The Americans Season 2, Episode 13, “Echo”
Written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg
Directed by Daniel Sackheim
Aired Wednesdays on FX at 10pm EST
There couldn’t be a better song choice to open The Americans‘ second season finale than Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”. Not only does it add atmosphere to the situation unfolding, but it speaks metaphorically to every running plot of the season, right down to the most important question it asks over and over: “Where am I to go now that I’ve come too far?” Every character has to face this question at some point during the events of “Echo” (and for characters like Emmett and Leann, even earlier) and as “Twilight Zone” so succinctly points out, “soon you will know/when the bullet hits the bone.”
And boy, do bullets hit bones throughout the episode (especially “when the hitman comes/he knows damn well he been cheated”, as sung by Barry Hay), literally and figuratively: in a hail of bullets, Larrick and Jared are both gunned down in upstate New York, while Stan makes the difficult decision that yes, things in fact have gone too far with him and Nina’s relationship. It’s an hour that opens and closes on the idea of sacrifice, one man dying for the Russian cause by obtaining a paint sample, and another, more symbolic sacrifice of the reality Philip and Elizabeth have built for decades, all in service of “the greater good.”
If I may gush about the inclusion of “Twilight Zone” here a little bit more, I’d like to reference the video for a moment, which features a “double-crossed messenger” unsuccessfully trying to go rogue. It’s a metaphorical image (shown in the video, and on the album cover for Cut, as a jack of diamonds being cut in half by a bullet), and one that can be applied to any number of characters in “Echo”: Larrick, whose evil plan nearly comes to fruition after rampaging through The Center’s local contacts and kidnapping Philip; Jared, who is revealed to be the one who killed his parents (and sister, though “she didn’t deserve that”) in order to preserve his mission of joining the KGB and marrying Kate (or so he thought); right down to Nina, a double agent caught between two different lives and identities, the power of her freedom no longer under her own control.
It makes for an incredible finale, one that’s able to overcome the slight awkwardness of its climatic moment (Jared delivers an astonishing amount of coherent exposition for someone dying with bullet in his throat) and give it meaning in the reality that remains, afterward completing the traditional dramatic structure (where a story often ends with characters returning to where they were at the beginning, or home) with a devastating truth: Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are Russian soldiers first, and American parents second. Their concerns for Paige are but faint whispers against the deafening potential of a ‘second-generation illegal’, one whose naturalized American birth makes them much easier to insert into the CIA or the FBI. The battle may be over, but the war certainly isn’t won: Stan doesn’t give up ECHO to the Russians to save Nina, and Larrick killing Jared only turns The Center’s attention to Paige—and The Center doesn’t take no for an answer.
All season, The Americans has used Paige’s expanded role in the show to explore the birth of faith in something, be it an idea, a mission, or even a relationship (the main focus of the show’s first season, building a foundation of marriage for Philip and Elizabeth). When we’re adults, we establish our beliefs (both spiritual and otherwise) on what we’ve learned from life experience but as teenagers, we’re attaching our faith to things we can’t really comprehend, or necessarily even support. As creatures in the weird purgatory between child and adult hood, teenagers are just looking for something to anchor themselves to. As Paige points out, the story of Jesus is about sacrificing oneself for a belief in something greater than every day realities and whether Elizabeth wants to say it’s a fairy tale or not, she sees the passion underneath, the search for direction that allowed Kate to swoop in and take advantage of Jared so quickly, turning him against his own family.
Jared’s final moments are the “twilight zone”: all season, Philip and Elizabeth have viewed Jared’s life as one of many possible outcomes for Paige and Henry (they even talk about one where they’re both killed, in last week’s episode), but as Jared explains while bleeding all over the place, he’s really an entirely different outcome for what could happen to their children, what might happen if they buy into what The Center is intent on recruiting them for. Jared killed his parents in order to preserve the mission: for an instant, the Jennings are faced with the absolute worst possible outcome if The Center has their way (and according to Claudia, they don’t take no for an answer). They could be the next targets on the list of an easily-influenced child filled with just enough teenage angst (we’ve seen lots of it with Paige this season) to become a willing orphan.
Despite all that, Elizabeth understands the potential: as expected, she sees a bit of herself in Paige, an opportunity to finally open and share something with her daughter, becoming part of a cause that they’ve dedicated their lives to. But this isn’t what Philip and Elizabeth choose, it’s what they’re told, and even more horrifying to them is the idea that when presented with their truth, Paige will either hate them forever, or she’ll become one of them—is that a dream of theirs, or a nightmare? The season ends the season on a dark, immensely disturbing note for the Jennings family, one that frames the more dramatic moments of the finale in an entirely different—and much more horrifying—light (a change expressed beautifully by Rhys and Russell, I might add).
Of course, there’s no discussing “Echo” without the single most surprising development of the night: Stan’s decision to not release the confidential information he obtained about the program to the Russians, sending Nina back home to Russia to face trial (and most likely, execution). Inherently, this sequence is a bit unsatisfying; it doesn’t feel like an ending as much as a pause between acts, though the show certainly could begin next season with Nina’s death and Stan’s re-dedication to his mission. But in combination with dream sequences of Stan seeing Martha have sex with the Russian he killed last season, and the sheer emotional weight Noah Emmerich expresses in every silent scene he appears in, it’s a brutally effective portrayal of a broken man forced to do the worst thing he could imagine to “protect the greater good”.
After we see Nina drive off (while Stan watches in his car… possibly to follow them? I really have no idea where they’re going with this story), “Echo” closes with a number of exciting threads to pick up on when season three airs in 2015. And it does so in triumphant fashion, bringing its season-long themes of faith, family, and sacrifice to a close with a family gathering that exists as a “last meal” of sorts, given the impending destruction of Paige’s innocence at the hands of either her parents or a much more unpleasant presence like Claudia (or even worse, a male second-generation illegal her age, like Jared). It’s been a difficult, testing journey for both Philip and Elizabeth, but their tests of faith are only beginning, with the true “importance” of their family finally brought to light.
— In other news, Martha has a motherfuckin’ gun. Which means we’re going to see it next season, because Clark does not want kids.
— Elizabeth and Philip’s “insta-vacation!” surprise is so lame, but some solid quick thinking on their part (as long as they never have to do it again).
— Only regret: Kate’s character is only revealed to be important after her death. I wish we’d spent a little time with her while she was alive, though I suppose it would be hard to do that and not give away that she’s working to recruit Jared.
— Well, that brings a fun season of one of television’s best shows to a close. Na Zdorovie; see you in season three!