The Americans’ penultimate episode, titled “Jennings, Elizabeth,” perhaps serves as little more than pure rising action, but its phenomenal sense of drama keeps the suspense character-rich and inundated in the show’s main theme: the conflict between national and personal identity. Until last episode, Elizabeth Jennings was unable to differentiate the two—everything she did, she did for the purpose of exalting the Soviet Union despite personal reservations. In episode nine, we’re greeted with glimpses to Elizabeth’s dark past—the moment in which she cruelly leaves someone to die on the streets of Moscow so as to not deter her from completing her mission—and find that her warped worldview is as induced by self-deception as it is by propaganda.
This deceptively small detail about Elizabeth’s past makes her choices leading to the series finale far more compelling as we find ourselves having to question her motives and drives. Is her choosing to side with Gorbachev a way to jump off the sinking ship that is the Soviet Union or does she genuinely believe that Gorbachev will lead Russia to a better future? Among the harder things to accept about Elizabeth is that she is rarely authentic, her choice of words and actions are all predicated on how they will serve her needs practically. This can be as simple as convincing someone to leave a room, or atrocious as killing an innocent bystander who happens to pass by during a field operation.
Among the most fascinating and shattering moments in episode nine is the open where she faces Claudia and tells her about her treachery. We see exactly where the two sides are coming from and we see their team irresolutely break apart in what can only be called the season’s most fully conceived moment of generational estrangement. Claudia, the strict Soviet nationalist, is a survivor of World War II and her fight for the Soviet Union was a necessity. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is part of a post-war generation whose reasons for fighting are abstractly ideological.
The scene itself is more than two characters going their separate ways but a transfiguration of the Soviet identity. A few hard glances and brutal verbal exchanges are sublimated into a passing of eras, from a nation once grounded in the courage of its conviction to another one bound more by modern doctrines of pragmatism, business-mindedness and self-sustainability.
Stan Beeman’s sudden obsession with the Jennings being spies is both a fascinating, but also frustratingly confused concept. The show never gives a particularly compelling reason why Stan’s obsession begins this season when it could have (and probably should have) began in season five following Dylan Baker’s deathbed soliloquy. However, there are moments with Stan that prove frightfully effective. His phone interview with Pastor Tim, his interrogation of Oleg and his conversation with his FBI partner, Dennis, are all moments of heart stopping intensity, but also ones that assesses The Americans’ dramatis personæ with a conflict of interest that permeates across every character and the act of satisfying moral responsibility over personal fulfillment.
There’s not much of a critical summation to episode nine other than it does a terribly fine job setting up an uncertain series conclusion. In episode one, I lamented how fully entrenched the show was in nearly unending conflicts and loose ends. By episode nine, we’ve seen some of those ends tied but for the ones that aren’t we’re left with even greater character gaps, tighter friction and more strains of doubt and incertitude. While the Cold War never quite became a “Hot War,” with all its conflicts built-up to an unbearable climax, episode nine seems to be nudging at nuclear for the Jennings.