This week on Dear Television: Phil gets a couple of nights' sleep and thinks about the series finale of FX's The Americans. There are lots of spoilers here, so if you haven't seen "START," the series finale of The Americans, pack your backpack and scram.
The last time I stayed up all night to write a review of a television episode was in May 2015. Those were the days. Mad Men had turned us here at Dear Television into screenerless zombies, viewing, reviewing, and deconstructing the luxurious final set-pieces of Peggy Olson’s televisual life with chapped eyeballs and crumpled brain boxes until the wee small hours of the morning. I realize we didn’t all stop doing that in 2015, but I certainly did. Five months after the world got bought a Coke, my daughter was born, and I lost the ability to stay up late.
I say this, in part, by way of apology for how long it’s taken me to register these thoughts about the series finale of The Americans, a television show about the spectacle of two parents who can somehow perform complex tasks after their children have fallen asleep. I tried to write overnight after the finale, but, while the Jenningses can decode elaborate ciphers or fight in close-quarters combat well past 10:00 PM, I struggle to do anything more than read one-fifth of a New Yorker article about the perils of artificial intelligence. I guess I should have thrown back a shot of EVOO before my first and only glass of red wine on Wednesday night.
More to the point, though, I bring this up because the series finale of The Americans made me conscious of my own Dadliness in more ways than one. The fact that this series that was nominally about Cold War espionage was actually about marriage and co-parenting is one that has been long established. The capers and the kills were metaphors for and avatars of the domestic drama that anchored these lives. Anyway, that’s not a new insight; it’s the premise. Especially for this final season, in which Elizabeth became solely responsible for Paige’s upbringing and Philip became Henry’s primary parent, the contrasting styles and fights of this married couple became more than usually expressive. I think especially about the bitter exchange Philip and Elizabeth had in the third episode of the season, about Elizabeth’s focusing on Paige screwing up protocol during an operation rather than the possibility that Paige might have been traumatized by seeing her mother caked in blood and brains. After Elizabeth reams out her daughter for poor execution, Philip passive-aggressively chastens that, “I told her she’d have you to talk to.” Elizabeth curtly responds, “What do you think I was just doing?” The violent melodrama, the body horror, is there to make us feel the stakes of the parenting disagreement, not vice versa. Communication, after all, is the key to both the successful avoidance of nuclear annihilation and a successful marriage.
Over the past few years, I’ve found myself increasingly defensive about the slow creep of Philip’s cornball vibe. Everybody’s making fun of Philip’s EST-y, self-help bromides this week, but, as Mister Rogers says, feelings really oughtta be mentionable and manageable. He’s not wrong. And Henry really should be himself—where is the lie?! But the continued visibility and accessibility of Philip’s aw-shucks paterfamilias, despite the lethality and cravenness of his many alter-egos, is one of this show’s best and most hurtful tricks. Like most performative expressions of masculinity in the year Two Thousand Eighteen, Philip’s is as toxic as it is seemingly well-intentioned. Emily Nussbaum did a terrific job, first, staying up later than me, and, second, giving a play-by-play of the precise moves PJ makes to weaponize his feelings at Stan in the parking garage. And his decision to choke Paige out in her apartment a few weeks ago presented him as a grotesque caricature of the Dad trying to show his daughter he’s still cool. He wanted to tell her to be careful, but he also wanted to pin her to the wall until she almost passed out. Those desires are different, but not necessarily separate, for Philip. And it’s not a coincidence that Philip uses his body to betray both his daughter and Kimmy—the asset Philip developed as a potential lover but sustained as a surrogate father—in the space of the same episode.
I’ve written about the slow build of this dynamic before—“The Ballad of the Cool Dad”—and its tethering to a narrative of Philip’s moral awakening. That narrative, it turns out, was a weak put-on. When it comes down to it, even if Philip and Elizabeth switch allegiances to the “good guys” trying to put an end to the Cold War, when pushed, Philip reverts to protocol. Tradecraft is tradecraft whether or not you make a frowny face while you chop off your co-worker’s head.
Philip is a Bad Dad because he treats his fatherly acts and commitments the same way he treats his tradecraft: performed with precision and skill, but not deeply held. He is the Dad who, in the parking lot of a McDonalds, makes a show of his willingness to sacrifice for his son but doesn’t follow through. He wants the credit for saying it, even if Elizabeth, in her kind reply, acknowledges the unlikelihood he does anything about it. He is the Dad who turns his abandonment of his son into a heroic act, who persuades his wife of the purity of that heroism. He is the Dad who gives the best friend he betrayed the heroic opportunity to become the New Dad of his aforementioned abandoned son. He is the Dad whose main motivation—even as it is buried under and alongside dozens of other more meaningful motivations—is that he doesn’t want to go to jail. Henry could visit him in jail, probably. But maybe they don’t have snacks there? So, no.
But again, we’ve been over this. The reason I want to foreground the vexed daditude of Philip Jennings in this finale is that the episode itself seems to be soaked in it, almost at an aesthetic level. I liked this episode. It was, as has already been attested by other critics, a masterful feat of storytelling, a great Americans episode, a somber and fitting end to a series that rarely made mistakes. But it also felt a little out of sorts to me, a little ambivalent about its own feelings, a little eager—despite its lack of action, gore, or sex—to exaggerate its dramatic beats. It was filled with haunting lines (“You were meant for better things…we all were.”) and perfect performances from Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, and Holly Taylor. It stuck its landings, but it had a lot of them, and their stickiness was, to me, a little too much. (Paige on the platform, seen speeding through two windows, and then alone with the camera, was gutting; Paige pulling out the vodka at Claudia’s was maybe too neat.)
