The penultimate episode of The Americans, “Jennings, Elizabeth”—so named for the database search Stan (Noah Emmerich) executes in the opening minutes, as he claws closer and closer to the truth—is, I’d suggest, a quintessential one: Its pieces assemble by degrees, in fits and (slow) starts, until suddenly—click—everything falls into place, and it fully earns one’s rapt attention. Because “Jennings, Elizabeth” is not without its clumsier moments, from Stan reciting to Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) the connections already drawn in “Harvest” to the repetition of Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) distant expression, signaling the onset of another flashback. I suppose this is a function of any long-running series’ loose ends; Stan’s call to Buenos Aires doesn’t advance his investigation one iota, for instance, though there’s a certain pleasure in seeing Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) squirm one last time. (I never warmed to the guy, what can I say?) And yet, by the time Elizabeth fires a single bullet into Tatiana’s (Vera Cherny) back, or Philip (Matthew Rhys) sidesteps a couple and sets off running, or Paige (Holly Taylor) confronts her mother across that kitchen island, The Americans has stitched together another tense and telling hour, one in which, following Paige’s irate response to Elizabeth, “every time, every lie” reaches its moment of truth.
The point at which the interrogation becomes an argument—cutting to a two-shot of Paige and Elizabeth, as divided as they’ve been all season—is the one around which “Jennings, Elizabeth” is structured, in the same patient way that remains, on the eve of its conclusion, The Americans’ foremost trademark. After such an intense stretch of episodes, beginning with “The Great Patriotic War,” the relative quiet of “The Summit” and “Jennings, Elizabeth”—at least until the latter’s final stages—might be seen as a letdown, except that it’s these very changes of rhythm, of key, that make The Americans sing. The flashbacks to Elizabeth as an agent in training, for example, explain both her motive for protecting Nesterenko and her ferocious retort to Paige: Her allegiance to the cause transcends circumstance, such that saving or sacrificing a life—including her own—becomes almost immaterial. “We do not want you to lose who you are,” her handler says in the last of these, though of course this is the demand made of any soldier. “If I should die, think only this of me,” Rupert Brooke once wrote, in the early days of the war that made the Jennings’ world, and indeed our own. “That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.”
Has Elizabeth lost herself, if not her life, in this confusion of citizen and country? For much of its duration, “Jennings, Elizabeth” offers no definitive answer. Her regret over the comrade she left for dead that long-ago night is a point in her favor, perhaps, but she still ignored his desperate plea to continue a faux operation; the “indescribable” damage she wreaks on Claudia’s (Margo Martindale) plans is another, but she still struggles, despite her own trust issues, to be honest with Paige. (Elizabeth’s blinking, head-shaking “Don’t be ridiculous!” at her daughter’s question about Jackson Barber is so transparently misleading I actually laughed.) I’m not so sure, even through the moment she leaves Claudia to stew, that Elizabeth quite knows who she is, or has become, since that awful, bloody tableau on the other side of the bridge. Is she ruthless, or reliable? Foolhardy, or faithful? Are her lies purposeful, or pathological? And at what point, when you lie about everything, does it become impossible to tell the difference? “What’s left for you now?” Claudia asks her charge, her surrogate daughter, with subtle but irreparable rancor. “Your house? Your American kids? Philip?”
Though Elizabeth Jennings doesn’t answer, “Jennings, Elizabeth” does: After Philip’s narrow escape from the FBI, which has Oleg (Costa Ronin) in custody and a tail on Father Andrei (Konstantin Lavysh), he places the call they’ve both known would come, the moment of truth, and Elizabeth springs into action. She grabs their pre-packed duffel, counterfeit license plates, passports, cash, and guns, and then—in the most perfect twist on the treatment of Erica’s canvas, which Elizabeth dutifully torched—she goes back for their wedding banns. This is what’s left for her now. It will have to be enough.
I cannot say what will happen in next week’s finale; I cannot even imagine, yet, what I’ll do without The Americans. But when it comes to the series’ brilliant, methodical loosening of the Cold War’s grip—prying away first Martha, then Gabriel, then Philip, then Claudia, then Paige—it seems to me fitting that its most ardent fighter, its lone survivor, its final girl, should be the indomitable Jennings, Elizabeth, and that in the end she, too, should determine that not following orders is often the defining act of a patriot. If she hasn’t sacrificed her idealism, exactly, she does appear to have abandoned Brooke’s romantic confusion of citizen and country for the more hard-won wisdom of his fellow soldier, Wilfred Owen. As if to close the circle on Elizabeth’s evolution, “Jennings, Elizabeth” reminded me of the lines from Owen’s most famous poem, which I also quoted in my review of her moral nadir, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” Coming, as tonight’s episode does, near the end of a war in which so much has been ventured, and so little gained, the poem might be the finest description in English of death’s effect on the self, the psyche, the soul—and of the manipulations by which the soldier not only suffers it, sees it, but also causes it. There is, at least, an echo of Owen in Elizabeth’s plaint, to Paige, that “They died all around me,” and in her decision, with Philip, to survive anyway—or die trying:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.