously foreshadowing, mainly because they’ve spent much of the season ominously foreshadowing them! Philip and Gabriel (Frank Langella) spent hours sizing each other up over the chess board until Philip dramatically tells him that he will do whatever it takes to protect his family. It was more than reasonable on the viewer’s part to infer that he meant more than just sending Elizabeth and Paige on a trip to West Germany. Likewise, Philip was presented with a multi-episode arc about whether to sleep with Kimmy (a metaphor for Paige losing her innocence), only Kimmy (Julia Garner) was nowhere to be found in the final episodes. Another intriguing but aborted plot was Elizabeth, through a series of trying operations, beginning to realize the (im)morality of her actions. Her outraged reaction to Reagan’s speech makes it plain that these reservations are no longer of any consequence to her.
Even more troubling than what the writers ignored, though, was the one storyline they decided to resolve: the investigation into the bug placed in Agent Gaad’s pen. For two seasons we’ve been waiting for the bug to be found, and once it was, all hell (justifiably) broke loose around Martha. Walter Taffet (Jefferson Mays), a foreboding presence, launched an investigation; Martha learns the truth about Clark; Stan becomes suspicious of Martha. It appeared that Martha was boxed into a corner that there was no escaping from, at least not without considerable carnage. The writers seemed to acknowledge this predicament throughout the season, drawing attention to her gun, having her say a tearful goodbye her goodbye to her parents, and allowing Philip to reveal his true (non-toupeed) identity to her. A set-up this prolonged and tense deserved a worthy conclusion.
Instead, they decided to resolve the situation by killing off a character we have no emotional investment in. In fact, I wouldn’t have even known his name had I not looked it up. The fact of the matter is that Martha’s story had run its course and for whatever reason, the writers flinched when it was time for her to go. Other series have killed off major characters when the story called for it. DeAngelo in The Wire, Jimmy in Boardwalk Empire, Ned Stark (and countless others) in Game of Thrones. Gus in Breaking Bad. Once a story goes down a certain path—a path the writers decide to take us down—there is no turning back without the story suffering, which is what happened last night.
Now it may be that next season will resolve many of these issues. Perhaps the writers regard the end of a season as an arbitrary break in the telling of one continuous story. Perhaps when we look back, we won’t remember that Martha or Gabriel died in the third episode of Season 4 and not thirteenth episode of Season 3. But that’s not the way viewers watch television in the present. In the present, they judge the entirety of a season in much the way they’d judge a book in a series. It needs to make sense on its own. And while Season 3 of The Americans was undeniably great, there is a lingering feeling that the writers might have cried wolf one too many times when it comes to placing major characters in peril, and that there will always be a Gene out there, waiting to be sacrificed on their behalf.
But let’s not go out on a sour note. There was so much good to remember from this season. Some of my favorite moments include: Yaz, A Flock of Seagulls, Ultravox, D.I.Y. dental surgery, Henry’s porn stash, Kama Sutra Martha, the salty diner waitresses, Strat-O-matic, Tron, Walter Taffet, Walter Taffet again, Analise, Betty the bookkeeper, Nina’s prison chic, Snuffy the dog, and last but certainly not least, Eddy Murphy imitations.
That’s it until January. In the meantime, you might want to say a prayer for Pastor Tim. Oh, and the Mail Robot.
Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.