The actors gone, there’s only you and me
And if we break before the dawn, they’ll
Use up what we used to be.
– Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes The Flood” (as heard in episode 3, season 2 of The Americans)
There is a heartbreaking moment in the second, tremendous, season of The Americans where the young son of two KGB spies, after being caught breaking into a neighbour’s house, pleads with his parents that he is a good person. He says it to them over and over and over again, crying, “I’m a good person. I’m good. I’m a good person”, willing them to believe him. And we know, because they love him, that they do believe him, though he’s changed to them somehow, that they see what they’ve done in what he’s done. What’s sad about the scene is that we know what he cannot – that his parents do this all the time, that they lie to him daily about who and what they are – they do believe in him. What’s sad is, in that moment, that the boy may not believe in himself.
The Americans takes place during the Cold War and is a show about two KGB spies, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, tasked by their government to pretend to be an American couple in order to infiltrate goings on in the US government. They live a seemingly normal life with two kids, Paige and Henry (their actual children, born in the US with no knowledge of their parent’s hidden identities), in suburban Northern Virginia near Washington, DC. Naturally (at least naturally in the TV universe) they live across the street from an FBI agent named Stan Beeman who is slowly unraveling the mystery of the KGB and of the Jennings themselves. Season 2 (airing as of this writing, with two episodes to go) begins with another KGB spy couple, The Connors, friends and mirror images of Elizabeth and Phillip in almost every way, being murdered along with their daughter in a hotel room. Their teenage son is the only survivor. This murder has lingered throughout the season, infecting the show at every turn and changes the way Phillip and Elizabeth think about their jobs. The murder shakes their entire belief system. And if The Americans has been about anything this season it has been about believing in something bigger than you and the way that belief can be quickly shattered. What if we believe in something that doesn’t believe in us?
The Americans is a somewhat apologetic spy show. There are wigs, there are guns, there are sometimes explosions, there is cold-blooded murder but the show isn’t Alias (edit: I once said that The Americans was, “more Alias than 24″, but no, in season 2, The Americans is just itself) and these things are not fun on either side of enemy lines. Often, actions that the KGB and the FBI take are intensely wrong-headed, not only in the high-horse, moral high-ground sense but also in the, “wow, we really fucked up” sense. A certain story arc this season revolved around Phillip and Elizabeth stealing propeller plans only to find out that they were faulty and caused the death of dozens of their own men. The show takes very little joy in the excitement of the jobs of either the KGB or FBI (not to say the show is humourless but this season has been rather sombre). When Henry, writing a school project, asks Stan if his job at the FBI is fun, Stan says, “sometimes”, but his face says no. No, the job isn’t fun and “the job” isn’t what is fun about The Americans, at least not usually, because the job is bound to get you or someone you love killed. In season one, the job was enough. Elizabeth and Phillip trusted their government and were loyal in turn. This season that loyalty, the loyalty to them by their own government, is being questioned.
The Americans has always been a show about a family. This season it is about a family whose pieces are falling apart, whose ties are fraying rapidly. This fraying is incredibly apparent this season, with moments like the one recounted at the top of the page, where Henry breaks into the house of a neighbouring family to play their Intellivision. But even more so it is apparent with Paige, who has taken up religion (specifically Christianity) for a feeling of safety and honesty that she doesn’t get at home. This move is deeply troubling to Elizabeth and Phillip who are so rooted in their own beliefs that they cannot, at least at first, see how similar Paige’s situation is to their own. Paige and, to a lesser extent, Henry, are looking for a belief system, something they can hold onto on a slowly sinking ship. Paige and Henry are quintessentially American kids so there has always been a pull between what they believe and what their parents do in secret. Paige and Henry are going through the very natural stage of trying on new hats and more generally “growing up” but that is more dangerous in this family than others. Try as they might, Elizabeth and Phillip are losing their grasp on their children – how could they not? They are losing their grasp on parenthood itself. Thinking about the way the family works, despite the love and the illusion of a kind of perfection, those kids are left alone an awful lot. How scary it must be for Phillip and Elizabeth to think about the possibility of losing their children to “America” and, tied up in all of that, with the possibility of losing them more permanently.
