It’s 1987 and after more than two decades of dutiful service, Elizabeth Jennings has gone rogue on her KGB handlers. Ordered to kill Fyodor Nesterenko, the Soviet negotiator sent to the US to hammer out the terms of the USSR’s reduction in its nuclear arsenal, she decides to protect him instead. As she follows her target-turned-charge around D.C. to guard him against a KGB faction bent on sabotaging the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s peaceful overtures to the West, Elizabeth experiences a vivid flashback that will ultimately jolt her into a renewed awareness of the meaning of her life and service.
It’s a moment in which Elizabeth, played with steely resolve for six seasons by Keri Russell, seems poised to go against the KGB and against her country, in a move that will ultimately help bring the Cold War to a close. It also seems to bring Russell’s character, after many decades of fierce commitment to the Soviet Union, in line with the narrative that the end of the Cold War ultimately represented the defeat of what Reagan called an “evil empire” (in a speech the Jennings family watched in the season 3 finale) and put her on the right side of history. Yet since its first season aired six years ago, The Americans has presented a more than usually complex vision of the struggle between capitalism and communism, in which there are principled and sympathetic characters on both sides and also appalling acts of brutality and ruthlessness on both sides.
In the characters of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, KGB spies under deep cover in the United States as an American married couple, The Americans portrays the lived reality of Cold War commitments. The Jennings family lives an idyllic suburban life: they’re small-business owners, who send their son to a prestigious private school where he’s an all-star athlete; the more Philip plays the part, the more he’s genuinely converted to American culture and its liberating possibilities. He begins to attend EST meetings and is seen, this season, line dancing. At the same time, on their missions Philip and Elizabeth can see, as their suburban neighbors cannot, American plans to harm people in their home country, as in season 5 when they suspect an American program to destroy Soviet wheat crops.
The show, created by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, has repeatedly challenged the narrative that the end of the Cold War represented the virtues of capitalism and American foreign policy over an essentially evil adversary. Against that perception, The Americans has often incorporated inglorious episodes from American history into its plot-lines, highlighting the American program to arm Contras in Nicaragua in season 2, and featuring American support of the apartheid regime in South Africa in season 3. Sometimes, Americans and Soviets are more alike than different: In earlier seasons especially, the Great Leader art on the walls of D.C.’s Soviet embassy—all the Lenins and the Brezhnevs—is uncannily matched by the proliferation, in both number and size, of portraits of Reagan in American government buildings.
As the show draws to a conclusion, Elizabeth is having a change of heart, but it comes from commitment to her country rather than from a betrayal of it. In her flashback, set in the early 1960s, two and a half decades earlier, it is layers of Russian and Soviet culture that shape her decision to protect Nesterenko. Elizabeth—then named Nadezhda—is in Moscow where she had recently arrived from the provinces. In training with the KGB, she is in the middle of a nighttime practice mission. On a poorly lit Moscow street, she picks up a message left in a dead drop at a bridge underpass and then moves along, under the bridge, past four large posters. One of the posters is clearly visible. “Work, sonny, just as you have fought!” says the message at the bottom of the poster. The image above: an older man at a factory gingerly putting his hands around a younger man’s shoulders; the younger man wears his work outfit covering but not fully concealing his army uniform replete with his “Order of the Red Star” medal awarded for valor in combat. Emerging from the underpass, Elizabeth stumbles upon a traffic accident that had taken place moments before: a motorcycle collided with a horse. One man—the horse rider—appears dead, the second man is pleading for help, the motorcycle is crashed, and the horse is close to death. Elizabeth continues on her mission.
As a flashback to the early 1960s, this scene—at first glance—doesn’t make much sense. The poster Elizabeth passes is a decade and a half out of date: Designed in 1945, it was mass produced in the immediate aftermath of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II (or what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War). The poster was intended as a visual aid in welcoming surviving Red Army soldiers back to civilian life and to the daunting task of rebuilding the Soviet Union at the end of the devastating war. What Elizabeth is seeing here is not a perfectly recalled memory, but a moment shaped and reshaped by the collective and cultural memory that often motivate her as a character. A child of the war, Elizabeth is both traumatized by wartime deprivation and moved by it to serve her country. In this flashback, it’s as though the older man in the poster is directly asking her to pick up where the wartime generation left off.
The injured horse in the flashback, meanwhile, seems drawn from literature rather than life. There’s Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment that he is a child witnessing a horse being brutally beaten by a group of peasants. When he wakes up, he doubts whether he can go ahead with the murder he had by then decided to commit. There’s also the injured horse in Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1918 poem “Getting Along with Horses.” When a horse slips on an icy street, passersby immediately begin gawking at and cruelly teasing the poor animal. The poem’s narrator approaches and says to the horse (here, in Val Vinokur’s translation): “Listen to me, horse— / do you think you’re any less than they are? [...] / all of us are horses, sort of, / every one of us a horse in his own way.” After these words, the horse gets up and continues on her way: “and life was worth living / and work, worthwhile.” For Elizabeth too, the injured horse prompts a moral reckoning, and she decides, now, to help a comrade in danger, the way she wishes she had done back in the early ‘60s.
Between the final season’s first and penultimate episodes, Elizabeth has learned to see differently from the terminally ill artist Erica Haskard. Observing Erica as she sketches, Elizabeth now knows how to look at herself askance. In the flashback, she’s reimagining herself: In her gait, her clothing, and the expression of a curious provincial girl newly in Moscow on her face, she resembles Katerina, the protagonist of the 1979 Soviet hit Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears. The film, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1980, has been on her mind: she and Claudia watch it with Paige in the first episode of S6. The beginning of the film is set in 1958, around the time Elizabeth began training in Moscow. For Elizabeth, who hasn’t been to the USSR in over two decades, the movie is a way back into her own culture and her sense of purpose.
In the flashback, Elizabeth reconnects with a young, innocent, and idealistic version of herself: a woman motivated by her people’s wartime suffering to serve her country. She has never shifted, she believes, from that youthful idealism. Instead, it’s the organization that sent her on her mission—the KGB—that has become rotten and changed its purpose. What Elizabeth finally understands is that doing the KGB’s bidding in 1987 no longer means serving her country. In the split-second it takes her to take down Nesterenko’s would-be assassin, Elizabeth also foils the KGB’s coup against Gorbachev. It’s not American might or superiority that encourage Elizabeth to make this decision, but her own experiences of Soviet culture and ideals; it’s an acknowledgment from the showrunners that it also took Soviet idealism to bring the Cold War to an end.
Philip and Elizabeth’s neighbor Stan Beeman finds himself at a crossroads now too. In the future he faces, will America celebrate its victory over “the Evil Empire” without realizing or acknowledging that it took some brave and idealistic Soviets to help the US “win” the Cold War? Or will his country acknowledge that the Soviet Union has evolved—and will Stan acknowledge what Elizabeth had accomplished? The course of history over the last three decades points to the former.
But the show’s consistent questioning of America’s entrenched Cold War narrative makes me hopeful about the latter scenario. Even while in government and other official narratives a simpler version of the conflict between capitalism and communism, the USA and the USSR, might prevail, there is room in the show for individual characters to come to a more nuanced understanding. There’s room for Stan to break ranks and make a human decision, just as there’s room in this penultimate episode for an homage to the Soviet culture Elizabeth comes from.