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The ending of The Americans explained

Starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep cover KGB agents posing as an idyllic American family in the 1980s, The Americans made its first appearance on FX in 2013, and was quickly hailed by viewers and critics alike as not just one of the best shows of the decade, but one of the most honest depictions spy life ever produced. 

In case you're among those who didn't get into The Americans during its six-season run on the small screen, that life is hardly the glamorous, idealized vision presented in many similarly-themed films and TV series. And if The Americans (created by former CIA Officer Joe Weisberg) is to be believed, real spies mostly lead an empty, soul-devouring existence in which lies are second nature, emotions are as dangerous as bullets, and no one can be trusted. 

Those concepts were never more on display than in the final season of The Americans, a traumatic eight-episode run that quite literally found the world falling apart around super spy team Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, not to mention pretty much anyone who'd ever been unfortunate enough to enter their orbit. The Americans' final season was not just one of the bleakest of the series' entire run, but probably one of the bleakest to ever hit the airwaves. It was also, however, one of the most enthralling runs of episodes of any show in recent memory, and led to an intensely satisfying finale that, even two years later, remains firmly imprinted on our brains. 

There was a lot to unpack in that finale, though. So, on the off chance you missed some vital detail or soul-crushing twist, here's how things wrapped up on The Americans

The Americans finale proved death does not necessarily a tragedy make

One of the biggest questions leading up to the final episode of The Americans was which of the key characters would be killed or captured. The show had bid goodbye to several cast members in a variety of fashions over its run on FX, with several meeting violent, or otherwise horrific, ends (poor, poor William). Given modern television's penchant for killing off characters purely as a ratings grab, it seemed almost impossible to think The Americans wouldn't take a similar route in ending the show, if only because its narrative world made it more likely than most.

While The Americans creative team did knock off a surprising amount of people in the show's final season, they pretty much shocked the entirety of TV land by opting to not kill a single one of their primary players. Rest assured, however, that in spite of a certain lack of bloodletting, there was no shortage of drama in that series finale. In fact, with the Jennings family likely forever fractured and on the run, Henry (Keidrich Sellati) facing a future without his family, Stan (Noah Emmerich) literally having his entire world upended, and Oleg (Costa Ronin) facing the dire consequences of his own actions, we'd offer that leaving all of the central players with their lives is a far crueler fate than killing any of them.

If nothing else, the lack of finality allowed the human drama to resonate even deeper, and legitimately heightened the action of The Americans finale to near unbearable levels. As such, it left us far more shaken than we ever would've expected.     

One good deed went tragically punished on The Americans finale

Throughout its six season, The Americans was one of the most morally complex dramas on the air. If you don't believe us, have a look at the series' primary characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who are never not deceitful, murderous KGB operatives working directly in opposition to the American government. They're also richly drawn, fascinatingly duplicitous characters  for whom, more often than not, we find ourselves rooting. 

While Philip and Elizabeth did a lot of truly heinous things  on The Americans, they truly believed they were doing them for the good of their country. That being said, they did find themselves firmly on the side of right for at least a portion of the show's final season when they actively worked to stop the KGB's attempt to undermine a possible weapons treaty between the U.S. and USSR as part of the overthrow of then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbechev. 

They were involved in thwarting that plot thanks to the supremely noble actions of Oleg Burov. Oleg made his first appearance on The Americans in season 2 as an ambitious KGB Science Officer with eyes on Soviet glory. He quickly became a central figure in the show's D.C.-set narrative, though he spent most of season 5 battling corrupt Soviet bureaucracy in Moscow. He was dispatched to America early in season 6 by his old boss, Arkady (Lev Gorn), to help diffuse the KGB's dangerous subversion, and in his return to America, Oleg left his wife and newborn son behind.

He did so in hopes of ensuring his son would grow up in the sort of freedom most Soviet citizens had never known. While his heroic actions might've saved the day, he was eventually arrested by the FBI, and was last seen facing a lifetime behind bars and away from his family.