Nowhere was this more noticeable to me than in the episode’s two big pop music cues. We’re used to The Americans giving us beautiful and iconic and surprising drops—“Tusk,” “Tainted Love,” “The Chain,” “Only You,” “In the Air Tonight.” The wonder of these songs was the way they became transformed in the moment. They were pockets of surprising depth, seventies/eighties cheese transubstantiated into holy things. For a show about two people wearing wigs, these songs were about the depth of artifice in context, the way deep feeling can spring from no feeling. They were also occasions for generative mismatches between violence and emotion, between the comfort of pop music and the desolation of the Jennings’ lives. They were the spectacular genius of this show.
Last night, I read a bummer of an interview with Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, the showrunners. They were, as they often are, extraordinarily articulate and responsible about their craft—this was a show made by people who understand their medium, and I am thrilled to see what they do next. But it was a bummer, specifically, to read about the way they chose the two most anticipated musical cues of the series. “When we shot that scene,” they said, “we had no idea what song we’d use. And we listened to dozens and dozens and dozens of songs for that sequence. Most of which didn’t work at all, and some of which really worked quite well and were close. But when we heard that one, it was extraordinary.” Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” and U2’s “With or Without You”—the two songs they ran in this finale, it turned out, were not the songs they intended or imagined in advance but rather the songs that they chose among many options presented to them in the edit. This is standard practice, but I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that they had planned out these momentous cues with the same intentionality they had applied to the final scenes and lines of dialogue. Instead, they chose “With or Without You” because it was moving. It fit. I don’t dispute that. Of course it was moving. Of course it fit. You could play “With or Without You” over footage of me looking at closet systems at The Container Store earlier today, and it would be moving. It would fit. Just like it fit when it was used to soundtrack Ross and Rachel’s will-they-won’t-they on Friends. Just like “Brothers in Arms” fit over the closing montage of The West Wing’s “Two Cathedrals.” These songs work because they do the work for you. And that’s never been the way this show DJ’s.
That these songs are moving is not at issue; it is the issue. Last week, over the course of several nights in the fleeting moments between when my head hits my memory foam pillow and I fall asleep, I read—yes—a New Yorker article about the former U.S. ambassador to Panama who resigned in righteous protest of Donald Trump’s many violations of the norms of diplomacy. At his farewell ceremony, a loudspeaker played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” and the ambassador (a former soldier and general tough guy) erupted in manly, puckered-lip tears. I thought of him when “Brothers in Arms” started playing. The song’s on-the-nose messaging, its romantic tale of masculine fellowship, the sheer Lite beer, sweatshirted dadfulness of its many guitar solos.
I have played air guitar to solos such as these. I cried real tears when I heard this song the last time it was used to soundtrack a climactic moment of a series I love. I have done the walk of life. These things are embarrassing. I imagined this show might stay consistent to the end with the kind of sharp-edged emotion of the Fleetwood Mac song that began it. “Don’t say that you love me,” Lindsey Buckingham shrieked, “just tell me that you want me.” It’s been a long time since that sound cue, and I understand that the sentiments have changed, but I expected an emotional address with that kind of cutting slant, that kind of thirsty, desperate need, because this show has always produced such needful moments through music. This music, though, didn’t need anything.
The Americans is a show about mothers and daughters, about female strength, about the violence and danger that suffuse even ordinary interactions for women in the U.S., about choice. But it is also a show as motored by dadly sentimentality as it is invested in critiquing it. This is a show that tells brilliant and subtle stories about the costs and glories of women at work, the price they pay for being either too “cold” or too “easy,” the roles women are forced to play, the roles they are shamed for desiring. Elizabeth Jennings is its greatest and most interesting creation. (Read Angelica Jade Bastién’s ode to Elizabeth.) But, at the end of the series, when it wanted to give its audience the opportunity to feel, it addressed us as Philip. It spoke in the vernacular of the dad. Perhaps the episode ended in Elizabeth’s native tongue. But for the big set-piece, the valedictory montage, The Americans slid a cassette into the car stereo and asked the kid in the passenger seat to listen, just really listen to this song.
To be dad-like about it: I’m not mad, I’m just a little disappointed. This finale was as good as everyone says, this criticism is, in many ways, a small point, and excellent critics have extolled the virtues of these song choices in particular. But the quality that made this show special to me was always its ability to give viewers something new from something ordinary; to not give musical cues, for instance, that resonated immediately, that made perfect sense, that spelled things out. But maybe this was the secret, hiding in plain sight the whole time. None of these emotions were special, none of these stakes unusually high. These two songs were ordinary, readymade delivery-systems of feeling. Hits, even. Maybe that high followed by that deflation was part of the story. Maybe the rush of pulling your sexy wife’s tooth out is the same rush as line-dancing with your co-workers. Everything’s been said before, everything’s been felt before, sex is nothing compared to duty, shocking violence is nothing compared to just being alive in America. The clichés are inescapable, and we shouldn’t fault these songs for stating them with such sincerity and earnest effort. Every relationship is terrifying. Every growing-up is a loss, every getting old is a betrayal. For Philip or for Stan or for Oleg or for Mark Knopfler. Definitely for Bono. No dads but these dads.
What your father said, I feel the same,