How American Are ‘The Americans’?

By Eric Thurm
from Pacific Standard

On November 20, 1983, ABC aired The Day After, a movie that imagined the potential fallout from a war between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact. One hundred million people congregated around their televisions to watch. Among the audience that night, according to the FX series The Americans, were Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their children, Paige and Henry. A perfect American family.*

The Jennings are the show’s “Americans,” but they are also Mischa and Nadezhda, Russian illegals brought over to live as a false family and tasked by the KGB with undermining their new country. As the series begins in 1981, they’re doing a pretty good job of it. They have two kids, a family business (a travel agency), and a station wagon. Philip knows a thing or two about sports, and Elizabeth bakes brownies for their new neighbors — who include a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and his family. The couple has lived in the United States for more than half their lives, and contend with a family project that rivals their professional espionage work: raising their decidedly American children.

For Elizabeth, fanatically devoted to the revolution, these softer facets of her identity are troubling — they ask her to be, first and foremost, a caring wife and mother when she’s uninterested in her family and outright horrified by the near-constant outward displays of warmth this new country asks of her. Shortly after she arrives in America, she tells her “husband” (they never actually married) that there is a “weakness in the people.” Accordingly, she makes little effort to form attachments that do not serve her mission, and is cold to the point where she has a hard time relating to her children. Even for a spy, she is uncomfortably comfortable with the use of force, including savagely beating her KGB handler until the older woman’s face looks like a smashed fruit cart.

If Philip and Elizabeth are, by this point, Americans — and they are — it’s because their adventures in parenting have made them capable of staking a claim to shared values with their adopted neighbors.

Philip, meanwhile, has been somewhat seduced by the comforts of his new life — the TV and the food and the ease with which he and his family can go about their business. (It helps that the Jennings family is white and comfortable — one of their operatives is a black man whom they recruited, in part, by exploiting his resentment of white supremacy.) In the pilot, Philip attempts to hand over a Russian captive to the FBI in exchange for placement in Witness Protection. It would be an attempt at starting a new life with his children, with whom he feels an affinity stronger than the one that ties him to the KGB.

The Jennings’ working relationship accordingly experiences strain, to the point where they briefly separate. (There’s nothing outwardly suspicious in suburbia about yet another divorced couple.) But they are drawn back together, because they care for each other and because they have a shared investment in their kids, but primarily because no one else is capable of beginning to understand them. When Elizabeth tells Philip to “come home” in the closing moments of the first season, she is acknowledging their relationship as real, or perhaps transforming it into something real — but she’s also claiming their too-perfect suburban house, and therefore America itself, as “home.”

This question — whether the Jennings are at home in Falls Church, Virginia, and therefore whether they are Americans — grows in importance as their sham marriage deepens into something approaching a real one. Early in the show’s third season, Philip is forced to pull out one of Elizabeth’s teeth — they have to avoid doctors because the FBI is on the lookout for a spy matching her injuries and physical description. The sequence throbs with tenderness, to the point where it practically doubles as the wedding video they never had an opportunity to make. Their family bond begins to take precedence over duty to their country, a development that places The Americans closer to Bloodlinethan to James Bond.

Like many of the iconic relationships of the past few years of American television, the Jennings’ marriage is built on the simultaneous acceptance ofand opposition to a shared workplace. Marrying inside the office out of convenience (and as a way of forming an alliance) is, perhaps, the most American way to approach one’s romantic life — and the Jennings come to rely more and more heavily on their marital solidarity when the KGB orders that they recruit their daughter Paige, countermanding the intelligence agency’s long-standing promise never to tell the Jennings children about their parents’ true identities. It’s the Jennings against the world, except that “the world” now explicitly includes their employers, and their mother country.

This is what’s at stake for the Jennings as they navigate the KGB’s ever-changing demands and evade the scrutiny of the FBI. The end goal is less emerging victorious over the hated U.S., if it ever was; instead, their focus is on extracting their family from the Cold War. If Philip and Elizabeth are, by this point, Americans — and they are — it’s because their adventures in parenting have made them capable of staking a claim to shared values with their adopted neighbors.

As the fourth season comes to a close, Philip and Elizabeth must decide whether to keep a secret from the KGB. William, another Russian operative, has discovered the existence of a virus, a bioweapon so potent its mere mention frightens hardened agents. (It liquefies your organs.) Philip wants to claim the moral high ground and hide the weapon from the KGB, who would certainly demand it be stolen and handed over for testing. Does anyone have the right to that much potential devastation? Meanwhile Elizabeth, ever the soldier, wants to be able to defend against an American government cruel enough to use nuclear weapons. The growing probability of global doom and the looming specter of mutual annihilation are also central to The Day After,which the Jennings watch as a family.

By this point, both partners have taken solace in new ideologies. Philip regularly attends EST, a cultish self-help program that caters to the needs of psychically desaturated, aimless, urban American professionals, as a way of dealing with an emptiness in himself that looks increasingly like depression. Elizabeth begins, tentatively, integrating herself at Paige’s church, her Soviet hatred of religion overridden by the pull of a collective bound by a shared idea; after all, the collective ideology she’s been committed to for so long just keeps failing her. And though they seem to have found coping strategies at the outskirts of the America they inhabit, they’re in for a change. In the closing moments of the season, the Jennings are confronted with the possibility of returning to Russia — to home, wherever that is.

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