However you slice it, The Americans dodged the [prestige-drama "wife problem"] bullet. The show stars a wife who not only doesn’t oppose her husband’s awful antics, she leads the charge. Elizabeth Jennings isn’t Philip’s suspicious sweetheart or nagging conscience, she’s his partner in crime. Indeed, actor Keri Russell receives top billing over Matthew Rhys, and her character’s ideological fervor outstrips his; in the series’ pilot, he’s ready to turn himself in and defect, while she wants to continue the mission. Comrades the Jennings may be, but Elizabeth is first among equals, and The Americans is the story of her antiheroism above all.
But what does that amount to, exactly? For the purposes of that discussion, let’s put aside the tonally broader, plot-hole-ridden first season. Everything the show is interested in — spy-thriller action and suspense; the uncomfortable eroticism of the Jennings’ undercover work; secondary characters like FBI Agent Stan Beeman, the Soviet agents of the Rezidentura, and the Jennings’ kids; the steely, wiry physicality of Russell and Rhys that makes their characters so convincingly commanding even buried under pounds of big glasses, bad wigs, and spirit gum — got tighter and sharper in Season Two, to the point where few of the first season’s flaws remained.
With one major exception, that is: All the terrible things that Elizabeth and Philip do, the show acts as though they’re being done to them, not by them, and that’s a problem. The anhedonia of Don Draper, the depressive rages of Tony Soprano, and the world-collapsing panic of Walter White are all gut-wrenching to behold, but their shows come across a lot more clear-eyed about the pain they inflict trumping their own. By contrast, even though Elizabeth and Philip are basically always miserable, never seeming to take any pleasure at all from what they do or the skill with which they do it, we’re rarely asked to linger on the suffering they cause except insofar as how hard it is for them to live with it. (This is where the lack of a long-suffering spouse of whatever gender hurts the show structurally.)
If this moral dynamic sounds familiar, that means you’ve been reading your pop-culture thinkpieces over the past few weeks. If Mr. and Mrs. Jennings worked for the USA during the Iraq War instead of the USSR during the Cold War, we’d basically be talking about American Sniper, which has been held up as an inspiring exploration of how hard it must have been for a man to kill for his country. The people who got killed had it a lot harder, you know? And that’s true whether your flag is red white and blue or red and yellow. Empathy is valuable, but it must be tempered with moral clarity; the plight of a murderer pales in comparison to the plight of the murdered. Paradoxically, it’s by making Philip and Elizabeth so torn up by their awful vocation that its real awfulness is obscured.
I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans, and really The Americans generally, for the New York Observer. Very excited to be covering the show this season.