Identity and Morality in The Americans

What is it about The Americans that kept me glued to a screen for two straight days? And now that it’s over, why can’t I stop thinking about Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, fictional characters both in real life and on the show?

The story is certainly compelling: two KGB spies in 1980’s America struggling to complete their missions without getting killed or blowing their cover. They have to keep their true identities secret from their teenage kids and FBI agent Stan Beeman, who happens to move in across the street. They must also navigate the everyday struggles of parenthood and marriage, all as the threat of nuclear war hangs over America and the world.

The stakes could not be higher. The writing and production-quality of The Americans are both excellent, the “period” of the 1980’s brilliantly evoked through wigs, silk blouses, and retro cars. But in many ways the success of the show is a credit to the incredible acting of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. If left in the hands of lesser mortals, I may have been able to sleep more over the past week.

Both actors bring great emotional depth to their roles, and kick some serious butt when the situation demands it. They have an undeniable onscreen chemistry and believability, even in moments of extreme conflict. At times during the show, my attention began to slip, but never when Philip and Elizabeth shared the screen. It was no surprise to learn that Russell and Rhys are a couple in real life (Viva Philip and Elizabeth!).

At its core, The Americans is about much more than Cold War politics; it’s a heightened look at the complex interplay between identity and morality.

What should you do when different aspects of your identity come into conflict? Who is most deserving of your trust and loyalty – your country or your family? Whose good should you prioritize, when protecting one could endanger the other? Finally, what measures are morally acceptable in the pursuit of your ideals? Do the ends justify the means, or are there certain lines that should never be crossed? As viewers, we are rooting for Philip and Elizabeth to succeed somehow. But based on these inherent conflicts, we know their story can only end in tragedy.

Season 1, Episode 1 Spoilers Below (Go ahead and read it, even if you haven’t watched yet):

The conflict between Philip and Elizabeth is initially one of two strangers who must present themselves as the perfect American couple. Even after fifteen years of marriage and two kids together, Elizabeth still considers her relationship with Philip primarily as part of the job. Ironically, it is the intensification of their work together that draws Elizabeth closer to Philip, even as it reveals the second and more pivotal conflict between them.

Elizabeth is a true believer. Though she begins the first season as a devoted mother (if not quite a loving wife), her primary identity is as a KGB officer; her main loyalty is to the cause. She can’t stand American consumerism or religion, and disagrees pointedly with what her daughter is being taught in history class. When Elizabeth refers to “the Americans,” she is speaking of them.

Philip is more of an independent thinker. He mainly wants to do what is best for his family — Elizabeth and their two children. To Philip, America is not so bad: the lights stay on, the food is pretty good, and you don’t have to worry about getting sent to a Siberian prison camp. While Elizabeth’s instinct is to follow orders, Philip questions whether he can trust the KGB or the Soviet government. When it comes to “the Americans,” he could easily see himself as one of them.

The pilot episode introduces this moral conflict in the form of a Russian defector tied up in the trunk of the Jennings’ car. Philip seriously wants to turn him in and defect, something Elizabeth cannot fathom. Then he learns that the defector – a former Russian captain – raped Elizabeth back in the Soviet Union during her KGB training. This revelation is enough to take Philip from wanting to hand the guy over to killing him with his bare hands in a matter of minutes. We learn that Philip is more loyal to Elizabeth than his own comfort or desires. Foreshadowing future developments, we see he will put her good and protection even before that of his own children.

For Philip, it is obvious that their family should come before the KGB or the cause. For Elizabeth, it takes being kidnapped and interrogated by their own people to make her doubt her priorities, but only temporarily. Expressing her outrage at this betrayal, she calls the KGB “the people I’ve trusted the most,” to which Philip replies “and that’s the problem.”

Then there’s the conflict between following orders and following one’s conscience.

Season 2 – 6 Spoilers Below (Stop reading if you have not yet watched and take yourself over to Amazon Prime video where you can stream it):

Philip and Elizabeth’s actions cause untold damage. Through five seasons, their kill count is even at fifteen apiece. Some kills are in self-defense, while many are collateral damage. In the sixth season, Elizabeth’s kill count surges ahead of Philip’s, who is attempting to live life as a travel agent. This includes the most unjustified of all their murders – a couple of Soviet defectors whom Elizabeth slays, (unknowingly) in the presence of their seven-year-old kid.

But to really assess the damage wrought by Philip and Elizabeth, one has also to examine the countless lives destroyed and confidences betrayed. Philip’s biggest betrayal is of Martha, the secretary to the head of FBI counterintelligence whom he seduces and eventually marries, all the while conning her into unwittingly committing treason. Martha’s relationship with Philip, alias “Clark,” costs her everything she has ever had or wanted – love, family, country. Philip is distraught over Martha’s sad fate, but not too distraught to enjoy the company of his wife. At the end of the day Martha is alone, but Philip still has Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s biggest betrayal is of Young Hee, a Mary Kay saleswoman and mother of three whom Elizabeth befriends in order to gain access to her husband. This betrayal saddens Elizabeth the most, as she genuinely valued Young Hee’s friendship and knows her actions have destroyed her friend’s family and happiness.

A big theme here: it’s wrong to use people. It hurts them, and it hurts you too. But using people – manipulating them, seducing them, threatening them – is what the KGB does.

