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The Americans: A Look Back

June 2, 2018

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In his book Making Movies, Sidney Lumet wrote about how, when he decided to direct a film (he rarely wrote it, so he was almost always directing someone else’s work), he always asked himself, “What is this movie about?” Not the story, but the theme of the movie, or what grabbed him about it, whether the theme was underlying or right up front. One theme Lumet tackled a couple of times, in films as varied as Daniel, Running on Empty, and Family Business, was, as he put it, “Who pays for the passions and commitments of the parents?” This theme ended up being a major underlying theme of The Americans, which ended its six season run this past Wednesday.

Of course, it wasn’t the only theme of the series. Show creator Joe Weisberg (an ex-CIA agent and novelist) and co-executive producer Joel Fields (a veteran TV producer) were revisiting the Cold War, and avoiding the glow of nostalgia to portray a time more complicated than many remember it to be. The series was also a portrait of a marriage, with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) having to be partners not only at home, as well as their “respectable” business (they owned a travel agency), but also their real work, as Soviet spies undercover near Washington D.C. And just as the show avoided easy answers in looking at the Cold War and the Jennings’ marriage, it also tackled the 80’s in a way that avoided the kitsch of most stories looking back at that decade. However, as with other shows with anti-heroes (from our point of view, anyway) at their center, The Americans also showed the toll spying took on the Jennings’ children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati).

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When the series first began, Paige and Henry seemed like your normal kids from a stereotypical nuclear family.  Paige was interested in her studies, while Henry was interested in sports and games. Both, as they grew older, became interested in the opposite sex; Paige with Matthew (Danny Flaherty), the son of Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent who was the Jennings’ neighbor, while Henry never had anything steady, though he did become infatuated with one of his teachers, as well as Stan’s then-wife Sandra (Susan Misner). But as the series progressed, you could see Paige and Henry react to their parents’ unconventional lives (no relatives, no friends outside of Stan, being out at all times, and often until late hours). For Henry, this manifested itself in the way we’re used to seeing kids who have been neglected by their parents on-screen – playing on his computer or with video games, fooling around with himself, and finding another parent figure (in this case, Stan). Paige’s situation, however, was much more complicated.

At the end of Season 1, after Elizabeth and Philip escaped capture (though not without Elizabeth getting shot), Paige took a look inside the laundry room where her parents often conducted business or had private conversations, and while she didn’t find anything incriminating (Elizabeth and Philip were too good at their jobs for that), her curiosity, and suspicion, were piqued. At first, except for a furtive visit early in Season 2 for the “Aunt Helen” Elizabeth had supposedly been recuperating with, her reaction didn’t come out in obvious ways. Most teenagers engage in some form of rebellion, but Paige’s method of rebellion was unusual; she got religion. She joined a church, became friends with Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), the head of the church, and became an active participant. Elizabeth and Philip, being the product of a country that saw religion as the opiate of the masses, were less than thrilled, even though, ironically, Paige was, through the church, participating in things Elizabeth professed to believe in, such as protests in favor of nuclear disarmament. At first, all of the arguments involving Paige centered on her religious beliefs. However, in the season 2 finale, “Echo”, Claudia (Margo Martindale), one of Elizabeth and Philip’s handlers, revealed to them the Centre wanted Paige, and eventually Henry, to join the family business and become spies. For the majority of Season 3, Elizabeth and Philip quarreled over this plan – Elizabeth was for it, somewhat, while Philip was adamantly against it – until Paige forced their hand.

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In the episode “Stingers” – my vote for the best episode of the series – after Elizabeth and Philip returned from one of their missions one night, Paige confronted them in the kitchen, and demanded to know what they were really up to. Ironically, it was Philip who indicated he and Elizabeth should answer this question, and while they didn’t tell her everything, they did admit to Paige they worked for the Soviet Union (Elizabeth had been laying the groundwork by talking about the things she believed in, that she thought Paige would appreciate). Paige’s first reaction, was shock, and even a little outrage. And while many fans were upset about her subsequent action, I was not; she called Pastor Tim and told him all she knew. This, of course, put Elizabeth and Philip’s lives at risk – both of them were outraged when they found out, and Paige was apologetic – but while Pastor Tim and his wife were understandably nervous around Elizabeth and Philip (especially after Pastor Tim goes missing in the Season 4 episode “Munchkins” during a trip to Africa, though he was eventually found), and he encouraged Paige to come forward with what she knew at first, eventually, he decided not to betray the Jennings family (though in his diary, he does describe Elizabeth and Philip as monstrous, and eventually takes a job in Buenos Aires to get away from the situation at the end of Season 5).

