Watching the outstanding fourth season finale of The Americans, it becomes clear (if it wasn’t before) why this show is lauded as the best on television—and why its ratings are so low.
“Persona Non Grata” bucks the expectations most of us have when it comes to season finales. In this age where shows live and die on having big deaths or showy plot twists in their finales that will drum up buzz and thousands of tweets, the FX drama forgoes all that. Instead, it delivers a quieter, more reflective and sombre season finale that’s more concerned with emotional climaxes.
But, that’s par for the course for this series, which is executive produced by Joel Fields and series creator Joe Weisberg. Though it’s a spy show, The Americans has always been focused on the inner lives of its characters and how geopolitics affect the domestic sphere. It has several thrilling action set pieces each season, but those are secondary to the emotional drama.
To those who are expecting a more traditional spy show, that can be alienating, but it’s also what made critics and fans fall in love with the show. The sinking feeling of dread as we watch Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) deal with bioweapons or as Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) gets closer to uncovering his neighbors’ identities keeps us coming back.
The closest thing that the finale has to any kind of adrenaline-pumping action arrives in the episode’s opening sequence. It starts with the FBI tailing William (Dylan Baker) on his way to hand over to Philip a sample of a weaponized version of Lassa fever. It’s a tightly edited sequence that slowly builds tension and suspense by cutting back and forth between the FBI agents, William walking, and Philip getting ready for the exchange. William spots the tails and tries to make a run for it. But the FBI agents corner him in the park and, seeing no other option, William breaks the vial in his hand, infecting himself with the virus so that he’ll die in three days and therefore have no reason to turn on his comrades.
From there, the finale calms significantly and focuses on the consequences of this operation. William’s capture convinces Gabriel (Frank Langella) that it’s time for Phillip and Elizabeth to pack up their things and their family and return to Russia. For the FBI, this means it’s finally time to do something about the Russian spies. They decide to expel Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn) from the country for everything he’s done.
The thought of having to return to Russia frightens both Arkady and the Jennings because their relationship with the homeland has changed so much. The most telling moment is during a mid-episode sequence set to Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” in which Arkady, drinking his sorrows away, looks up resentfully at a bust of Lenin in his office.
In fact, that Leonard Cohen-scored sequence is one of the episode’s highlights, as it considers the complicated nature of most of the show’s relationships—a running theme of the season. The fourth season has thoughtfully explored how relationships to people, groups, and even ideologies can be both beneficial and damaging, especially interpersonal relationships. And the bioweapons plotline has been the best metaphor for the trickiness of those relationships.
What makes bioweapons so horrific is that they turn people into living weapons against their families, friends, and fellow citizens. Once a bioweapon is deployed, our relationships quickly become dangerous because we don’t want a deadly virus. From the show’s point of view, relationships can be both beneficial and harmful. On the one hand, they can enrich our lives, but at the same time, they can be exploited, which can have deadly consequences.
As William lies on his deathbed with Stan and Aderholt watching over him from the observation room, he reflects on how lonely his existence in the U.S. has been. When he first started spying, he felt special because he was invisible, but eventually, that invisibility and his lack of connections “became a curse,” he says.
“The absence of closeness makes you dry inside,” he mournfully tells Stan and Aderholt.
Later, as his organs start to melt and ooze from his orifices, he enters a state of delirium and starts rambling about how he’s jealous of what Philip and Elizabeth have—someone to come home to, kids. Thankfully, he doesn’t say their actual names.
“He’s lucky,” says William.
Yes, Philip is lucky to have Elizabeth and Paige and Henry, but those familial connections are also a vulnerability and complicate their lives enormously.
In the finale, we finally meet Mischa, the son Philip had with his now-dead ex-girlfriend Irina (Marina Squerciati). After he’s freed from prison, he returns to his grandfather’s home and collects a package from his mother containing money and passports with the intention of finding his father, whom his mother told him was a travel agent in America.
In any other circumstance, this would probably be great for Philip, who has felt guilty about not knowing his 18-year-old son since he found out he had one. That absence of a relationship has been one of many things weighing on his already tortured soul. (Each week Rhys, who finds new ways to convey how worn out Philip is from the job, proves yet again why he deserves more Emmy love.)
But now, reuniting with his Russian son would be one of the worst things to happen to Philip because his cover identity would be blown. The mere prospect of Mischa walking around America looking for his travel agent father would jeopardize Philip and his family.
Philip already has his hands full with his two younger children. When Philip goes to pick up his daughter Paige from Stan’s house after he and Elizabeth meet with Gabriel, Stan excitedly beckons him inside because he just caught Paige and his son Matthew making out.
“Father of the bride, you’re paying. You can use my backyard if you want to,” says Stan jokingly.
But Philip doesn’t find it nearly as funny and tells Paige she’s forbidden from seeing Matthew as they trudge back across the street. He’s worried about everything: what that relationship could mean for Paige and for the family’s safety. The ascending minor sequence in composer Nathan Barr’s score adds to the anxiety of the scene.
The episode ends on a foreboding shot of the Jennings’ home, looming over Philip and Paige as they enter while Elizabeth peeks out from a window above. The home, which is supposed to be a refuge from the dangers of the outside world, now looks like a haunted house, which captures the fraught nature of the Jennings’ current situation. Their home and family might keep them safe, but it’s also the most dangerous thing in their lives.
The Americans’ fourth season has been the best of the series so far. It was an impeccably and deliberately structured season that paid off many seeds planted in the first season. And the cast has never been stronger. Holly Taylor continues to shine as the show’s secret weapon, which has been evident for quite some time. Watching her navigate Paige’s conflicting feelings and response to her parents’ secret has been intriguing and thrilling to watch. Her layered performance makes us wonder how much of her budding relationship with Matthew is based on her having genuine feelings for him and her feeling obligated to get into the family business.
Earlier this month, The Americans was renewed for its final two seasons. So, we know that things can only get worse, more tense and anxiety-filled for the Jennings from here.