Viewers anticipating the most cathartic possible direction for the season finale of Season 4 of The Americans might have anticipated a Paige (Holly Taylor) or Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) ex machina. Maybe even a stray Matthew (Danny Flaherty) comment, based on something Paige told him: something that would put Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (KEri Russell) directly in Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Aderholt’s (Brandon Dirden) line of fire.
Yet the biggest potential threat to the family’s safety is diffused in the first ten minutes of the episode. As is common for the show, the Jennings are one degree of separation away from a dire situation, but never just a doorknob turn away, or something. Philip’s rendezvous location with William is far from the scene of William’s (Dylan Baker) capture; he sits on a bench, unaware, while William is busy crushing a vial of deadly lassa juice into his palm.
So “Persona Non Grata” is a heightened, drawn-out goodbye to William. Unfortunately, his actual farewell speeches are not as poetic or revelatory as they might have been. The screenplay for the finale is matter-of-fact, which is usually good on The Americans, but here it gives us relatively new information or memorable ruminations from the cast in which we’ve become so deeply invested.
Philip’s confession to his EST seminar is perhaps the episode’s most compelling moment of dialogue, and yet it’s a rehashing of sentiments we knew he was grappling with. The most interesting and cryptic moment in the scene is the EST instructor’s pithy response, which Philip could have either read as vacuously macho or inspiring (it’s unclear) “Do you think the world would stop spinning?” the lecturer says, referring to Philip quitting his “job.” “‘Cause I got news for you. You ain’t that important.”
The line tempts us to think about what’s next for the Jennings family. Both Philip and Elizabeth have been in and out of having cold feet about their profession for, conservatively, a season and a half now. In Philip’s existentially fragile state of mind, is this enough to inspire him to flee, just based on Gabriel (Frank Langella) assuring him and Elizabeth that the jig is up? William is now, of course, more than compromised (“I’m not saying he walked it over to them,” Gabriel explains, “but now that they have him, they probably have something enticing to offer.”) And if the Center isn’t giving them work, what would they be in America? “Just travel agents”?
Gabriel’s suggestion that the Jennings’s (all of them) should move back to the motherland doesn’t seem, based on both Philip’s and Elizabeth’s attachment to their current lifestyle, something that could happen unless they were pulled kicking and screaming. But would it be better to be without their children, in jail, if William did give up their identities? Is it too dangerous or cruel for them to make Paige and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) to stay with them no matter where they are in the world?
At the conclusion of the episode, Philip and Elizabeth deliberate seriously about whether they should “pack and get out of [there].” But when Stan comes home without a cavalcade of police cars behind him, and Philip manages to bring Paige home from the Beemans’s without event, it seems like things might be okay for a while. As the ominous music surges against an image of an irate Philip escorting Paige back into the house (this Matthew situation is, by any stretch of his imagination, a liability), however, we get the sense that nothing will feel quite as sort-of safe as it did before, especially when Gabriel downgraded Philip and Elizabeth’s load of missions in the middle of the season.
We as viewers feel Philip’s undirected panic, because we know that William has given Stan and Aderholt enough to possibly do the math, and pinpoint a few possibilities for all-too-perfect spy families right in their midst. It’s just ambiguous enough to make the near-future of The Americans hard to imagine. It could be instant disaster, or a slow-burning cat-and-mouse game, as evidence falls into the Bureau’s hands.
A possible accelerator of capital-T trouble, of course, is the untimely arrival of Misha 2: that is, Philip’s long-lost, military-expat son with his former lover Irina. Talking to his grandfather after being sprung from jail — a stint for insubordination, it seems — it becomes clear that the young Misha’s intended next step is some sort of ambush of Philip/Misha in America. He’s got the fake passports to do it, even if his late mother didn’t leave him information about where, exactly, his birth father was.
Misha 2 is a big new wrench to throw into the works of the show — a risky one. Third-act moves like this are red flags, signaling a possible, impending shark-jumping. With Nina (and possibly Oleg?) gone, it doesn’t really feel like The Americans needs to carrot in another extended, tangential plot line with another.
But if there’s one thing The Americans has consistently proved across all four of its seasons, it’s that its exact plot particulars are never easy to guess at. Almost always, our instincts are wrong. So let’s give Misha 2 the benefit of the doubt, forgive creators Weisbard and Fields slightly less dynamic season finale than usual, and commence holding our breath for a year until Season 5.