On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the sinner’s fate is sealed. To be blotted out of the Book of Life, in scripture’s cruel parlance, is to be culled from the ranks of the righteous, and it’s this eternal exile to which Leonard Cohen turns in his 1974 track “Who by Fire.” The spare, tragic ballad, inspired by Jewish tradition, but attuned to fears of a more modern sort, forms the hardened heart of The Americans’s plaintive season finale, rising on the soundtrack as Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) face an expulsion of their own. “Persona Non Grata,” in which Gabriel (Frank Langella) urges his agents to flee the country, forces these unwelcome guests in Cold War America to confront the question that defines the immigrant experience: At what point is the place from whence we came no longer the place we call “home”?
In this moment, as Paige (Holly Taylor) congratulates Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt) on the birth of their first child and Arkady (Lev Gorn) resigns himself to the end of his tenure at the Rezidentura, The Americans gathers the states of belonging—family, faith, nation—on which its narrative rests into a single, Cohen-strung montage. But as the Book of Life corresponds with the Book of the Dead, the devout with the damned, “Persona Non Grata” also examines the sense of estrangement in the song’s raw reprise: “Who shall I say is calling?” After all, it’s William (Dylan Baker) whose demise most closely approximates the terrible tenor of Cohen’s lyric, its “high ordeal,” its “brave assent,” its “mortal chains” and “power.” “Over time, the thing that made it special, made me special—my secret power, as it were—became a curse,” he confesses to Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), his voice breaking as he slowly succumbs to Lhasa fever. “I was alone.”
William’s capture is the subject of the episode’s painstaking opening sequence, set inside a fast-closing dragnet, and as in “Travel Agents,” The Americans proves once again that action need not be explosive to be effective. As the camera floats over Hans’s (Peter Mark Kendall) car to find Philip in the following vehicle, or frames F.B.I. field officers running through the park, a flying V of outstretched flashlights, “Persona Non Grata” elicits tension from the careful arrangement of moving pieces; it’s as watchful as the operatives on both sides of the exchange, and as edgy. When William, cornered, smashes the vial of Lhasa virus into his palm, producing a large spot of blood, the image of his raised arms in the spotlight of a circling helicopter suggests the stigmata of the martyr, or perhaps the suicide of the song (“who by his own hand”), though it remains unclear whose sins he chooses to die for.
Throughout the season, Baker’s exquisite performance has scratched at the issue of sacrifice, evolving from the dry wit of “Chloramphenicol” to William’s crisis of conscience in “A Roy Rogers in Franconia,” and the speed with which the infection dissolves his body creates the conditions for a reckoning of the soul. The architecture of the hospital ward in which William spends his final days becomes the bitter emblem of his long and lonely service, his emotional barriers made manifest by the repeated sight of Stan and Aderholt listening behind the glass. Coming near the end of a narrative arc in which much has been given and nothing gained, one shadowed by the deaths of Gene Craft, Nina Sergeevna, and Frank Gaad, by the dissolution of Philip’s bond with Martha and Elizabeth’s with Young Hee, by Paige’s duplicitous relationship with Tim and Alice and her burgeoning one with Matthew Beeman (Danny Flaherty), the isolation unit is the objective correlative of a new nadir: To live an “invisible” life, the dying man concludes, is to live no life at all.
It’s striking, then, that our last glimpse of William should suggest the barest glimmer of hope, if not for him then for his fellow spies. As he glances up at his interlocutors, the image blurs; the camera’s angle throws the matching rectangles of the observation window askew; the barrier briefly comes down. Teetering on the cusp of revealing too much, he describes, in his delirious ramble, his wish to be “like them,” meaning Philip and Elizabeth. “Couple kids. American dream.” Whether his decision to contract Lhasa rather than submit to prolonged interrogation derives from his commitment to the cause, to his comrades, or both, the half-joking label he applies to his longing refers not to the motherland, but to the ethos of his adoptive one.
