Jezebel’s resident The Americans fans Joanna Rothkopf and Stassa Edwards discuss “Persona Non Grata,” Season 4's slow-burn, devastating finale.
Joanna Rothkopf: I want to start out by saying that nobody at Jezebel has really heard me talk about The Americans before, so this is a big deal for me. I am supremely uncool about The Americans.
Stassa Edwards: Same here, Joanna. I am deeply and emotionally invested in the well-being of the Jennings family. Even though Philip and Elizabeth border on being serial killers.
JR: They are for sure serial killers. But they are serial killers for a cause (Mother Russia), so it’s forgivable.
SE: Yes and Elizabeth is very committed to Mother Russia, unlike Philip who is very on the fence and spends a lot of time working his feelings out at EST.
So, EST has had a pretty intense role this season...
JR: Right, so obviously a few of the major themes of the show play into why Philip would even be interested in something so un-Russian as EST (and it’s a real joy to see the beginnings of the self-help movement on the show), and we saw a lot of those themes in the finale last night—loneliness, dedication to a cause that you’re not sure you believe in, feelings and what they mean.
SE: The season finale definitely delved into a lot of those themes more directly than the show has previously. Like Philip at the EST meeting expressing his frustrations with “work” (though disguised as a travel agent) and William, who was caught by the FBI, having this really intense monologue about loneliness and the emotional isolation of his work. I thought that the frustrations expressed by both Philip and William were a nice contrast of one of the big themes of the entire show.
JR: Ugh, yes. And if we zoom out and look at the character arcs of the whole gang (they are not a gang) this season, and in the episode, they’re all struggling with the same things. Should we start with poor William and Russia’s burgeoning biodefense program?
SE: So William, the world’s saddest spy, gave himself a terrible disease when he realized that he was going to be captured by Stan Beeman and his (pretty incompetent) team of FBI agents.
JR: He Chekhov gunned himself!!! Obviously he had to die by Lassa fever. Throughout the season he has dutifully trafficked a few horrific diseases (like Glanders, R.I.P. Glanders), and Lassa fever was the one that he said was actually too humiliating of a death to inflict upon anyone else. Your whole inside turns to goo and then you spray it out your butt and mouth.
Anyway, in addition to that beautiful little monologue that expressed everything we all feel all the time (in 1980s America, if you’re a spy), he also gave away just enough information about Philip and Elizabeth to propel Stan and Aderholdt’s pursuit into the fifth season.
SE: William’s speech (“she’s pretty; he’s lucky”) was one of the highlights of the episode. It touched nicely on the show’s exploration of intimacy, particularly what intimacy means when your entire existence is built on lies. It’s something that Philip and Elizabeth have struggled with—particularly when Philip was developing what seemed like a real relationship with Martha. (Poor Martha, who wasn’t in this episode at all.)
JR: (Because she is somewhere between Prague and Mother Russia.) (And who knows if we will ever see her again.) The Russians overall had a rouuuuugh episode. My love Arkady has been instructed by the FBI to leave the country within 24 hours; My love Oleg has decided to leave the country to be with his mamma. Smug secret biodefense program manager Tatiana has been told to stay in America and look over the Rezidentura in Arkady’s absence—a task which I do not trust her with.
SE: No, Tatiana will probably give everyone Glanders.
Beyond that, it was unclear whether or not Arkady and Oleg are leaving the show or if there will be a “Russian” set, a la Nina’s storyline.
JR: There already is a Russia set, which is all grey and likely shot in a studio in Queens, which apparently you have to do to get your New York film/TV tax credit. That’s why Nina’s safe house always looked so cheap and two-dimensional I think. But I don’t know.
SE: Arkady and Oleg’s storyline (like they’re 1980s Communist bros) has been one of my favorites, so I hope it continues... somehow?
JR: Same! They can’t just replace Arkady and Oleg with Mischa’s traditional heroic search for his dad Philip, which, by the way, will severely fuck up Philip’s cover. What if Mischa accidentally knocks on Stan’s door next season and says in a thick Russian accent, “I am looking for my father, Mischa, he travel agent, he from the KGB.” Also, Joel Fields/Joe Weisman if you want to hire me to do some contributing to Season 5 after that little taste of dialogue I would consider it.
