Between the mid-season premiere returns and the new shows such as Agent Carter and Better Call Saul, you might have missed the return of another well known, award winning show. Whether you noticed or not, The Americans has returned for it’s third season with its unique blend of family drama and covert espionage. Few other shows can boast that kind of breadth of television drama. Yet, compared to The Walking Deads and the Game of Thrones of the world, The Americans is one of the less talked about, under-rated shows on TV.
The action in The Americans isn’t always as fast paced or as violent as you might see in other shows. It has its moments, of course, such as when Keri Russell’s character, Elizabeth Jennings, fights off two FBI agents, but much of the suspense comes from characters listening to messages, intercepting American intel, and relaying information back to Moscow. It doesn’t make for the most riveting viewing experience but there is a subtle, intensity to such scenes. It’s a very trivial action but its a matter of life and death. In that way, the show really encapsulates the essence of the Cold War.
I do feel bad for Keri Russell. Elizabeth Jennings tends to get the rough side of the deal in most of their missions. She gets shot and nearly beat up and what does she get in return? She loses the precious intel. Meanwhile, Matthew Rhys’ Philip Jennings is going around getting blowjobs and Kama Sutra sex and blackmailing Pakistani intelligence officers. Clearly things are not easy for women of the KGB and if that’s the kind of life that awaits Paige, it’s understandable that Philip may be a little reluctant to allow her to follow them down the same path.
Despite agreeing not to allow the KGB anywhere near Paige last season, Elizabeth does seem to have taken a step back to consider it. The Americans has been very clever with this Elizabeth and Paige storyline. The dynamic between mother and daughter and relating to your children as they grow up and develop their own, sometimes differing, ideals is a major theme in most television shows with families. But The Americans has broached the theme from a very different perspective. Elizabeth is trying remain close to her daughter and understand her as she grows from a child into a teenager and she’s doing it as a KGB agent. She’s actively trying to figure out if this is a person who would be interested in what the Soviet Union can offer.
It’s easy to forget, among all the politic and spying, that this is what the idea of sleeper agents was really all about. Yes, they wanted KGB agents acting as Americans but it was their American born children, indistinguishable from the kids next door, who were to be true agents. There would be no need for subterfuge. They are exactly who they say they are, except their loyalty would lie with Russia. In theory, that’s fine. As parents, that must be a difficult call to make. Elizabeth and Philip are on opposite sides of the fence, or so it seems. Elizabeth is such a skilled liar that it’s difficult to know who she’s telling the truth to. No one has asked Paige what she wants but I doubt anyone cares.
Along the same mother-daughter theme, Elizabeth’s mother is dying. Of course, we don’t see her because she’s back in Russia and Elizabeth can’t see her, but even seeing Elizabeth’s tears as she listens to a recorded message about her is enough to convey the levity of the situation. Often, Elizabeth can come across as hard and unemotional, who generally thinks of her country (her actual country) first. Over the course of the show, she’s begun to think more for herself and her children but she still commands a rather tough presence. This storyline has given her some vulnerability, which is nice to see because she takes getting face planted on a car like a champion. It’s also clear from her story about becoming an agent that it was her mother who instilled that ‘country first’ idealism in her mind. It’ll be interesting to see, when her mother does die, if Elizabeth can take the emotional punches in the same stride that she takes the physical.
Despite that hardened outer demeanor, it’s clear that Elizabeth is very affected by her own mistakes. She internalizes them. Having lost the list of CIA names, she rushes to correct the mistake at the first opportunity. Philip is much more likely to display his feelings but he’s also a big picture kind of guy. If something bad happens, he makes the best of it. Elizabeth doesn’t take failure well and is much more likely to take a risk to fix it. That’s probably why the FBI have her picture while Philip manages to sleep with an FBI supervisor’s secretary with no one being any the wiser.
Oleg is trying to save Nina from a Soviet labour camp using his familial connections, whilst Stan Beeman continues to deal with the separation from his wife. Both are foils for the Jennings and their family relationships. Of course, there are other storylines, such as the FBI housing a defector, but those political plots are side stories to the main heart of the series which is all about family. Family relationships and how those influence the actions of parent and child. It’s easy to imagine that the revelation of her parents will horrify Paige, but there’s also the notion that she won’t want to disappoint her family. It’s natural to want our parents approval and to make them proud.
If The Americans was a straight political thriller it might never have reached its third season but the theme of family that runs through the series gives it heart and meaning beyond its Cold War setting.