"It sounds like the family dynamic is going to be a real focus." — Keri Russell speaking to Rolling Stone about The Americans, Season Two, October 2013
Who would have thought that nearly eight months and 13 episodes later, this seemingly innocuous sound bite would resonate so much? Don't let that final shot of the Jennings family sitting down to a typical American dinner of chicken, potatoes and veggies fool you – underneath the veneer of smiles and small talk is a family coming apart at the seams.
All of the progress Philip and Elizabeth made to strengthen their marriage this past season is about to blow up in their faces thanks to their latest orders from the Centre: Start training Paige to join them as a junior KGB officer. While both husband and wife are initially stunned at the prospect, Elizabeth — ever the Cold Warrior — not only accepts the idea but encourages it: "[Paige] does need something," she tells Philip. "She's looking for something in her life. What if this is it?" Philip, on the other hand, who has spent the entire season mired in self-loathing over his life's choices, is entirely against the idea of his daughter following in his footsteps. And as the episode comes to a close, this latest development in the Soviets' war against America leaves us with an impending rift in the Jennings marriage that, unlike previous fixable issues (love, guilt over murder, etc.) could prove impossible to mend.
"Echo," written by showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, had all of the key elements for a thrilling season finale: It solved the season-long murder mystery – complete with a mind-blowing twist. It eliminated the big, bad villain. And the aforementioned twist set up what will inevitably be a major Season Three plot thread, which could be The Americans' best story line yet. Given Andrew Larrick's repeated claims that he didn't kill Emmett, Leanne and Amelia Connors, it was unlikely he would be revealed as their murderer, despite his unrelenting, T-1000-esque hunt for Jared Connors. But having Jared be his family's assassin, as part of a botched initial rollout of the KGB's "Second-Generation Illegals" program? It was the perfect reveal: Brilliant, unexpected and jaw-dropping.
A signal from the Centre alerting Philip and Elizabeth to a back-on-U.S.-soil-and-AWOL Larrick sends them into panic mode, waking up Paige and Henry in the middle of the night for a "surprise vacation." Paige, on her own natural high from watching Pastor Tim get arrested for civil disobedience during her church group's nuclear-weapons protest, immediately calls bullshit on her parents: "There's something wrong with you." But there's no time to argue as the Jennings family is whisked away to a seedy motel in upstate New York, not far from the cabin where Jared was installed in the last episode. The next morning, Elizabeth, sans Ann Chadwick disguise, re-introduces herself to Jared while Philip goes to town
for groceries to set up the teenager's exfiltration. As Jared and Elizabeth bond during a firewood-collecting walk through the snowy woods, Larrick accosts them with a gun, escorting them back to the cabin, where Philip is handcuffed in the trunk of his own car. Larrick instructs Elizabeth to handcuff herself before he turns her and Philip in to the feds: He wants to punish them for killing innocent soldiers when they infiltrated the contra-training camp.
Right before the KGB agents can pull off their version of the Drew Barrymore-in-Charlie's Angels fight scene, Jared sends the audience into WTF? mode by brandishing his own gun and shooting it at Larrick. Not surprisingly, he misses, but Larrick retaliates with a single gunshot into Jared's neck before resuming his hand-to-handcuffed combat with Mr. and Mrs. Jennings. Philip, however, manages to swiftly dispose of the Navy SEAL by using a literal Chekhov's gun. In an earlier scene, Larrick is shown shoving a second gun down the back of his jeans – all Philip, who is still lying in the trunk of the car, has to do when Larrick topples backward onto him is grab the trigger and pull. The season's villain is now dead, but it's pretty anticlimactic once Philip and Elizabeth free themselves from the handcuffs and only then go to help Jared, who has been bleeding out for a good 45 seconds already.
Still, as this is television and the season finale, suspension of disbelief is necessary as Jared delivers a nearly three-minute articulate, comprehensive monologue explaining his role in the narrative despite sustaining a fatal gunshot wound to the neck. As the blood spills out of his mouth, so does his backstory: Kate told Jared that his parents were Soviet spies. He subsequently fell in love with the now-deceased handler and became so overly zealous toward the Russian cause that when Emmett and Leanne found out the truth, he had no choice but to kill his entire family ("I had to protect my cover!"). Even in his last moments, Jared throws Elizabeth's platitude from earlier right back in her face: "What we do, it's for something greater than ourselves."
Once back home in Washington, D.C., Claudia – reappearing after a six-episode absence (with The Millers picked up for another season, we need to get used to these few-and-far-between Margo Martindale cameos, sadly) – debriefs a shattered Philip and Elizabeth. Jared was the tragic victim of a new program called "Second-Generation Illegals," which sought to bring the children of Directorate S agents into the KGB fold. What the Centre didn't expect was for Emmett and Leanne to totally refuse their orders, necessitating a covert operation (i.e. Kate going behind the Connors' backs) that concluded with Jared committing patricide, matricide and sororicide.
But the KGB isn't giving up, because Paige is next in line for the program! Claudia, dispensing with the empathy she was starting to show in her few brief appearances this season, reverts back to her real self – the tough, cold and scary version – by waving off Philip and Elizabeth's protests, reminding them that "Paige is your daughter, but she's not just yours. She belongs to the cause." We've seen the numerous consequences of Philip's and Elizabeth's decisions to join the KGB over the past two seasons, but these newest "orders" – could finally be Philip's breaking point. Can a parent truly put a cause over the love and safety of his or her child? As Philip has shown since the pilot episode, when he beat the crap out of that mall rat hitting on Paige, he will let nothing stand in the way of his daughter's protection. He re-emphasized that point to Arkady in a clandestine meeting in front of a magazine stand – the April 1st, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone with Warren Beatty on the cover receiving prominent placement – saying "my wife and I are finished" should the KGB go after Paige without their consent.
The episode is a fantastic cliffhanger with regards to the Paige story line – every episode this season had her demonstrating more and more how the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. She's passionate, she believes in her ideals, and her innate spy instincts are spot-on. She is a natural fit for the Second Generation Illegals. But as Philip says to his wife, "It would destroy her." And given Paige's vociferous desire to escape from a home where a "vacation" is sneaking out in the middle of the night to a motel in the boonies, and go to college to be with "normal people," it's unlikely she'll want to join Mom and Dad in the family business.
It's too bad Nina isn't around to become a mentor – because if anyone is going to need help in learning how to be a triple (quadruple?) agent, it's Paige. Nina's fate – as well as her loyalties – will remain a mystery during The Americans' hiatus. For a while, it looked like Stan was going to follow through with his task of bringing the "Echo" program to the Soviets, even going so far as to wear a wire during a covert meeting with a general. But after much soul-searching, he decides not to betray the United States, and instead of a floppy disk, leaves a Dear John note for his informant. From a car outside the Rezidentura, Stan mournfully watches Nina depart for the airport, ostensibly for her trial and subsequent execution. What are the odds that the members of her airport escort are in on an escape plan?
Can't wait to find out.
Previously: Going Up the Country