Philip and Elizabeth finally face the truth in The Americans’ series finale


The Americans’ Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have an extraordinarily strong marriage. The series finale suggests that may not have been the best thing for their children.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Americans’ finale.

In the second season of Catastrophe, Sharon, who has just had her second child, receives some odd advice from her mother.

“After your brother was born, and your father and I had a bit of a rough patch, we decided that we had to put our love for each other above everything else,” Carol confesses, “because we were man and wife before we were mother and father.”

When Sharon asks if she chose to love her husband more than her children, Carol replies, “Oh, no, just to love him first.”

I couldn’t get this scene out of my head after I watched “Start,” the series finale of The Americans. After years of slowly building dread, FX’s Cold War drama ended with all the major players alive, albeit emotionally wrecked. Secret KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are forced to flee the U.S., their home of at least two decades. Both their children, Paige and Henry (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati), stay behind.

My immediate reaction to the Jennings’ separation from their children was shock. But it really should not have come as a surprise. The bond between Philip and Elizabeth has always eclipsed all of The Americans‘ other relationships. They’ve always chosen each other first.

Since Philip and Elizabeth’s love for each other is tied to their trust in one another as spouses and  KGB partners, as well as their love for their country, this dynamic makes sense. They’re only able to be truly honest with each other — no one else could possibly understand what they go through every day. Whether they wanted it to or not, the complexity of their marriage and love has, to some extent, cut them off from everyone else in their lives. That includes their kids.

Philip and Elizabeth have put one another first since the beginning of the series, but I don’t believe either fully reckoned with what that means — and has meant — for Paige and Henry until the final episode. Elizabeth is shattered, more shaken than I’ve ever seen her when Philip suggests they leave Henry behind. (Her quiet, dry sob will be what I remember most clearly about “Start” in the years to come.) However, they both know it’s the kindest thing to do because Henry just couldn’t belong in their homeland.

Jen Chaney summed it up perfectly for Vulture:

"Henry is a pure-blooded American and, more importantly, he’s been cast off by his parents for years. If he already feels more at home where his parents are not, how terribly would he feel if their home were suddenly in Russia?"

As for Paige, who has been training as a KGB operative herself, she decides to stay in the States after accompanying her parents on the first leg of their journey home. Before crossing to Canada, their train stops at customs. When it begins moving again, Elizabeth looks out the window in horror. But Paige hasn’t been arrested, as I first assumed; she just got off the train. She extricated herself from her parents’ life. She chose herself first.

Tellingly, Philip drops the spy protocol to sit separately on public transport and goes to comfort his wife after he sees his daughter for probably the last time. It’s dawning on him and Elizabeth that they raised two kids who will be much better off without them — and in Paige’s case, actively chose to break away from them for good.

After all the people they’ve killed, lives they’ve ruined and moral rationalizing they’ve done, what finally breaks Philip and Elizabeth’s hearts is the realization that they weren’t ever really present in their children’s lives.

The truth is that, barring any action from the FBI, Paige and Henry will be okay on their own. At this point, they’re used to their parents leaving them in the lurch. The only difference now is that Philip and Elizabeth don’t have the option to try to make up for lost time, as they have attempted to do periodically over the series’ six-season run.

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Let’s take a moment to pretend that The Americans isn’t over. If “Start” was just another season finale, I would feel confident saying Philip and Elizabeth would stay together in Russia. The glimpse of them curled up together asleep in the back of Arkady’s car was enough proof for me: these two are in it for the long haul, KGB or no KGB. They aren’t going to split up now, even if they have lost their kids.

That makes me happy and sad for the Jennings. Their marriage has weathered a lot and will weather this, too. Their unconventional, complicated and steadfast bond allowed them to survive as Americans — yet it also took priority over their relationship with Paige and Henry. I doubt either Philip or Elizabeth will ever be able to forget that.