The Americans, Season 1

Why "Games Without Frontiers" Was the Perfect Theme for the Finale
Talking television.
May 1 2013 11:00 PM

The Americans, Season 1

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Why “Games Without Frontiers” was the perfect theme for the finale.

Margo Martindale as Grannie
Margo Martindale as Grannie

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/FX

One season in, The Americans’ visual signature is the crosscut montage set to a classic '80s soundtrack. In the pilot, an epic chase scene was propelled by Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”; Episode 10 had the beautifully choreographed “To Love Somebody” shootout; and we head into the hiatus breathless from “Games Without Frontiers.”

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

The Peter Gabriel song was a perfect bookend to the climax of the pilot, when Philip and Elizabeth made love to the strains of “In the Air Tonight,” by Gabriel’s former bandmate Phil Collins. “Games Without Frontiers” was inspired by Jeux Sans Frontières, an international TV contest in which European nations competed in a series of silly games. Thirty-five years after World War II, Brits and Germans relocated their rivalry to tricked-out treadmills and water hazards; in The Americans, the Cold War superpowers aren’t playing games. Lives are still being sacrificed, though both sides have lost their way since Stalingrad.

Stalingrad isn’t completely forgotten, though. We learned that Elizabeth was wrong about Grannie. She had tried to convince Moscow Center that the meeting with the colonel was a setup, and she really had known and loved Viktor Zhukov. It was Grannie, not Elizabeth, who avenged Zhukov’s murder. She was the one who got to watch Richard Patterson die while she told him about the man he’d ordered killed. She had first seen Zhukov at the siege of Stalingrad, the battle where Elizabeth’s father perished when she was 2 years old.

Advertisement

We learned where Elizabeth's father died in the pilot, when Philip and Elizabeth first told each other about their earlier, Russian, lives. That night, when Elizabeth told Philip her name was Nadezhda, it seemed possible that no one had called her that since she came to America, but in the finale we saw her listening to a taped message from her mother. When she listens to Russian, cold, defended Elizabeth becomes emotional Nadezhda. She’s even more vulnerable at the end of the episode when she uses her native language to tell Philip to come home.

The show’s signature chase sequences emphasize the show’s sense of movement, but the remarkable thing is how little has really changed since the pilot. Sure, Elizabeth has been seriously injured, but she’ll survive, and she and Philip have reconnected. The KGB is wary of Nina, but her quick thinking saved the precious Directorate S officers, so the powers that be know how valuable she is. Grannie has been reassigned to Moscow, but she has also proved her loyalty to the agents. (Grannie’s assignment ultimately hinges on whether Greg Garcia’s new sitcom gets picked up.) And poor Stan Beeman has once again failed to close the case. Sandra was right: His promise that it would soon be behind him was worthless. He’s back to Square 1.

Well, not quite: Prince is talking to the FBI; the agency now knows for sure that a couple of deep-cover KGB operatives are at large in the area, and Viola may be able to identify them. The final shot of the season shows Paige, her suspicions about what her mother gets up to down in the basement dispelled for now, inspecting the laundry room. Just one more mysterious disappearance or unexplained bruise, and Paige will be tapping on the drywall, searching for hidden compartments. But for the moment she’s still a teenage girl whose travel-agent mom has a penchant for late-night laundry folding. Next year, that will surely change.

Also: An interview with creator and showrunner Joe Weisberg (who is also the brother of Jacob Weisberg, the Slate Group’s editor in chief) and his fellow writer, executive producer, and showrunner Joel Fields as they look back on Season 1.