SE: Just go down to Nina’s safe house in Queens and see if they’re hiring, Joanna.
JR: I’m sitting outside it right now… Not in production it seems.
SE: Speaking of doing insane things, we met Philip’s love child in a mental institution where he was being held for saying subversive stuff about the Russian military. So, he has a bit of Philip’s unease with Mother Russia, it seems.
JR: Like Mischa, like Mischa.
SE: Hopefully baby Mischa is more aware of the world than Philip’s other son, Henry. Henry is possibly the most oblivious teen to ever appear on television.
JR: Wow. Can you not be rude about my brother/son/neighbor boy?
SE: Apologies. But Henry literally has no idea what’s going on.
JR: Everyone is literally playing with little disease bombs that could wipe out millions of people and Henry is playing video games and sitting on the couch like, “Dad, ugh, why won’t you watch football? It’s really important to me.”
SE: I liked that Henry’s biggest story arc was attaching his computer games to the television. He’s the only real American.
JR: Oh my god. Scorching, but true.
SE: Meanwhile, his sister, Paige, is about to have an anxiety attack any minute. Between spying, church, and a boy, she has a lot on her plate. Loneliness and isolation, as you said, have been a major theme in the Jennings household throughout the last season and half, particularly as they work in the life of Paige. She’s had this incredible arc from barely sentient teen to religious convert and finally to joining the family business of spying.
The contrast between her isolation, as an American teen whose life has radically changed, and that of her parents—literally hiding their identities—has been a driving (and unsteady) force in the show. But, I think, there’s a nice contrast between Paige’s adolescent uncertainty and the permanent identity crises of her parents, particularly Philip.
JR: In this episode specifically, we see Paige still reeling from seeing her mom unhesitatingly murder a guy in a parking lot, and then somehow seamlessly transitioning from upset Paige to burgeoning Directorate S agent Paige. She asks to learn how to fight, she reports that Pastor Tim (God bless) and Alice have had their baby and dutifully visits, and then she does the most important thing in the whole episode—she gets sloppy with Matthew Beeman. And how are we even supposed to talk about that?!
SE: Right? Teens kissing! Which Philip isn’t happy about, even though, in the previous episode, he had given Paige his “blessing” to do whatever with young Beeman and his terrible hair.
JR: It is probably not okay to admit that I identify pretty heavily with Paige (since I’m an adult) but I was very pissed when Philip extracted her from her Super Bowl date. But anyway, that’s the end. We ended the fourth season (which the producers have said is kind of the end of the show’s second act) with Philip and Paige walking back into their house from across the street, Philip all pissy and stressed that his family might be blown apart, and Paige all pissy and stressed that she can’t keep half-dating/half-intelligence gathering with Matthew.
SE: And Pastor Tim is still alive (which was the most disappointing part of the episode).
JR: Pastor Tim needs to take Alice and baby Claire Louise to Africa permanently or turn them into a family of turned agents for Russia. I can’t deal with them.
But, to wrap up, did you like the finale? That Leonard Cohen “Who By Fire” montage really killed me.
SE: I had very mixed feelings about the finale! It felt, in part, very much like a setup for next season. Will the Jennings family go to Russia? Will Paige (or Mischa) blow the cover? It was an episode full of a lot of questions, without a lot of answers. That’s typical of The Americans, particularly this season, but there was a lot of transition. Like you said, Joanna, the end of Act 2.
JR: I agree! Season 4 was also the first season that I couldn’t binge watch since I was already caught up which made the intense slow burn of the episodes so much more intense. The writers are unbelievably patient and are parsing out this story into teeny tiny chunks. Now in the last two seasons we’re going to have to see some kind of resolution with Stan and Elizabeth and Philip. I had the terrible thought today that Elizabeth is going to have to die and Philip will have to go live life as an American with his American children like he’s always wanted. But maybe not.
SE: That thought gave me an anxiety attack. It seems like a logical conclusion in part, because going to Russia seems impossible at this point. But who knows? The writers are definitely willing to kill off, well, anyone. I just want them to kill off Pastor Tim.
Image via FX.