The third season finale of The Americans, and really the whole season in general, is a test of faith. Where seasons 1 and 2 ended with car chases, bullets, and major twists, tonight’s finale was among the most, if not the most muted episodes the show has ever done. There’s no Peter Gabriel or Golden Earring on the soundtrack tonight, and Nathan Barr’s score is used almost exclusively to enhance moments of pained contemplation. About the only time your pulse is meant to accelerate during “March 8, 1983” is when Baklanov is doing some brainstorming.
I suspect some viewers will leave tonight’s finale feeling unsatisfied by the down tempo nature the season took on. For as dark and grim as many of the deaths were, they were fewer and further between than in years past. Operations became more infrequent while others stretched on over weeks, and as an action showcase, the season peaked around the midpoint, if not earlier. With fewer and fewer episodes left to go, The Americans just kept slowing things down further, servicing its many threads in a manner that was often as incremental as the plots themselves were numerous.
It’s pretty apparent by now that The Americans isn’t trying, and doesn’t want to be a typical genre show. At the end of Season 2, Paige was positioned as a bombshell just waiting to drop, but not one many expected to blow up in Season 3, let alone as early as it did. If the shock of her finding out about her parents was all Weisberg and Fields were interested in, they could have built the entire season around it. But that’s not what this show is about. Rather than being a barrage of twists, turns, and reveals, Season 3, and particularly everything from “Stingers” onward, played out like one long controlled explosion. As a result, the show’s plotting may have become more crowded, but the variety and density of its storytelling has never been better.
“March 8, 1983” is not just a perfect coda for this season of The Americans, but among the very best episodes the show has ever done, despite being more of an epilogue than a climax. Daniel Sackheim directs a script from Weisberg and Fields, the trio having collaborated on the first two episodes this year. It’s not surprising, then, that “March 8, 1983” is designed like a bookend to “EST Men” and “Baggage.” Paige and Elizabeth sharing a quiet moment next to a bathtub; a background family photo of the Jennings stealing attention for split second; Gabriel’s commenting about Philip’s lack of vision as a callback to his own introduction; Zinaida’s claustrophobic arrest – all small touches meant to add a sense of finality to a season lacking for easy avenues of closure.
But the greater feeling evoked by “March 8, 1983” is one of detachment – even more so than the show is used to. There’s abundant emptiness and distance to the hour’s compositions, particularly because of how often Sackheim uses the camera to look downward, treating characters like specimens. Even when characters are in the same scene together, their emotional and personal isolation clouds conversation. When they try to reach out in the hopes of making a connection, the results are almost unanimously dispiriting.
“It’s been a big day of disappointments for all of us,” Agent Gaad says to Stan, about the only person given some sort of reward for going out on a limb. Stan confidently serves up Oleg and Zinaida (savouring every correctly pronounced syllable of her full name) to the F.B.I., like a dog expecting a treat for giving his master the mailman’s bloody shoes. Stan walks into The Vault with a tape and a plan, but over the course of the confession/proposal, Sackheim’s shift toward favouring unequal angles makes it abundantly clear how wrongheaded Stan’s thinking has been. His tactics earn him a thumbs-up from the director, but not the freedom for Nina his rogue operation was meant to achieve.
It was foolish of Stan to think such a deal might be possible, but he presents his argument as best he can. He chooses his words with exceptional care, both when taping Oleg, and talking to Gaad. He’s inches from calling his relationship with Nina “personal,” before deciding “complicated” will sound safer. He’s doing everything in his power to minimize the collateral damage of his actions, presenting his mistakes in as justified a light as possible, and offering a way forward. But it’s Stan’s reputation, and Gaad’s trust in him that’s been destroyed, not his career. “Why would I be stupid enough to trust you again?” Gaad asks pointedly, a question even Stan doesn’t have an answer for. Turns out, the deeper you bury a secret, the harder it is to climb out of the hole.
It’s for this reason that “March 8, 1983”’s most powerful scene is also one of its most tense. While Paige and Elizabeth are in West Berlin, it’s unclear how exactly they’ll get to Elizabeth’s mother, if at all. When the two are visited by the ailing woman, Elizabeth’s reaction, the music, and the dialogue tell us that this is genuine, that this moment of reunion is honest and real. What matters, though, is if Paige believes what she is seeing. Elizabeth has always tried to put the mission ahead of her own emotions, so even though seeing her mother one last time is a benefit, the real reason for the trip was to connect Paige with her heritage and family.