Whenever The Americans turns up the music and cues up a montage, you know something is going down.
So midway through Tuesday’s Season 5 finale, when Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” began piping over scenes of Elizabeth staring at her American closet and Paige facing her fears in the parking lot where she was once mugged, a reckoning was inevitable.
Season 5 was The Americans’ slowest and least satisfying yet, often compromising on action for the sake of setting up next year’s final season. But now that we’ve made it through a few too many frowns from Paige and sighs from Oleg, it’s clear that the stakes are higher than ever. The dilemma facing the Jennings family in Tuesday’s episode and beyond is bigger than a single mission: It is the very fact of their existence in the United States.
After preparing for the end of their tour throughout a tense extended-length finale, Philip and Elizabeth choose to stick stateside instead of returning to the Soviet Union — of course they do, there’s another season coming. But the motivation behind their choice is impossible to fully parse. How much of their decision owes to loyalty to their old country, and how much owes to comfort in their new one?
Throughout the series, it’s been Elizabeth who has loyally, even blindly, believed in the righteousness of the Soviet cause. So it’s no surprise that as Philip wavers over whether to give up on his promising mission with Kimmy and return to the USSR, Elizabeth fights back tears and declares the couple must remain where they are. But given the way she stares at her colorful wardrobe and at the photos of her American-raised family, it’s easy to wonder whether she’s grown more attached to the U.S. and the life she’s built there than she’d ever dare admit.
Regardless of whether Philip and Elizabeth eventually muster the courage to leave their American life, they’ve finally realized what’s been clear to viewers for several seasons: They need to get out, one way or another, before it’s too late for their family to recover.
Phillip has sensed this fact for quite a while, dating back to the pilot episode, when he suggested the couple defect on the spot. Elizabeth, on the other hand, has come around lately, a result of her saga with Young-Hee in Season Four, her up-close view of Paige’s ongoing torment and her heart-breaking run-ins this season with the Morozovs and with the Nazi-aiding woman several episodes ago. She’s no longer the cold, uncaring loyalist she once was. She’s caught Philip’s skepticism and awoken to his many fears.
Elizabeth seems to see some of her old, remorseless self in Tuan, who nearly kills a “friend” because he thinks it will advance his cause, then lectures Philip and Elizabeth for putting “petty bourgeois concerns” (i.e., an innocent teenager’s life) ahead of a mission. Philip and Elizabeth offer Tuan a way out of fieldwork because they know first-hand how miserable the job is. He turns them down because he doesn’t realize the same. If it took Elizabeth decades to get it, how can Tuan be expected to understand so quickly?
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Confronted by Tuan, Elizabeth’s newfound cynicism comes pouring out, as she promises he will eventually fail, at least unless he finds himself a partner. “Something will happen,” she cautions. “You’ll get caught or you’ll die. One day, it will all come crashing down.” In an odd way, her speech to Tuan is the nicest thing Elizabeth has ever said about Philip. Without him, she seems to believe, she’d have been blown — or worse — long ago.
In light of that scene, Elizabeth’s words ring hollow when she later tells Philip he can leave hard-core spying to her and focus on their travel agency until they’re really ready to leave. He responds that she needs him, and she doesn’t push back because she knows he’s right.
The most important development in this relatively dry fifth season was the maturation of Philip and Elizabeth’s feelings for each other. Finally, Elizabeth sees Philip not just as a partner but as a husband, as someone she truly cares about. “I’m making you stay, and it just keeps getting worse for you,” she tells him, with wet eyes. “I don’t want to see you like this anymore.”
For her husband, Elizabeth is willing to sacrifice the security of working with a partner. And for his wife, Philip is willing to trudge forward in a job that is slowly ruining him. Philip and Elizabeth have torn apart families, as recently as earlier this very episode, but they are stubbornly committed to keeping their own family together, right where it is.