It wasn't the best episode of the season, but that leaves a lot of wiggle room, because FX's "The Americans" was most certainly one of the best new shows of the season. And while the final scene of Wednesday's installment, "The Colonel," was underwhelming, there was still plenty to like, which set up plenty to look forward to in Season 2.
We'll start with the bad, only because there really was very little of it. But the finale's last scene, with Phillip and Elizabeth's daughter, Paige, going down into the basement/laundry room to snoop for … something? The fact that she found none of the evidence of her spy parents' secret double life wasn't inherently underwhelming (if she had made some great discovery, it would have meant that the Jenningses were sloppier spies than we've known them to be); but the fact that this scene ended the episode, the season-finale episode, when it would have been a fine penultimate scene, was a let down.
But the good (and again, there was a lot of good about the finale, a lot that makes us sorrier that we're going to be waiting until 2014 to see new episodes):
- Phillip and Elizabeth have been wavering all season about how they feel about their marriage, with each of them being more committed to what started out as a KGB-arranged relationship. In the finale, they're finally on the same page, as she asks him to return to the Jennings family home. And all it took to bring it about was for her to get seriously wounded by a gunshot!
- No worries, she's going to survive, but her recovery time in a safehouse already pushed Phillip to have to call neighbor/friend/FBI agent Stan to ask him to look after Paige and her brother while, Phillip told him, the Jenningses were off to tend to Elizabeth's sick aunt. If, as the producers have suggested it will, Season 2 picks up right after the events of the finale, the Jenningses are going to have to milk that aunt story for all it's worth to explain Elizabeth's absence, which is good because the Jenningses' slippery interactions with Stan are among the show's most delicious moments.
- Oh, and Stan's got problems of his own. His wife, fed up with his absences and emotional aloofness, refused his offer of a makeup vacay. Not only did Stan's mole, Nina, help blow up the FBI's setup, but now that she's come clean to her boss, Arkady, about spying on her Russian cohorts for Stan, Arkady has charged her with trying to flip Stan (Stan, in a rare blind spot, sees Nina only as a victim he needs to protect, not someone capable of thoroughly ruining his world). And Stan may have been the one who shot Elizabeth, which Phillip certainly won't let go unavenged if he finds out it was Stan's bullets that landed in Elizabeth's gut.
- The car-chase scene. We're not talking "Bullitt" here, but Phillip's skillful maneuvering through roadblocks and a hail of gunfire while Elizabeth held on (not yet revealing that she'd been hit) was an exciting, unexpected little action sequence.
- Claudia. The potentially bad news here is that Margo Martindale is committed to a CBS comedy with Will Arnett next season, meaning that Phillip and Elizabeth's request for a different handler may come to fruition if that series gets picked up. Martindale, especially in her interactions with Keri Russell's Elizabeth, provided many moments of levity throughout the tense season, so her departure would be a loss for the show. As would the absence of Claudia, just when she proved herself willing to do whatever was necessary to protect the Jenningses; if not for her diligent watch, and acting on that tip that a setup was afoot, she and Phillip would not have realized in time that it wasn't his meeting with the Colonel that put them in danger but rather Elizabeth's seemingly innocuous trip to pick up a tape from Caspar Weinberger's office. And her "granny" act to facilitate her revenge against the American agent who killed her pal Zhukov? Fierce.
Here's hoping that if that CBS show is a go, the networks and producers find a way to share the great talent that is Emmy winner Martindale.
- Martha. Oh, Martha. From that cringe-worthy sex scene at the beginning of the finale to her happiness at getting home from work and putting on her wedding ring in the lonely privacy of her apartment, Vulture put it best in a story headlined "TV's Saddest Character: Martha on 'The Americans.'"
Now, what did other TV types think of "The Colonel"? A roundup of critics' reactions to the finale:
- James Poniewozik, Time: "At the end of 'The Colonel,' I did something I rarely do when watching TV alone ... I clapped ... 'The Americans' stuck its first landing. Part of my reaction, I'll admit, was a superficial one, to the choice of Peter Gabriel's 'Games Without Frontiers' as the soundtrack for the closing minutes ... 'Games Without Frontiers,' in many ways, is 'The Americans': tense, sly, sinuous, its lyrics contrasting the banal and the menacing, imagining world war as a kind of internationalist 'Lord of the Flies' child's game. The song choice is a small thing, but symbolic; it's an example of how 'The Americans,' through its first season and in its finale, has shown the confidence not to do the obvious thing."
Poniewozik also loved the last scene (more than we did): "Not knowing what her normal teenage suspicions are bringing her close to, Paige goes into the basement, where Elizabeth had been listening to a tape from her mother. Here again, you might expect a wait-until-next-year cliffhanger moment: Paige finding the tape recorder, hitting Play. Instead, as Gabriel's hypnotic coda plays, it ends on the image of her gazing off, pausing, wondering, on the cusp. It was evocative, tantalizing, perfect."
- Alan Sepinwall, HitFix: "As an episode of 'The Americans,' I think 'The Colonel' works very, very well. It's tense, it's emotional and it moves a bunch of plots ... along significantly. ... But after the show had been so great for so much of this season, I was expecting more from the finale -- something that made the whole of the season feel greater than the sum of its parts -- when instead what I got was a strong episode of 'The Americans' that was hampered a bit at the end by storytelling decisions made in earlier episodes."
[Related: 'Orphan Black' Renewed for Season 2]
- Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture: "'The Colonel' wasn't on the level of the season's best episodes (my picks are 'Gregory' and 'Only You') but it was consistently terrific, laying out enormous amounts of relevant plot information while still keeping the characters' emotional through-lines in sight. ... Bottom line: 'The Colonel' rings down the curtain on a strong first season of 'The Americans,' maybe the best freshman outing I've seen since Season 1 of 'Homeland.'"
- Cicely K. Dyson, WSJ.com: "What I liked most about this episode is that it didn't wrap everything into a nice little bow. Phillip told Elizabeth that he loved her (albeit in a non-love note). Elizabeth finally got the courage to tell Phillip to come home (albeit on her sickbed -- and in Russian!). But there's still more left for next season. Sure, they love one another and Phillip is probably coming home, but that doesn't mean everything will be hunky-dory. They have real issues to work through, the least of which is trust."
- Eric Goldman, IGN.com: "Yes, it's too early in the show's run for the Jennings to be found out, but it's a mark of a great show when they still were able to create a scenario that completely sold how close Elizabeth came to being caught and made the situation so nerve-racking, before and after Phillip arrived. The fact that an actual car chase followed only increased the 'Holy s---!' of it all."
As for viewer reaction, it was mostly positive, though at least one fan agreed that the episode should have been a little stronger as a season ender:
- HitFix.com commenter Charles_ wrote, "For a show about spies, 'The Americans' has generally avoided the classic thriller mechanisms. It's clear they were saving them for the finale, and they pulled it off excellently. A brilliant end to a great season. Can't wait for next year."
- Huffington Post commenter OutToLunch wrote, "gotta say it again: 'The Americans' is the best new show on television ... the finale was superb. suspenseful and nail bite-y down to the end. and 'Games Without Frontiers' was an excellent song to close out season 1. just really well done."
- But Vulture.com commenter TNGUHL wrote, "I didn't find this episode that riveting, to be honest. I actually found it fairly predictable. the car chase, after Phillip picked up Elizabeth, was pretty weak. i'm not sure if all the episodes had been produced before the renewal, but if this had ended the series, i would've been pretty mad."
What did you think of the season ender? Was it one of the best episodes of the season? Was it enough to make you put Season 2 on your must-watch list for next year? Let us know in the comments below.
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