Two of the greatest montages in TV history are linked by the same haunting anthem

The moon’s riding high.
The moon’s riding high.
Image: FX
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This story includes plot details from tonight’s (May 30) series finale of The Americans.

If you’re a television producer and you need the perfect song to underscore a moment of profound consequence during your emotional finale, call Mark Knopfler.

The Dire Straits lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist—and freshly minted member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—knows a thing or two about emotion. Knopfler, “known for his rich tone, sinuous melodicism and rangy, fluid solos,” says Rolling Stone, can add immense gravity to any room, concert hall, or TV scene, with a flick of his finger. Nowhere is that more evident than in the preternaturally evocative anti-war anthem “Brothers in Arms,” which is used to great effect by two of the greatest TV shows of all time: The Americans and The West Wing.

Written by Knopfler in 1982 about the Falklands War, “Brothers in Arms” tells the story of a dying soldier and his “brothers” who refuse to leave him on the battlefield. “And though they did hurt me so bad/In the fear and alarm,” Knopfler writes, “You did not desert me/My brothers in arms.” In between each verse, Knopfler plays several melancholy guitar licks with his signature fingerstyle technique.

The song then subverts that surface meaning of the phrase “brothers in arms,” expanding it to include those on the opposite side of the war that one might normally call their enemies: “But it’s written in the starlight/And every line in your palm/We’re fools to make war/On our brothers in arms.”

If you’re a fan of The Americans, that line may have been when you started to cry. On tonight’s series finale of the Cold War spy drama, “Brothers in Arms” arrives directly after FBI agent Stan Beeman confronts his friends and neighbors, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, about being Russian spies. He decides to let them go, and as he returns to his lookout post and stews in the aftermath (and shock) of losing his best friend—and “brother”—for good, Knopfler’s craggy voice cuts through the screen.

Executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg said they tried many different songs for the moment, but “Brothers in Arms” was just too perfect. “We’re always pretty obsessive about music. We listened to so many songs there,” Fields said on a conference call with reporters last week. “It was beautiful. We just loved what it was doing.”

And it’s doing a lot. The shots of Stan staring pensively out a window, considering what the hell just happened, are interlaced with the Jennings family on the run, digging up fake passports to use during their escape back to Russia. And it’s all woven together thematically by the haunting 1980s rock song.

“Mark Knopfler not only personally approved of using that song in the finale, but he and [Dire Straits keyboardist] Guy Fletcher actually helped us smooth out the use of the song by giving us access to their original recorded elements,” Weisberg revealed. “That really made a beautiful difference in the sequence.”

Fields said they weren’t too concerned about the song’s association with any other beloved American TV series. That’s because it was also used sublimely 17 years ago in a montage in “Two Cathedrals,” the second season finale of the NBC political drama The West Wing.

In the series, US president Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is haunted by visions of his longtime, recently deceased executive secretary, Mrs. Landingham, and is contemplating whether or not to run for a second term following the disclosure of his multiple sclerosis diagnosis.

As his presidential motorcade drives by the National Cathedral—the site of Mrs. Landingham’s funeral—on the way to the press conference where he’ll make his intentions public, “Brothers in Arms” once again sets the mood in an all-time great TV moment:

When asked if he intends to run for another term, Bartlet gives a coy smile, as Knopfler’s solo swells to a crescendo and the picture cuts to black.

The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin had a similar story as Fields and Weisberg in picking “Brothers in Arms” for what was at that point the most important moment in his show’s history (and, arguably, remained so through five more seasons). On The West Wing Weekly podcast last year, Sorkin said the song was “too good to be true.”

It’s a testament to its rare emotional versatility that “Brothers in Arms” can work so well in two distinct, iconic TV moments. In The Americans, it’s a song of regret, of friends lost, of grief. In The West Wing, it’s all those things, too, but it’s also a song of defiance. Which great TV finale will use it next?