‘They’ll Remember Us’

This post discusses plot points from the series finale of The Americans.

There was a tongue-in-cheek story last year cataloguing the ways FX's Cold War drama The Americans dealt with keeping the youngest son of the Jennings family, Henry, in the dark about the escapades of ma and pa spy, Elizabeth and Philip. "Every Excuse The Americans Has Used to Hide Henry Jennings Offscreen," the Vulture piece was titled, the joke being that while older sister Paige was sucked deeper into the KGB's plots, Henry remained blissfully unaware—even becoming a kind of nuisance on the show, an obstruction to be written around.

But a child isn't an obstacle and a son isn't a burden to be tossed aside or imaginatively silenced and the creators of The Americans remembered that, turning what might be called The Henry Problem into the most emotionally resonant subplot of the series finale. Their cover blown, their mission over, Philip and Elizabeth plot their escape. She wants to go to New Hampshire to pull him out of his school and take him … where, exactly? A Russia he never even dreamed they might call home? Away from his friends, his life, his school, his future?

Philip knows this is nonsense. Knows that it's not fair to him. Knows that Henry's better off here, in America, even without them. So they make the hardest call any parents could ever make: a late-night pay-phone call in which they're saying goodbye, quietly pouring their hearts out, and he just wants to get back to ping pong, ignorant of the fact that this is the last time they'll ever speak.

The Americans was about the Cold War, of course, and plenty of folks had trouble wrapping their head around the idea of "rooting for" Russian spies trying to take down the United States. Fair enough. However, they were missing out not just on the espionage-based intrigue or the great power struggles but also on one of the most subtle and sneaky family dramas of our so-called golden age of TV, a show that ultimately asked what sort of world we want for our children, what sort of life we want them to lead, what sort of future we hope they will have. Philip, long an American-curious sort, understood that the U.S. horizon stretched open before Henry—that he was better off here, even if leaving Henry was akin to cutting a piece of himself off and leaving it behind on American soil.

It was one of the more quietly devastating series finales I can remember in recent years. Keeping with the spirit of the show, there were no big deaths: all of our key players survived, even as they were torn from one another. Henry and Paige remain in American while Philip and Elizabeth return to a USSR that may not want them. FBI Agent Stan Beeman loses his best friend—indeed, finds out his best friend has been playing him for a fool for most of the 1980s—and loses the emotional bond he has with his lover, to boot. How can he trust her, given Philip's poison parting gift: a warning that she too may be a member of the KGB.

"They'll remember us." That's what Philip and Elizabeth have to tell themselves about their kids, children they'll never see again: one a good American struggling to reconcile his childhood memories with the newfound knowledge that his parents were murderous communist spies; the other an idealist wannabe Russian mole with minimal training, no support, and no hope for backup.

Sure, Henry and Paige will remember Philip and Elizabeth.

But how?