Any season finale worth a lick will contain three components.
It will build to a climactic moment of action that, if not the most jaw-dropping of the season, at least comes with the most overtly evident stakes.
It will make a concerted effort to answer–or at least contextualize–the season’s most burning questions.
It will introduce new questions and plot points as organic teases for the next season.
A great finale is therefore differentiated from a good one not by its inclusion of such elements but by the manner in which it aligns those elements with a fundamental–and valuable–storytelling objective. Instead of being guided by the desire to create an enthralling final episode, it must be driven by a need to create a thematically faithful checkpoint that not only honors its preceding developments but amplifies their impact.
The action scenes must be earned. The answers must apply to deep questions stemming from the entire narrative rather than shallow ones shoehorned into the season’s final chapters. The newly introduced questions and plot points must offer a credible bridge between two seasons rather than an escape from the shackles of one season’s plot points.
By the three components in conjunction with those parameters, Wednesday’s second “The Americans” season finale establishes itself as a great finale. A nearly perfect one, in fact.
A poignant, exhilarating yet thematically clear ending to a season that has consistently oozed those qualities, “Echo” focuses exclusively on creating the experience its narrative warrants.
No action sequence serves as blatant artillery for highlight reels, and no reveal proves designed as a cheap ploy for Twitter buzz. Everything exists as a means of organically wrapping up the season’s storylines and illuminating the themes that will drive the show into its third season.
Not simply consistent in tone and logic with the ongoing narrative, the second season finale actually adds context–and thus significance–to every facet of the second season’s narrative.
From the broadening stakes and danger associated with Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) and Philip’s (Matthew Rhys profession, to the specific, imminent threat created by Larrick (Lee Tergesen), to the correlative increases in curiosity and suspicion accompanying Paige’s (Holly Taylor) maturation, to the anguish Stan (Noah Emmerich) is experiencing in losing perspective, agency and normalcy, “Echo” writes nothing off as trivial or unimportant. It assures viewers that nothing existed for the sole purpose of filling one or more of the season’s thirteen episodes. It commits to owning the best–and worst–portions of those storylines as part of a sweeping set of ramifications for the show’s voice and progression.
It makes its events matter not simply because they are happening to the characters but because they are transforming the characters.
Given how many scenarios and plotlines are on the verge of coming to a boil, many shows would find contentedness in settling for a superficial approach to Wednesday’s episode. If it could bring the storyline involving Stan, the Russian Embassy and Nina (Annet Mahendru) to a thrilling, emotional conclusion, it would feel justified in celebrating. If it could deliver a compelling, climactic action sequence between Larrick and Elizabeth and/or Philip, it would feel justified in celebrating. If it could drop jaws in revealing the entity behind the murders of Emmett, Leanne and Amelia, it would feel justified in celebrating. And if it could compellingly explain the nature of the relationship between Jared and Kate, it would feel justified in celebrating.
“The Americans” is not such a show. While that, on the one hand, means its reveals might not be as mind-blowing or creative as those routinely offered by pulpier television dramas, it also means the show does not disrespect its audiences’ investment by making Wednesday’s episode only about such shallow answers and events.
In its process of resolving the aforementioned storylines, “The Americans” remains fixated on illustrating how those resolutions–happy or sad, surprising or obvious–contribute to the broader palette of emotions, characterizations and messages that defined the season.
And as that effort materializes throughout Wednesday’s finale, it becomes clear that even though the season, at times, might have seemed devoid of a tangible “mission” for Elizabeth and Philip (the somewhat convoluted effort to acquire stealth technology is probably closest), it was never devoid of a dramatic one. Every threat, every operation, every death was part of a broader journey for Elizabeth and Philip, who–in finding themselves increasingly detached from their initial circumstances–must adapt to the challenges they either failed to anticipate or refused to acknowledge.
The events of season two (including those in the finale) enabled the key characters to better interpret and appreciate the challenges that stand before them. The closing moments of the finale then focus on the crueler, more emotionally draining task of using that clarified interpretation and renewed appreciation to drive their decisions moving forward.
On their own, explosive, “holy sh*t” moments play a limited role in creating lasting, powerful impressions with viewers. It is the totality of those moments–and the manner in which they combine to define the dramatic journey–that enables a show to transform the audience’s activity from one of viewership to experience.
Recognizing that reality, the best television series vow not to introduce any variable–or build to any moment–that does not make a riveting contribution to the heart of the narrative. “Echo” proves that “The Americans,” at least as far as its second season is concerned, is one of those elite television series.