There’s a hole in the Jennings home. Literally: a big black circular void right up near the roof, presumably a window into their unlighted attic. You can see it plain as day in the center of the final shot of The Americans’ extraordinary fourth season, as Philip leads his recalcitrant daughter Paige back into their house’s cloying confines after catching her immediately post-makeout with the son of his FBI-agent neighbor Stan Beeman. “Don’t do this, Paige,” he barks at her of the potential teenage tryst. “You have no idea. No idea.” Meanwhile the black hole in the house looms like a gigantic zero, or an entry wound — an absence of visual information, in a show structured around the deliberate obfuscation of information, around hiding, lying, covering up, and ultimately killing to keep the truth from exposure. As season finales go, “Persona Non Grata” was not of the explosive variety, and nor was its Season Three predecessor; The Americans is not, or is no longer, that kind of show. Rather, it’s a story about the holes in things, including stories themselves. You never know what might leak out, or fall in.
Fittingly, the episode begins with a man literally carving holes in himself for the precise purpose of tossing his life irretrievably into their recesses. Having pinpointed the identity of William, the KGB’s man inside America’s bioweapons program, at the end of the previous episode, Stan and Aderholt are on the case, supervising a surveillance and sting operation of balletic complexity. As Philip, Hans, and potentially other Russian operatives scout the area where he and the scientist are scheduled to rendezvous from one direction, the Feds close in around William from the other, following him from his home to the park where the Lassa-virus handoff is to take place. Cars tail and circle, agents follow and fall back on foot. Eventually, William makes his pursuers and makes a break for it, dashing through the trees and hiding behind pillars in a vain attempt to evade a small army of counterintelligence officers converging on the area. In the end, he breaks open his viral vial and jabs its shards into his palms before raising his hands in stigmatic surrender, the disease that will turn his insides to soup before ejecting them through his orifices already coursing through his veins. And Philip sits on his park bench none the wiser, oblivious to the sound of the FBI helicopter circling nearby. The entire sequence is masterfully, stomach-churningly tense, as such sequences tend to be on this show; you watch while murmuring “oh my god”s to yourself, convinced something terrible will happen, until finally, something does.
At first, William’s slow suicide seems like both a canny move and a symbolically appropriate one. With just days to live, and even less time before he’s reduced to insensate incoherence, he’ll be impossible for the Feds to properly interrogate; tellingly, Stan and Aderholt keep calling him “William” because they don’t even know his real name. They’re reduced to grimly hilarious small talk that’s not even that effective in putting the dying man at ease: “Would you like a coke?” Aderholt asks him to uproarious laughter that devolves into wet coughs.
And what better way to do himself in than make himself a victim of the diseases he’s spent a lonely lifetime trying to acquire for his Soviet supervisors, even as he lost everything about himself in the process? He may be loyal, after all, but he’s not above leaving them twisting in the wind for their complicity in his slow unraveling: “They don’t know if you’ve told us anything,” Stan points out to him, to which he replies with a glint of deliberate mischief, “No, they don’t know that.” Why should they be privy to this intimate knowledge of his final hours, when he sacrificed the possibility of intimacy in their service? “Over time, the thing that made it special, made me special, my secret power as it were, became a curse,” he explains of his ability to remain undetected. “I was alone. Isolated. Lonely, very lonely. I’d reach out to people — not friends, exactly, but maybe acquaintances, more like — but there was always a distance, a barrier. The absence of closeness makes you dry inside.” No more worry about that, at least. Commitment to the cause, he says in the end, “was the only thing I had left.”
But William’s illness and his loneliness team up to undo him in the end. His fever raging, blood oozing from his nose and mouth, he starts to leak in other ways. “They always wanted more,” he tells his onlookers. “More information, more samples. They wanted me married. I tried. We were fighting. I was. I wish I could have been with her for all these years. Like them. Couple kids. American dream. Never suspect them. She’s pretty. He’s lucky.” Now they know that somewhere in the Washington, DC area lives a nuclear family behind the cover of which their Cold War enemies lurk.
William’s right about one thing: The Jennings are lucky. Look at their Russian equivalents: Poor, decent Oleg, who risked so much to save first his ex-girlfriend Nina and then the entire Eastern United States by working with Stan Beeman, is now giving up both love and career advancement by returning to Moscow to be with his grieving mother. “You’re a good son,” he’s told, first by Arkady, the Rezident who’s being expelled from the United States by the American government thanks to the long string of malfeasance (as the Munchkin puts it, “bugging my predecessor’s office, having one of your officer’s marry his secretary — which is the lowest thing I’ve ever seen in my life…you killed Frank Gaad,” and of course the bioweapon theft) pulled by his people. He’s told it again by Tatiana, who’s been tapped by the USSR to serve as Arkady’s interim replacement until a suitable (read: male) successor can be found. She loves Oleg, and she’s saddened that in one fell swoop, her dreams of taking her career and her personal life to a new level with him in Kenya have been dashed.
Then there’s Philip’s other son, Misha. He’s been institutionalized by his own government after serving in Afghanistan, since anyone who’d criticize their imperial war there must be mentally ill. When the Centre pulls strings to have him released, he returns to the communal apartment where he lived with his grandfather, his mother having been arrested herself. She left behind stacks of money in various denominations and the knowledge that his father is a travel agent in America. “I need to know,” he tells his grandpa. Another good son.
But what of the parents? With William MIA, presumed captured, presumed cooperating, Gabriel tells Philip and Elizabeth the obvious: It’s time for them to pull out and go home, taking their children with them. But the way Philip’s talking in that final scene, as if a relationship between Paige and Matthew Beeman is a going concern instead of something that will stop when they pack their bags and leave at 3am that night, indicates that he and Elizabeth are dragging their feet. Surely this is because they don’t wish to upset the applecart of their children’s lives unnecessarily — this may well blow over, as indeed it is likely to do, for now anyway, given William’s failure to give up all but the most general information about their identities. But the final scenes of the episode involve the escalating emotional and physical intimacy between Philip and Stan’s two teenage children, then the two men’s delight (genuine on Stan’s part, feigned by Philip) in discovering it. How can you cleanly extract Paige from this, even if she knows what she does? How can you extract Henry, who knows nothing? Hell, how can you extract Philip, who has a friend in Stan, even if he wishes he didn’t? We saw how that went with Elizabeth and Young-Hee a few episodes ago. The hole they’ve dug for themselves is deep. Maybe they can get out again, but they won’t emerge clean.