Maybe that high followed by that deflation was part of the story. These two songs were ordinary, readymade delivery-systems of feeling. 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. 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 wanted to tell her to be careful, but he also wanted to pin her to the wall until she almost passed out. 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. 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. (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. (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. Elizabeth Jennings is its greatest and most interesting creation. And Henry really should be himself—where is the lie?! 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. 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. 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. 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 imagined this show might stay consistent to the end with the kind of sharp-edged emotion of the Fleetwood Mac song that began it. It would fit. 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. There are lots of spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen “START,” the series finale of The Americans, pack your backpack and scram. Perhaps the episode ended in Elizabeth’s native tongue. 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. I have done the walk of life. 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. 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. “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. Maybe the rush of pulling your sexy wife’s tooth out is the same rush as line-dancing with your co-workers. Those were the days. 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. It fit. They were the spectacular genius of this show. Most of which didn’t work at all, and some of which really worked quite well and were close. The capers and the kills were metaphors for and avatars of the domestic drama that anchored these lives. But it was a bummer, specifically, to read about the way they chose the two most anticipated musical cues of the series. That narrative, it turns out, was a weak put-on. What your father said, I feel the same,
Phil. No dads but these dads. He wants the credit for saying it, even if Elizabeth, in her kind reply, acknowledges the unlikelihood he does anything about it. And that’s never been the way this show DJ’s. They were also occasions for generative mismatches between violence and emotion, between the comfort of pop music and the desolation of the Jennings’ lives. Communication, after all, is the key to both the successful avoidance of nuclear annihilation and a successful marriage. 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. They were pockets of surprising depth, seventies/eighties cheese transubstantiated into holy things. I have played air guitar to solos such as these. But maybe they don’t have snacks there? 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. I realize we didn’t all stop doing that in 2015, but I certainly did. The song’s on-the-nose messaging, its romantic tale of masculine fellowship, the sheer Lite beer, sweatshirted dadfulness of its many guitar solos. And we listened to dozens and dozens and dozens of songs for that sequence. JUNE 1, 2018
This week on Dear Television: Phil gets a couple of nights’ sleep and thinks about the series finale of FX’s The Americans. Dear Television,
The last time I stayed up all night to write a review of a television episode was in May 2015. Hits, even. To be dad-like about it: I’m not mad, I’m just a little disappointed. But again, we’ve been over this. But it is also a show as motored by dadly sentimentality as it is invested in critiquing it. I guess I should have thrown back a shot of EVOO before my first and only glass of red wine on Wednesday night. Last night, I read a bummer of an interview with Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, the showrunners. Of course it was moving. It stuck its landings, but it had a lot of them, and their stickiness was, to me, a little too much. 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. 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. Over the past few years, I’ve found myself increasingly defensive about the slow creep of Philip’s cornball vibe. 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. 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. 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. None of these emotions were special, none of these stakes unusually high. Every growing-up is a loss, every getting old is a betrayal. Instead, they chose “With or Without You” because it was moving. 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. That these songs are moving is not at issue; it is the issue. 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. He is the Dad who gives the best friend he betrayed the heroic opportunity to become the New Dad of his aforementioned abandoned son. Anyway, that’s not a new insight; it’s the premise. 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. ambassador to Panama who resigned in righteous protest of Donald Trump’s many violations of the norms of diplomacy. It spoke in the vernacular of the dad. Definitely for Bono. 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. 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. Henry could visit him in jail, probably. 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. He’s not wrong. 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. This music, though, didn’t need anything. For Philip or for Stan or for Oleg or for Mark Knopfler. 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. 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. Every relationship is terrifying. I liked this episode. 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. These things are embarrassing. Just like it fit when it was used to soundtrack Ross and Rachel’s will-they-won’t-they on Friends. Five months after the world got bought a Coke, my daughter was born, and I lost the ability to stay up late. The clichés are inescapable, and we shouldn’t fault these songs for stating them with such sincerity and earnest effort. 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. Those desires are different, but not necessarily separate, for Philip. So, no. 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. I thought of him when “Brothers in Arms” started playing. But maybe this was the secret, hiding in plain sight the whole time. I don’t dispute that. Like most performative expressions of masculinity in the year Two Thousand Eighteen, Philip’s is as toxic as it is seemingly well-intentioned. 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. 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. 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. 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. Tradecraft is tradecraft whether or not you make a frowny face while you chop off your co-worker’s head. 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. Of course it fit. “When we shot that scene,” they said, “we had no idea what song we’d use. 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. 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.