(This story contains spoilers for the series finale of The Americans. Read at your own risk!)
There was only one way the story of The Jennings could end, and the series finale of The Americans -- which should be regarded as one of the great series-ending hours of television ever, even if it was a bummer and a half -- delivered it in all its heartbreaking, soul-crushing glory. I wouldn't want it any other way.
No one died. No one lost their job. No one was captured. Instead, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) made it safely back to Russia, after Stan learned the truth and let them go after a stirring plea from Philip (what a scene!), leaving the FBI scrambling in the wake of their wigs and fake passports. But it came at a steep cost. The finale saw Philip and Elizabeth break for the Motherland and make the most difficult decision of their lives: They decided to leave Henry (Keidrich Sellati) behind in America, where he would live out the rest of his life as an American and parentless. Ouch. It was the only decision that made sense for them; Henry was an American, he was none the wiser about his parents' true occupation and he had already started a life without them at his prep school.
After grabbing daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) and uprooting her from her life to go back to Russia, the three Jennings spies boarded a train toward the Canadian border to make their escape. During a routine stop, sheriffs entered the train to search for the Jennings, but Philip, Elizabeth and Paige -- all sitting separately to not raise suspicion but thematically because their family was already being torn apart -- were all disguised up and they continued on. Elizabeth's sigh of relief was brief though, because as the train moved along, there was Paige on the platform, alone, staring back at them with those Bambi-like Paige eyes in half-apology-half-defiance. It's a visual that will haunt me for the rest of my days. Philip and Elizabeth looked on in horror as they realized the ramifications of Paige's decision. She decided to stay in America and abandon her parents.
And that was that. Philip and Elizabeth were without their children for the rest of their lives. They would never be able to talk to, see or hug their kids again. It was preposterous to believe that Philip and Elizabeth would ever lead normal lives given their profession. Yet through their work, they built an authentic loving marriage and a family, their fake lives yielding real love. But the cost of the Cold War in which they were soldiers was to lose it all, and it's arguably a fate that was worse than losing their lives. Most war is marked by the deaths tallied, and the Cold War was definitely different but not without its own casualties, and here we saw an intimate look at the destruction of a family through no fault of their own.
The Americans was always about family first. The espionage that flavored the show, though highly detailed as though the writers room were full of fake-mustache-wearing spies, moved plot forward but rarely impacted the family structure with its specifics. It could have been nearly any profession or secret that kept the family at arms' length through its run, and that was how we related to them.
"Start" used this idea perfectly, building its finale not around the tension born out of Russia or Gorbachev or the summit or any of the other micro details that sprung up this season, but around the fate of the Jennings that we had always wondered about. It's plausible that one could have missed the last two or three or four seasons of The Americans and still be greatly affected by the finale.
That's just great storytelling. Rather than add so much new story in the final season to stage the last episode, as many shows are wont to do, the series finale was simplified down to only what mattered most so that nearly anyone who had invested time and effort into The Americans at some point could pick up the finale and get a satisfying conclusion. That's partly because executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg stuck with the series ending they had planned in the first season, and held on to the themes that made The Americans consistently one of the best shows on TV during its run. Fields and Weisberg figured it out: The best way to say goodbye is the same way you said hello.
The Americans is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video or on FX+.