One of the many questions that the show seems to be asking this season is, “who do we have but the person we’ve chosen to spend our lives with?” and “who do we have but the family we’ve created?” When all is said and done, does the Soviet government care about Elizabeth and Phillip? Does the Soviet government care about Paige and Henry? If/when they get killed are they just collateral damage like The Connors? How quickly does one go from hero to “a problem” to dead? Elizabeth and Phillip have begun making excuses for each other, saying that they had no choice to hurt someone, saying that they had no choice but to kill someone or, alternately and more frequently, spare someone. There would have been no excuses made last season. There would have been no guilt. They seem to be less and less worried about the task at hand and more and more worried about the destruction of the life (the very American life let’s not forget, although The Americans is very clear about not taking definite sides) that they have created for themselves out of less than nothing, from less than love. When Elizabeth is given a letter from The Connors to give to their son, posthumously, that explains who and what they really are, she can’t bring herself to deliver it. Elizabeth chooses the lie, the lie that The Connors were good people, a normal, loving family, over the truth. Perhaps because part of the lie is real. Perhaps because the lie is easier than the muddy truth. Perhaps because she’d rather believe it too.
The Americans has also always been about acting and make-believe. It is a show where the characters we know, mostly Phillip and Elizabeth but others too (specifically Nina Sergeevna, a young woman who works at the Soviet embassy and is a mole and lover of Stan but may no longer be – her story is a blog entry it its own right and we don’t have time for her here), play various characters from week to week. This season, Elizabeth plays a timid, damaged woman to gain information from a shy, naval recruit named Brad. Elizabeth uses a real rape from her past to inform the tale she weaves for Brad and gets him to collect information for her. Elizabeth is a better actor (and she and Phillip both are ludicrously fantastic actors) when she uses moments from her real past to sell the job. It is crushing to see Elizabeth recount the story of her real rape to Brad and it seems cruel, to herself and to him, that she is uses it to get to him. We notice how much more difficult it is for Elizabeth to sleep with Brad than the throwaway sex she’s had with other men to garner intel. But it is difficult to know how much of this is for Brad’s benefit and how much of it is for her own.
Similarly, Phillip has been playing a man named Clark since season one. Clark is in a relationship (now married!) to a woman named Martha who works at the FBI, close to Stan. Phillip has some real tenderness for Martha and his relationship with her has been, off and on, a respite from the issues he was having with Elizabeth. There are a myriad of other characters that Phillip and Elizabeth play and each of those characters is part Phillip and part Elizabeth. What seems complicated and convoluted in the explanation is clear in the execution (all of the credit in the world to the layers and shading that Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys give to Elizabeth and Phillip as well as their “fake” characters). There are moments this season where truth and honesty seep into the lies. When Phillip and Elizabeth are acting there is often a glimmer of something real in what they are saying. We wonder how much of this is cathartic for them, a kind of therapy; to, for a moment, believe something different, to peek into another, sometimes better, life. How much of this is for the so-called greater good and how much of this is for themselves?
In episode 11, “Stealth”, the last episode to air as of this writing, Phillip meets a cancer patient while playing a Vietnam Veteran at a clinic. After stealing the wallet of the cancer patient, Phillip pays for his medication as a fake gesture of goodwill. When the cancer patient is distraught about the loss of his wallet, Phillip says, simply, gently, “You’re ok, it’s ok”. That line does not come from the Vietnam Vet it comes from what and who we know of Phillip. That he is capable of kindness and compassion. It’s this kindness and compassion that gets Phillip into trouble (earlier in the season Phillip chooses to allow a driver at a government compound to live, tied up to a tree only to come back hours later to find the driver frozen to death) but it is also what makes him the heart of the show. Later on in the episode the cancer patient tells Phillip to “believe in something instead of heartache”.
Phillip and Elizabeth are losing the belief they had in their country, in their jobs, in their mission. They are losing the belief that they are somehow important to the greater good. All they have is each other and their children. All they have is family – a family built on a lie – and it is becoming more and more difficult to keep that safe. There are outside forces like video games and religion that are working their way into their children’s lives and there are much more sinister forces that want them dead. Elizabeth and Phillip can never have a normal life. That’s not what they signed up for. But the illusion of a normal life is wreaking havoc on them as well. The illusion of this normal life is worming its way into their minds. Elizabeth and Phillip may not have always loved each other but they loved the kids that they had together. And the newfound love that they have found in their own relationship is making it more and more difficult for them to do what they have to do, to play out these fantasies with other people like Brad and Martha. When there’s nothing left to believe in, not even yourself, who and what can you turn to? Perhaps, the only thing left to believe in, beyond heartache, beyond whatever it is that you’ve turned into, is each other.