No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
Is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
Well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
Own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
The bell tolls; it tolls for thee. —John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
It’d almost be funny, how fast one’s life can unravel, were the experience itself not so profoundly upsetting. Houses, spouses, American kids, new cars and old friends, longtime careers: The emblems of “success” we spend decades accruing turn out to be tenuous whether we wish it or not, and when the bell tolls—and it tolls for all of us—the choices are stark indeed. The final episode of The Americans—the series entire—is about these choices, about careful plans and awful surprises, about chaos, confusion, fear, regret, about who we are when push comes to shove and how far that is from who we hoped we’d be. The most magnificent sequence in “START,” after all, is the one laser-focused on the pain of endings, set to U2’s “With or Without You”: “My hands are tied / My body bruised…” the song reports, an anthem of impossible choices if ever there was one. “Nothing to win and / Nothing left to lose.”
Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) intake of breath in the opening frames is as much for us, then, as it is for himself, a moment of steadiness before the Jennings’ universe spins off its axis. It doesn’t last long, either: He and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) decide to abandon Henry (Keidrich Sellati) at the beginning of “START,” and the consequences rumble like a freight train through the rest of the hour. It’s also the first indication that the episode, whether or not you rank it with the series’ finest, is by some margin its most boldly emotional; from the moment Elizabeth’s eyes search her husband’s for a crack in his façade, and we see her realize that this is the rightest of their limited options, it’s as if six seasons of coded language and terse exchanges finally burst forth in an eruption of feeling. Though no one dies in “START,” it carries the force of a funeral procession, mourning the lives the characters might’ve led, or did, before accepting the loss as irrevocable: As Elizabeth says at episode’s end, surveying the lights of Moscow for the first time in ages, “Who knows what would have happened here?”
Who knows what would have happened: This begins to suggest the gestalt of “START,” its central principle, which is the belief that regret is both inevitable and impossible. Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) stunning confrontation with Philip, Elizabeth and Paige (Holly Taylor), for instance, is a discussion of his best friend and betrayer’s regrets as much as his own: “You made my life a joke,” Stan laments, hurt and humiliated to an extent one can scarcely imagine. “You were my only friend in my whole shitty life,” Philip replies, almost pleading. “For all these years, my life was the joke, not yours.” I can’t say why Stan chooses not to pull the trigger, nor does he need, in a series so suffused with ambivalence and complication, one singular reason. Perhaps it’s his concern for his friend in New Hampshire—his plaintive “Henry?” brought tears to my eyes—or Elizabeth’s mention of her own broken trust. Though it contains so much to unpack—Stan’s periodic flashes of all-consuming fury, which fade into awestruck silence; the Jennings’ arrangement into a defensive V; the fact that Elizabeth still prefers to lie at this late hour, as much for Paige’s benefit as for Stan’s—it strikes me now that the scene turns on Philip’s admission that he, too, is desperate for time long since lost.
Is it worth it, to play back the tape like this? To turn your whole shitty life in your hands again, as if it could change your path to the present? Is it useful to fixate on the instinct you ignored, the useless war you fought, the home you might’ve made? I suspect it’s this that transforms the call to Henry into such a poignant treatment of the subject, a devastating portrait of regrets in the process of being made: Regret, on his parents’ end, for not having expressed their love and their pride more often; regret, on his sister’s, for not having said anything at all; regret, on his own, for having been distracted by the most forgettable minutia—a ping-pong tournament, laughing classmates—during a conversation he’ll remember the rest of his days.
It’s here, in fact, that “START” begins to draw its most essential connection, the one that animates its jaw-dropping third act: Regret, which comes from the Old French regreter — “to bewail (the dead)” — is a kissing cousin to grief, except that the life you mourn may be your own. The only characters The Americans kills off, in this capstone to a most violent season, are Philip and Elizabeth, disguises removed as our protagonists become Mischa and Nadezhda once more. And yet the losses they sustain are calamitous: a best friend, a son, and finally a daughter, to say nothing of the Gregorys and Marthas and Young Hees they’ve collected and discarded along the way. Elizabeth’s expression of stomach-dropping, breath-taking, palms-on-the-window astonishment, seeing Paige on the platform as the train leaves the station, isn’t simply a mirror of our own reaction. It’s also a form of comeuppance: Having been molded in her mother’s image, Paige turns the independence Elizabeth instilled in her into a weapon against her. It is the one time I can remember, in 75 episodes, that the series’ most formidable figure has been truly struck dumb.
Because, finally, there is no such thing as perfect trust, or perfect knowledge, even of one’s self—everyone is a “fucking liar,” as Stan screams, at least in the right circumstances. Stringing out the question of Renee’s (Laurie Holden) loyalties, then pairing the ambiguous answer with Paige’s fateful decision, thus turns an inexplicable subplot into an ingenious one: As the camera lingers on the former, standing in Stan’s driveway and watching the FBI search the Jennings’ house, or as Philip and Elizabeth stare, stricken, at the latter, The Americans returns to its animating question, its emotional core. As Agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) implies to Father Andrei (Konstantin Lavysh) in the course of his interrogation, one’s principles might be rooted in nation, or faith, but trust and its absence, love and its absence, come down to people—people who are, yes, the neighbor, the secretary, the long-lost son, not to mention the bureaucrat, the soldier, the ally, the mark, but who are also, necessarily, the product of choices as contingent and constrained as our own.
If The Americans can be said to possess a single through line, I suppose it is this: That no man is an island, that none of us lonely hearts—to crib from the Tchaikovsky cue that brings the season, and series, to its stirring conclusion—are invulnerable to feeling, impervious to connection. It’s the notion that lashes together John Donne’s Devotions, U2’s megahit, and perhaps the last great drama of TV’s most recent “Golden Age,” the understanding that regret, in the arena of human relationships, is both inevitable and impossible. Inevitable because no one’s choices are above reproach, impossible because it is an emotion with no outlet, no respite, no satisfaction. You must simply get used to it, as Elizabeth says: By the time you reflect on the choices that brought you here, “here” is already where you are.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.