It’s also what FBI agents do. Stan Beeman’s conscience is not clean, as he sleeps with a source, kills an innocent man in retaliation for the loss of his partner, and refuses to do anything to save his failing marriage even as his desperate wife cries out for his attention. Ultimately, his attempts to do right by the people he has jeopardized fail to pay off.

Which brings me to the Jennings’ betrayal of Stan, a ticking time bomb that finally explodes in the last episode. Speaking in an abandoned parking garage, Philip reassures Stan that their friendship was genuine, and he was just doing his job. Despite the betrayal, Stan cannot bring himself to stop his former friends and neighbors; he lets them go. This decision reveals that Stan values their friendship, and perhaps his relationship as surrogate father to Henry, more than the good of his agency and his country.

But the betrayal that stings the most – the one I still can’t get over – is Philip and Elizabeth’s betrayal of their own children, Paige and Henry.

By Season 6, Elizabeth is no longer a good mother in any sense of the word. She mainly ignores Henry, and doesn’t quite know what to say to him when he is around. Back on a school break, Henry jokingly asks to bum a cigarette. After only a few seconds hesitation, Elizabeth holds out the pack to her son, to which Henry asks if she wants to give him lung cancer.

Things are more complicated with Paige, who plays a much bigger role in the show, as she eventually learns her parent’s true identities. The decision to bring Paige into their world and start grooming her for future espionage is a major point of conflict between Elizabeth and Philip. Philip is against it of course, whereas Elizabeth sees in Paige a kindred spirit in search of a just cause. (Yes, Elizabeth still thinks she is fighting to make the world a better place.)

Elizabeth tries to instruct Paige in the new responsibilities that come with this knowledge, but Paige finds it incredibly isolating – a pretty heavy burden for a sixteen-year-old to bear alone. She feels awkward saying the Pledge of Allegiance. She can’t have normal relationships with boyfriends or peers. Then when she confides her family’s secret to Pastor Tim, Elizabeth forces her to keep up the charade of being a surrogate child to him in order to stay in his good graces. (At least Paige’s honesty with her mother saves Pastor Tim his life.)

By the final season, Paige is no longer just keeping secrets. A college student now, she starts going on missions with her mother, mainly as a lookout. Philip is out of the business; Paige is in. But Elizabeth is clearly cracking under the pressure. It’s hard for us – and Philip – to watch Elizabeth deteriorate into a shell of her former self: either working, sleeping, or chain-smoking like a zombie on the back patio.

Elizabeth’s one remaining joy is teaching Paige about the motherland. She and Claudia give Paige lessons on history, culture, and (of course) vodka. But Elizabeth’s growing influence is hurting Paige – figuratively and even literally, as Elizabeth bloodies her lip in a basement sparring session. Paige has to witness her mother kill two men in self-defense – one a back-alley mugger who was threatening Paige, the other a reluctant source who was about to shoot Elizabeth. But the last straw for Paige is when she learns her mother slept with a twenty-one-year-old intern and ruined his life for a piece of intelligence. She calls her own mother a whore and storms off, declaring that Henry was the wiser Jennings sibling for keeping his distance. Ultimately, the never-ending lies have destroyed their family.

Phillip’s loyalty to Elizabeth is put to the test when he is contacted by Oleg on behalf of Arkady. They want him to spy on Elizabeth and stop her, if necessary, from being used by KGB hardliners to undermine Gorbachev. Philip’s ultimate cooperation with them is more of a decision to see the Soviet Union progress than to hurt Elizabeth personally, though of course she won’t see it that way. Then Philip finds another line he is unwilling to cross — hurting Kimmy, the daughter of a CIA agent whom he has been meeting since she was fifteen. Though he does eventually (and regretfully) sleep with her, he refuses to participate in her kidnapping and gives her a final warning to keep her safe. Philip has sacrificed everything for Elizabeth, including the good of their own children, but he cannot see his country fall for her, nor can he surrender his basic human decency.

Elizabeth’s moment of truth comes when she is ordered to kill a Russian diplomat. But this time (thanks to a certain intern), Elizabeth has heard the tapes and knows he is negotiating in good faith. In the end, she does something she never would have imagined – executing a fellow KGB officer – to protect the diplomat and Gorbachev’s mission to change things in the USSR. But just as both Jennings’ find a line they won’t cross, and themselves back on the same side, their cover is blown and they are forced to run.

In one of the most devastating moments of the finale, Elizabeth comes to grips with the fact that she is leaving Henry for good; the Jennings quartet is down to a trio. (For the record, I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to listen to “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits without wanting to burst into tears.) The second moment comes when Philip and Elizabeth see Paige standing on the platform as their train pulls away. The heartbreak is written over their faces as they realize they will be leaving both of their children behind.

In the end, Philip and Elizabeth lose their comfortable existence in suburban America. They lose their friendships with Stan and Young Hee. They lose the integrity of their own consciences, as they have killed innocent strangers and hurt the people who trusted them most. They even lose Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, fake identities that have become real over the past two decades, left to resume (if they can) their lives as Mischa and Nadazhda.

Looking out over the dark Moscow skyline, the one thing they have not lost is each other. We are left to wonder with them if it will be enough.

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