The Best Part of 'The Americans' Is Its Brutally Strong Women
Elizabeth and Paige Jennings are archetypes of female resilience.
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans on FX
This article contains spoilers for season six, episode three of The Americans.
Not much really happened last season on The Americans, the Cold War–era spy drama on FX about a Russian husband and wife duo living undercover in the US. A lot of the spying had to do with agriculture… which, let’s be honest, isn’t why people love the show. I was like, Give us more crazy disguises! Give us more dead bodies stuffed into luggage! But three episodes into the final season, things are already off to a roiling start. For Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) especially.
The women in The Americans are tough as nails. This season underscores it. One of the outstanding performances on the show has always been Russell's Elizabeth, partly because the character really resonates—she’s petite, and people often underestimate her. But there’s something fierce, almost feral, about Elizabeth when something she loves is threatened. She isn’t afraid to go in for the kill.
So far in season six, Elizabeth has stabbed a dude in the jugular, wound up with some general’s brains on her face, and flown to Mexico to receive orders to meddle in nuclear negotiations between the US and USSR. In case of failure, she got a cyanide tablet inside a locket to wear around her neck. We’ve watched her seduce a stranger then shower off in a strange hotel room, kill a dopey guy who could have blown her cover, and lots of other rough spy stuff.
This is partly due to where we’re at in the narrative. At the end of season five, Elizabeth’s husband, Philip, wanted out. He retired from espionage to run the family travel agency—their front—and for what it’s worth, it doesn’t seem like he’s doing great at that.
But Elizabeth has always been the stronger one in their relationship. She’s bearing the brunt of the spy work, because she couldn’t stand to quit knowing the value of the intelligence she could offer her country. And because she loves Philip, she couldn’t watch the work destroy his soul. So she’s going it alone, doing it all, attempting the impossible—being a high-stakes secret agent and keeping her family intact.
The way Elizabeth balances it all (though she’s clearly fraying at the edges) is admirable. It’s an exaggeration of the way women everywhere balance the myriad roles of provider, mother, lover, warrior in everyday life.
There’s a great scene in the episode “Urban Transport Planning” where Elizabeth, her daughter Paige, and her handler Claudia are cooking a Russian stew. Teaching Paige about the Motherland is part of Claudia and Elizabeth’s second-generation recruitment efforts. It’s such a tender scene. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was a grandmother handing down family recipes to her granddaughter. But the moment Paige leaves, Claudia snaps into business mode and assigns Elizabeth a new target. It’s an amazing example of how fluidly these women juggle their roles.
After a bumpy start, Paige is finally exhibiting some real grit this season, too. She and Elizabeth are certainly closer than they’ve ever been. But Paige wrestles with the same demons Philip does. She wants to be good at spying, and she wants Elizabeth to be proud of her. But she’s definitely conflicted about the morality of it all. It’s a doubt that's driven home when a mission goes wrong, and Paige sees Elizabeth covered in a dead guy’s blood and guts. She’s understandably upset. Not only is she worried about losing her mom, she’s grappling with the knowledge that accumulating a bodycount is an inevitable casualty of the job.
When Paige voices this, Elizabeth shuts it down. For her, making sacrifices to serve her country has never been a question. Partly, it’s a mode of survival. She’s trying to protect her daughter, by making her understand that the best way to stay alive and avoid blowing her cover is by never wavering, even when it means repressing your emotions.
It’s screwed up, but some of the most tender scenes between the two are when Elizabeth gives Paige clandestine fight lessons in their garage. For Elizabeth, teaching her daughter how to protect herself is the ultimate expression of love. During one of these lessons last season, Elizabeth accidentally split Paige's lip. Philip tries to make a fuss, but you can see Paige is proud of her new merit badge. It’s kind of funny; she’s showing us she’s tougher than we all thought.
Though no longer on the show, Nina Krilova—a double, sometimes triple, agent in the early seasons of The Americans who was killed off in season four—was also a woman to contend with. The character got a nod from FBI agent Stan Beeman and former KGB operative Oleg Burov in “Urban Transport Planning.” Nina was a victim of circumstance, pulled into the spy game when Stan blackmailed her for selling American goods on the Russian black market. But she was also a savvy fighter every step of the way. She never stopped outsmarting those around her and trying to do what she thought was right.
You could say the same about Martha, the FBI secretary Philip seduced and recruited early on in the series. Martha's timidity was grating at times, but she betrayed her country because she thought Philip was the love of her life, and in Martha’s mind, loyalty to the people she loves comes first. Thanks to that agonizing choice, she’s living out her days in exile in the USSR.
Part of what makes The Americans so good is its examination of why people make the choices they do. The central conflict is between love of country versus love for family, and throughout the series, Elizabeth and Philip are on opposing sides of this debate. The final episodes will be fascinating, as we see how their marriage plays out through the waning days of the Cold War, with plenty of sex and death to fuel the intrigue.
But it's Elizabeth and the other women on the show who we should watch the closest. Their strength makes them the most complex. Elizabeth still doesn’t know how to reconcile her loyalty to the USSR, which involves making insane sacrifices, with her love for her family, who we sense she’ll do anything to protect. It'll be a showdown that'll be captivating to watch.
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