The finale of The Americans never lost sight of actual history

Though the key characters on The Americans are clearly fictionalized  versions of people who may or may not have actually existed, the historical context of the times in which they operated is anything but. We'd even go so far as to say the show could be viewed as a fascinating study covering the height of the Cold War arms race between the U.S. and the USSR, and the waning days of the Soviet Union. 

That's because the series fully embraced the struggles, ideologies, and horrific misdeeds of both the Soviet and American regimes of the time. In keeping with that theme, The Americans' creator Joe Weisberg cleverly utilized the tumultuous early days of negotiations surrounding the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as a framing device for the show's final season. That treaty actually led to an agreement between the U.S. and Soviet governments to dramatically reduce the number of offensive weapons in their arsenals.

After Elizabeth personally refuses, and then actively prevents, a KGB-orchestrated assassination attempt that would've ended talks between the superpowers, she goes to see her KGB handler, Claudia (beloved character actor Margo Martindale), an old-school Russian agent whose only allegiance is to a KGB-led Soviet Union. After telling Claudia what happened, Elizabeth listens in muted dismay as Claudia dresses her down for turning her back on her country. She then goes on to state it won't matter in the end, as her people have re-taken their country by force before, and will no doubt do it again.

That very event almost came to fruition in 1991, when a KGB-organized coup saw Communist leaders briefly overthrow Gorbachev's reform government. While the coup was short-lived, many still believe it ultimately led to the fall fo the Soviet empire.   

Futures are uncertain across the board at the end of The Americans

While none of the central characters were killed off in the final season of The Americans, nobody got away clean. Part of what made the show's finale such a captivating event was that Weisberg and long-time The Americans scribe Joe Fields took things a step further and pretty much left their characters' narrative threads twisting dramatically in the wind.

It's safe to say two of the more tragically twisting threads belong to the Jennings kids, Paige and Henry. We'll talk Henry first, because the poor lad never knew anything of his family's true nature, but lost them anyway, with Mom, Dad, and sis hitting the road after being discovered. Sure, he'll probably be happier with Stan in America, but will he ever get over the sting of his family not trying to take him with them? As for Paige, after leaving her parents at the Canadian border in one of the show's most thrillingly heartbreaking moments, she heads back to D.C. with no credentials, no money, and not a soul in the world to help her.  

That finale also pulled the rug completely from under the Jenning's FBI Agent neighbor-slash-bestie Stan who, after uncovering his friends' treachery, was so dismayed he actually let the most wanted spies in Washington get away without a fight. We can only imagine his standing in the FBI is kaput after everything he went through, but as a cruel parting shot and/or friendly warning, Philip planted the seed in Stan's head that his new wife Renee (Laurie Holden) might be a Russian spy herself.  

Yes, Philip and Elizabeth ultimately got away and went home to Russia, but it came at the cost of their children (who they'll likely never see again), not to mention an uncertain return to a homeland they no longer know, and the days of which are quite numbered. 

That final conversation in The Americans is a heartbreaking call-back to the show's early days

As for Philip and Elizabeth, well, they just barely got out of the spy game with their lives. We can only imagine there are still several KGB hotshots back home who have some serious issues with how they handled themselves in their final mission. Either way, our final shot of the KGB's most infamous "Illegals" finds them gazing in utter dismay at the shimmering lights of Moscow — all but unrecognizable to them after a couple of decades in America — and pondering their own future. 

As their lives moving forward will almost certainly never feature their own children, and their own relationship is shaky by those final moments, it's obviously not particularly bright future. It's one they appear willing to face, however, with something not unlike optimism, which is about as close to a happy ending as this show was ever going to have.

Part of that optimism is, naturally, centered on the possibility that their children might actually come out of all the madness okay. The conversation, and the language of it, is a clear call-back to one the duo had early in the inaugural season of the show, one that left them wondering what would happen to Henry and Paige if their covers were ever blown and they had to run. That initial conversation left the duo more fearful than comforted, and while the finale call-back feels a bit more optimistic, it also feels like Philip and Elizabeth are continuing to do what they've always done, which is to convince themselves of what they need to in order to make a lie work.