More interestingly, Paige found herself eventually becoming a spy, or at least acting like one. At first, she was just, reluctantly, keeping tabs on Pastor Tim and his wife (after Elizabeth ordered her to in no uncertain terms), and being secretive from others (which is why she eventually broke things off with Matthew, because she couldn’t stand keeping the truth from him). But gradually, Paige became drawn into her parents’ world, partially to learn to take care of herself (after she witnessed Elizabeth dispense of a mugger in the episode “Dinner for Seven”), though mostly because she was becoming somewhat intrigued by her parents’ world, and perhaps had deluded herself into believing what Elizabeth was telling her, that they were ultimately doing “good” work, even though she kept expressing doubts. And in Season 6, Paige was actually working directly for Elizabeth with spying (at the end of Season 5, Elizabeth told Philip he should quit spying, and he agreed). It was only simple stuff – following someone by car or on foot, staking out a location, and even adorning simple disguises (not as elaborate as the wigs Elizabeth and Philip wore) – but Paige did get into the work, as well as meeting with Claudia and Elizabeth to talk about life in the Soviet Union, and even offering to get close to a Senate intern (which Elizabeth vetoed, though Paige ended up sleeping with him anyway). Paige is even able to defend herself against two boys who try to attack her in a bar (in “The Great Patriotic War”). Elizabeth, though, had admitted to Philip Paige might not be cut out for spying, and told Paige (in “Harvest”) to apply to work for the State Department as an intern.

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However, in “Jennings, Elizabeth”, the next-to-last episode of the series, Paige accuses Elizabeth of seducing another Senate intern, and when Elizabeth unconvincingly denies it, Paige calls her mother a whore. Elizabeth tells her off in turn, saying how privileged she is compared to what Elizabeth grew up with. Unfortunately, events soon force their hand. Philip, who has reluctantly come back to the fold, is meeting up with a priest whose superior has just betrayed the priest to the FBI (as Stan has suddenly become suspicious of the Jennings family), and Philip is barely able to escape and make a coded call to Elizabeth to basically tell them they need to flee. Philip and Elizabeth meet at a safe house after Elizabeth has packed what they need, and that’s when the series takes an unexpected turn. Henry has at boarding school, pursuing both his interest in math and hockey (early in the season, we see Philip cheering him on at a game), though Philip had worried he wasn’t going to be able to keep paying for it, especially after his travel agency business starts to go south. But it seems like Henry has made a life for himself outside of the family (made clear in the episode “Rififi”, when Henry comes home for Thanksgiving, only for Elizabeth and then Philip having to go on a mission), and Philip tells a shocked Elizabeth in the series finale (“START”) they have to let him go.

Elizabeth and Philip do end up taking Paige – reluctantly on Paige’s part, as she’s still angry at her mother, until she finds out what’s going on – and after the three of them manage to talk their way out of a confrontation with Stan (who has been staking out Paige’s apartment building), they make their escape. After making one stop to call Henry on a pay phone to say goodbye without actually saying goodbye (Paige is too overcome with emotion to say anything), they take a train to Canada so they can fly back to the Soviet Union, which is when we get our final shock. At the border, without telling anyone, Paige gets off the train, leaving both Elizabeth and Philip in shock, though they continue to the Soviet Union. In short, everyone gets separated in an uncertain future – Elizabeth and Philip in Moscow, Henry still at school (though knowing now the truth, after Stan visits and tells him), and Paige on her own (she goes back to Claudia’s safe house, which is now empty, and downs a shot of vodka).

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Some have complained the show essentially let the Jennings family off the hook by letting them escape. But consider their family has broken up – as much as Elizabeth put her country above everything, she still cared for her children, and Philip as well – and both Paige and Henry face uncertain futures (they both have school, but there’s a question of who’s going to pay for it, not to mention the suspicion they’ll be under). And that’s not even mentioning the fact we know what the characters don’t – the Cold War (at least in that form) will end in a couple of years (the last season of the show took place in 1987), and Elizabeth and Philip’s “cause” will be very different (and will they get to back and visit Paige and Henry? Who knows?). The Americans was a show about espionage. It was a show about people who believed they were doing the right thing, and doing horrible things to continue to do that right thing. It was a show about a partnership. But it was also show about a family. All of which (except for the espionage part) is the template of the show that was considered the game-changing show of the last 20 years or so, The Sopranos, and The Americans was the series that, in my opinion, did the best of following the template of a show about a family whose patriarch (or matriarch, or both) did horrible things in the name of what they thought was the right thing. But even more than The Sopranos, The Americans showed how the children paid for the commitments of the parents.

From → Television shows

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