“We’re all Americans now,” Young Hee declared in “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow,” and “Persona Non Grata” returns to this notion by transforming it into the ultimate dilemma, built into the composition of a single, telling image. On the left side of the frame stands Gabriel, the lone remaining link to Philip and Elizabeth’s birthplace, imploring them to escape; on the right, the Stars and Stripes flutter into view in the foreground, with a series of smaller flags marking commemorative wreaths behind them; the decision is, for once, theirs and theirs alone. Not by fate, nor by chance, but by choice, will Philip and Elizabeth return to the Soviet Union or remain in the United States, though tonight’s episode (and the knowledge that FX has renewed The Americans for two more seasons) points to the latter.
It’s not simply that Philip has come to enjoy the comforts of capitalism, or that his long-lost son and namesake, Misha (Alex Ozerov), prepares to embark for America after being released from a Russian prison. Elizabeth, too, seems shell-shocked by Gabriel’s suggestion, staring blankly ahead from the passenger seat, or trying to picture Paige and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) in a place she can no longer imagine herself. “Do you ever wonder what it looks like now, back home?” she asks Philip, before the notion of leaving is even on the table. “Probably not that much,” he replies, suddenly deflated.
With the latter’s discussion at EST, in fact, “Persona Non Grata” recalls nothing so much as “Glanders,” closing the circle on a season of television that counts, for me, among the decade’s finest to date—in the same league as Mad Men, Hannibal, The Leftovers, and Breaking Bad. Where Philip once remembered the person he used to be, the small boy shaken by his own violent wrath, he now speaks of the man he’s become, in the midst of what amounts to an existential crisis:
“You choose a job before you ever really know you’ll like it, right? I mean, when you’re young, you don’t know anything—who you are, what you want to do, be. You pick something because it fits what you like, what you need. But life changes things. You change. Or something. And then one day you wake up and you don’t want to go into the office. You don’t want to make arrangements for people you don’t know and don’t give a shit about…Every morning, I wake up with this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
This omnipresent dread, for which Jean-Paul Sartre’s apt term was “nausea,” has been the subject of The Americans’s fourth season all along, as the characters faced the niggling fear that their sacrifices have been all for naught. On Super Bowl Sunday, 1984, it’s remarkable how much hasn’t changed for the Jenningses since “March 8, 1983,” despite the “hard year” behind them: Henry remains half-forgotten, the Cold War continues apace, and the pair at the show’s center must once again fight for their family’s survival. Even poor Paige, having finally replaced her connection with Tim and Alice by forging a new one with the boy across the street, finds herself back where she started, forced into an impossible choice: between kinship and romance, loyalty and independence, truth and deceit. “I don’t want you to see him,” Philip warns her. “Don’t do this, Paige. You have no idea. No idea.”
At the conclusion of a season that began with a flashback, one in which the past (Elizabeth’s rape, Martha’s abortion, Young Hee’s childhood, Gregory’s affections, Betty’s death) rushed in and receded, as regular as the tides, there’s little left to support the notion of the master plan, the grand design: “I wanted for the moments in my life to follow each other and order themselves like those of a life remembered,” Sartre writes. “It would be just as well to try to catch time by the tail.” Even the mission to procure biological materials for Soviet scientists, so small in the scheme of the Cold War, has failed not once, but twice, pushing Philip and Elizabeth to the brink of disaster in the process.
The final seconds of “Persona Non Grata,” as Elizabeth watches Philip and Paige hurry up the driveway from the bedroom window, thus darkens their American dream, denatures it, turning an image associated with domestic bliss toward something like despair. The curtain falls back into place, the red door closes, and the series cuts to black much as it did last season, once again sure that the characters’ “secret power” is also, unmistakably, their curse. As it happens, the bleak, brutal suspicion at the heart of The Americans, as of Cohen’s dangling, unanswered question, is still the one I spied in “Glanders,” of which I wrote, with regard to the question of atonement, that “only you can truly call yourself to account for what you’ve done”: the niggling fear, the omnipresent dread, that when the call inevitably comes, there’s no one on the other end of the line.
For more recaps of The Americans, click here.