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Review: 'The Americans' season 2 ends with a stunning finale

From left, Margo Martindale, Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys

FX

From left, Margo Martindale, Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys

Wow, what a punch to the gut.

Yesterday, I mentioned this has been an impressively confident sophomore season for The Americans, and this finale really demonstrated why. "Echo" - written by series creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields - has all the elements of an effective season closer: It ties off loose ends (Jared killed his parents! Larrick dies!) and brings this season's plots and themes full circle. But, because this is The Americans, the episode also manages to be constantly surprising; it never feels like the show is just checking off boxes. Best of all, it points to a new direction for season three, broadening the scope beyond Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell)'s individual missions.

The episode's big reveal is the identity of Emmett and Leanne's killer, a spy couple and friends of Philip and Elizabeth who were found dead with their daughter in a hotel room back in February's season premiere. We learn Wednesday, in an excruciating climactic scene, that their son Jared killed his parents and sister out of some warped sense of loyalty. Totally disturbing, and even more effective for the way it comes out of nowhere. Elizabeth and Philip discover the truth after they've spent multiple episodes caring for and protecting Jared, and after they've just gotten into a bloody fight with Larrick to keep him safe. The way his confession slowly unravels is chilling, as is the look of confusion and, eventually, horror on Elizabeth and Philip's faces. (And, man, even if the writers didn't know how they were going to wrap that storyline when they first introduced it, you'd never knowing it watching this finale.)

But that's not all The Americans has up its sleeve, and it's what comes next that makes this finale so stunning. It's also another terrific example of the show planting seeds throughout the season that really pay off here. In what initially seems like a benign coda to the episode, Elizabeth and Philip meet with Claudia (Margo Martindale, whose presence is always welcome) to discuss their recent troubles, and she drops a bombshell. The KGB is interested in training "second-generation illegals," people like the Jennings' kids, to work for them, because they're less susceptible to suspicion than their Russian-born parents. Jared was part of that program, until it all went horribly awry. And guess what? The KGB wants Elizabeth and Philip's daughter Paige to be next in line. It's one of the show's most devastating, tragic scenes ever. That look on Rhys' face? Heartwrenching.

Storywise, bringing Paige into the fold this way is a brilliant stroke, simultaneously making the focus on her this season seem richer AND setting the stage for a compelling third season. It complicates things in that knotty, tangled way The Americans thrives on. Paige's mere existence is part of her spy parents' American cover. In the episode's real kicker, Elizabeth suggests that maybe her daughter, who certainly doesn't lack passion to be part of something bigger than herself, would be a good fit for this sort of job. Philip is appalled ("It would destroy her"), but the show doesn't come down in favor of either side. Who's right? On The Americans, there are no easy answers.

I haven't even gotten to the Stan-Nina stuff, a secondary plot so compelling it could be its own show. Again, it's a testament to this show's ability to thrive in gray areas that there doesn't seem to be a right answer in that scenario. His message to Nina could have said anything, a result of just how close to the vest Noah Emmerich plays this character and a script that expertly leaves room for lots of ambiguity.

It's also worth noting that the acting this season has been next-level, with Matthew Rhys especially taking Philip to some extraordinary places (that scene with Paige's pastor!). And I've got to give a special shout-out to Annet Mahendru (only 24 years old!), who imbues Nina with such grace and wit that I hope we see plenty of her in season 3, wherever she ends up.

[Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2014 11:14am]

    

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