On the cold open of the recent season finale of Saturday Night Live, our president and his loyal cronies gather in a diner to reflect on the past year in a sketch that paid direct homage to the last scene of The Sopranos. And of course, no tribute to that cut-to-black classic would be complete without an appearance by Journey’s now immortal “Don’t Stop Believin’,” so an appearance it did indeed make.
That SNL’s writers felt they could reference an 11-year-old television episode and trust that the audience would get it was a testament to The Sopranos’ lingering influence, but it was also a reminder of the way a television show can sometimes come to completely own a song. In particular, there’s something about a series finale, wherein the culmination of years’ worth of character development, the audience’s emotional investment and the right deployment can combine to help a show so thoroughly stamp its essence on a song that you can no longer hear Steve Perry’s high notes without thinking of Tony Soprano reaching for an onion ring.
The finale song canon is a noble institution, dominated by “Don’t Stop Believin'” but also including Six Feet Under’s use of Sia’s “Breathe Me,” the use of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” to comment on Walter White’s passing at the end of Breaking Bad, and the acidic appropriation of the “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” jingle for the final moments of Mad Men. And after last night’s sign-off for The Americans, we must now induct U2’s “With Or Without You,” which producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields stole from Bono and co. as ruthlessly as U2 stole “Helter Skelter” from Charles Manson.
Set in the 1980s, the FX drama tells the story of covert KGB agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who pose as a bland suburban couple in DC while secretly working to bring about the downfall of Reagan’s America. It was easily one of the best best dramas of this decade, and it had one of the best soundtracks as well. The show roared out of the gate with tension-building uses of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” but as the series progressed, the producers and soundtrack supervisor P.J. Bloom tended to stay away from the most obvious ’80s hits, instead offering up cult classics like Bauhaus’ “Slice Of Life” and several deep cuts from the Peter Gabriel catalog (basically the series’ Greek chorus) to underline the rising anxiety of the era and the character’s growing inner conflicts. (Well, maybe not consummate good soldier Elizabeth’s inner conflicts).
We’ll be running a piece on the show’s best needle drops soon, but suffice to say The Americans managed to not fall into the common prestige television trap of what the critic Sean T. Collins characterizes as leaning on a pre-existing work of art to do the heavy lifting for the narrative, and instead always found a way to subvert expectations or underline the themes of the destructive forces of blind patriotism and emotional paralysis without being obvious about it. But the series took it to a completely new level for its series finale with its cutting subversion of “With Or Without You,” one of the most iconic songs of the ’80s, chosen from among hundreds of songs Fields and Weisberg considered for the scene. (Spoilers to come, obviously, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happened.)
The series hits what the audience thinks will be the emotional climax of the series as FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) captures the Jennings, his longtime friends, right before they attempt to flee the country with their daughter and spy-in-training Paige (Holly Taylor) and return to Russia. As a heartsick Stan confronts the Jennings, it seems inevitable that someone won’t make it out of that parking garage alive. But somehow, Philip talks his former best friend into letting them get back to Russia. After a scene in which the Jennings torch every remnant of their American identities set to Dire Straits’ mournful “Brothers In Arms” (a better tribute to the band than the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame recently managed), they don one last disguise and make a break for the border as the pensive intro of “With Or With You” trickles in.
As viewers, we’ve seen enough shows and movies to know how this goes: The most important part of the narrative happens during the most emotional part of the song. So as the music builds, we keep expecting something to go bad when Bono hits the high notes near the end. But it doesn’t really go that way. Philip stares at a happy nuclear family enjoying themselves at a McDonald’s and wonders why he couldn’t just have had a life like that, and Stan looks at his neighbor’s house and wonders how he could have been so easily tricked. But the song fades out before the climax, and it seems like we’re headed towards a more contemplative finale, one that’s not going to pull the rug out from us one more time.
But then! Just after Philip and Elizabeth manage to evade detection from border security, several minutes after the song’s initial fade-out, Bono’s climactic wailing suddenly reappears as the Jennings look out the window and, in one of the most shocking moments of the series, discover that Paige has exited the train, renouncing her family and their plans to abandon her brother and start life over in Russia. It’s a gut-punch moment, one all the more effective because of the songs’ unexpected reoccurrence and how Bono’s wordless cries mirror the sudden anguish that Philip and Elizabeth must suppress, lest they draw attention to themselves. Letting the audience think the song is over, only to bring it back when they least expect it but it will hurt the most, is a sneaky move on the show’s behalf, and a lethally effective one. The scene fades out as Bono’s refrain of “with or without you” mirrors the Jennings’ predicament. They have no choice but to go on without their daughter, even as they know it will kill them.
Upon rewatching, I’m struck by what a canny move the producers made in selecting this song. It’s one of the most iconic songs of its era, from an album that reflected the uncertainty and spiritual yearning of the ’80s, but it’s the line “you give yourself away” that really makes the sequence soar. During Stan’s interrogation of her family, Paige finally had to accept that her parents were the murderers and terrible people she’s long feared them to be. They finally gave themselves away. In turn, she made her decision not to condone their choices anymore, giving herself away once and for all.
For a band that’s been part of the popular consciousness for more than four decades, there’s been far fewer truly iconic, or at least memorable, uses of U2’s songs in film and television than one might imagine. The use of “Zoo Station” in About A Boy is cute, and David O. Russell achieved some real pathos by dropping “In God’s Country” towards the end of Three Kings. And while it’s more than a little on the nose, it’s hard not to swoon at least a little when “All I Want Is You” scores Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder’s romantic turmoil in Reality Bites. But for every effective use, there’s plenty of times when unimaginative directors just plop in a well known U2 song and hope our attachment to it will make their scene pop (some key offenders in this regard are Joel Schumacher’s Cousins and Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown), to say nothing of the forgettable songs U2 have written expressly for the purpose of nabbing an Oscar in recent years. (Go ahead, sing a few lyrics from “The Hands That Built America.” I’ll wait.)
U2’s widescreen earnestness often overwhelms its surroundings, giving canny filmmakers little room for their images to breathe. So The Americans did the only thing that made sense; it placed U2 into a context that subverted the song’s original meaning while staying true to the anguished love at its center. It’s a trick only this show could have pulled off, and it’s yet another reason why we’ll be talking about this series for years to come. Dasvidanya.