Last night’s pitch-perfect series finale of The Americans made good on the long-promised tension of the show: that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), the Soviet spies who have spent decades passing as unremarkable American parents and travel agents, are in such danger of being caught, they flee back to the homeland.
Their plan — with their spy-in-training daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) in tow — involves donning new disguises (it wouldn’t be a series finale without them) and driving north, eventually hoping to make it Canada, aided by Canadian passports. En route, in disguise, and on a dark country road, the family does what plenty of other American families on the road have done: pull into a McDonald’s for a dinner on-the-go.
But they don’t go in together. Because Philip and Elizabeth are wanted by the FBI, they can no longer publicly be a family in America. Paige goes in first, then Philip. Elizabeth stays in the car. The camera most closely tracks Philip’s experience inside as U2’s “With or Without You” scores the scene. He catches sight of the family he always wanted — a party of four, laughing and eating fries like the fate of the world doesn’t rest on their shoulders. As he leaves, with bags of American fast food, he catches a reflection of himself in the window. His wig is light blonde, his complexion ashen. He looks like a ghost.
Speaking of how the show used traditional Russian food in its final season, The Americans creator Joe Weisberg recently explained to Eater how the food scenes strike a contrast between the Soviet Union and America. “Americans have more food than they know what to do with it, and you never think twice about stuffing your face,” he remarked. There’s perhaps no better symbol of this abundant, calorie-laden food culture than McDonald’s.
McDonald’s is more than just a stand-in for American food culture here and abroad. The chain is also a triumph of American capitalism, the beating heart of the system Philip and Elizabeth spent years combatting. Elizabeth maintained her struggle through the penultimate episode, but Philip gave up his work, and tried to find his peace living as a capitalist, throwing himself into his work at the travel agency — and failed. Of course it’s Philip who advocates for leaving their out-of-the-loop high-achiever son Henry in America — even if Philip wasn’t able to make the American dream work, he sees how it could for Henry.
It’s no wonder he finds himself unrecognizable in the McDonald’s window.