For much of its third season, The Americans felt typically knotty and overloaded with plot, but its finale Wednesday night muted much of the background noise. Instead, the show zoomed in on its most enduring theme: the unique, but relatable, dynamics of the Jennings family. Recent episodes saw Philip and Elizabeth's daughter, Paige, discover the truth about them—that they're Soviet spies working undercover in the States, and that her birth and upbringing have served as helpful cover for their clandestine activities. The revelation was predictably shattering for Paige, but it felt like a necessary second act, forcing the question of whether the truth would further drive a wedge between the family, or help Paige begin to reconcile with her parents after multiple seasons of strife.
For much of its running time, “March 8, 1983” felt like it was building toward the latter. While Paige’s horror upon learning the truth was certainly justified, it seemed possible that the revelation might prompt a degree of reconciliation. For so long, she'd suspected they had some kind of terrible secret, and here it was, but with its most gruesome details—the murders, sex crimes, and acts of coercion her parents regularly commit in the name of Mother Russia—omitted. Would the half-truth be better or worse than what she might have imagined?
In the finale, Paige accompanied her mother to Berlin for a covert but highly personal mission—to see Elizabeth’s ailing mother, spirited behind enemy lines as a political favor. The moment felt like the emotional crescendo Paige had longed for from her often detached mother, and it had that impact for the audience, at least. Keri Russell’s performance as Elizabeth was faultless, but definitely on the icy side. While Philip (Matthew Rhys) has always been more compassionate and less idealistic, perhaps secretly willing to defect to America to secure his children’s safety, Elizabeth has seemingly never wavered from the cause.
So it was powerful to see Elizabeth weep in her mother’s arms and murmur to her in Russian, but that much more so to realize that this genuinely moving moment hadn't worked on Paige. Or, at least, hadn't worked in the right way. At the end of the episode, she told her youth pastor the truth about her parents, in her own moment of vulnerability. It was also a triumphant moment, even though it has alarming implications for next year (FX has renewed the show for a fourth season).
Throughout the year, Elizabeth and Philip have waged a mostly silent cold war of their own over the soul of their daughter. The KGB wants her groomed into a second-generation spy with her own American passport, and Elizabeth seems to agree; Philip wants her to enjoy all the freedoms and indulgences of her native country, free of the evil work he has to do. This season was particularly punishing in that regard, beginning with Philip folding a woman’s corpse into a suitcase by breaking many of her bones, and centering a major arc around his coercive romance with a teenage girl.
With her parents out of the house all the time, Paige turned to religion for support. Her fervor was mostly directed toward helping others, and her church had a happy-clappy, lefty-activist vibe to it, but in the finale, Paige felt like an unwitting agent of Ronald Reagan, that mighty Christian icon of the era, who gave his famous “Evil Empire” speech in the finale, not coincidentally to the National Association of Evangelicals.
The speech marked a ramping-up of aggression toward the Soviet Union, as America’s rivals to the east seemed to be somewhat adrift following the death of President Leonid Brezhnev the previous year. Paige’s actions don’t exactly mirror Reagan’s cheerful proclamation of American superiority, but her family situation does take on grander metaphorical status here. If Elizabeth (and, more reluctantly, Philip) have always accepted their disturbing lives as being part of a great sacrifice for their country, Paige is exerting her uniquely American, proudly selfish right to self-determination, and she has plenty of good reason to. The biggest tragedy is that Elizabeth, whose own mother is basically a stranger to her, has no idea how roiled her daughter is by the Berlin trip, telling Philip it was “good for her.”
The biggest storylines on The Americans are always portrayed internally, even during moments of brutal violence. Philip and Elizabeth’s conflict over their children has played out via their sex lives and quiet visits with their KGB mentor Gabriel, who has softly but firmly pitted the couple against each other in an effort to eventually win Paige over to his side. The quiet nature of these twists is probably why the show has never been a ratings smash despite constant critical buzz—in a finale that could have gone so many action-packed ways, the biggest moments were Elizabeth’s lack of realization, and Paige’s quiet, tearful phone call.
But that doesn’t mean, as it finishes its most confident and well-executed season yet, that The Americans lacks dramatic flair. In the finale, Philip was tasked with framing an FBI agent for planting a bug in an office, to protect one of his crucial sources (Martha, a woman he falsely married to keep on the hook). To do so, he had to kill him and stage a suicide. After doing so and stringing up the poor man, Philip typed out a hasty suicide note on his computer: “I had no choice, I’m sorry.” That’s the central conflict of this series, boiled into one sad sentence: Philip has no choice, and nor does his wife, when it comes to the horrible things they do. The great unknown is whether that nightmare will be passed on to their children. By placing her parents in mortal danger, Paige’s choice to make that phone call suggests that it might not. That’s the kind of dark triumph only The Americans could engineer.