One of the most beautiful and unique love stories in all of TV history has been hiding behind the thrill and suspense of a drama about Russian spies. The Americans may be outwardly concerned with geopolitics and foreign relations, but at the heart of it all is love and marriage.
I recently spent the better part of a month re-watching five seasons of FX’s The Americans, in anticipation of the show’s sixth and final outing. I’ve always enjoyed the show a great deal, but I fell for it harder than ever before this time around. As a result of already knowing the main plot points, I found it much easier to become engrossed with the intricate details of each episode, making season-long arcs all the more rewarding. I gained new perspectives on, and, in some cases like with Paige, a better appreciation for many of the characters. The connection I formed with Philip and Elizabeth, in particular, was much deeper and far more sympathetic than I’d previously experienced.
At first, this all seemed pretty par for the course. Character is what I tend to value most in storytelling, and the Jennings’ are fascinating, highly nuanced characters; why wouldn’t I find myself enamoured with them? The further I got into the series though, the more I felt compelled to really examine my rising fondness for these Soviet spies. As the couple’s questionable and often times brutal acts of manipulation and murder started piling up, I was forced to consider how I could continue to root for them.
Why was it so easy for me to want the best for Philip and Elizabeth, while actively hoping Stan, and the FBI, would never get a win?
Part of this impulse was simple to understand. Philip and Elizabeth are the central focus of The Americans, and so by design, we’re meant to make some kind of connection with them. They are our central protagonists – even though they don’t necessarily gel with the complete definition of that word. And because they don’t embody our traditional concept of the Good Guys, many viewers and critics would put the Jennings’ in the same category as Tony Soprano or Walter White: the Bad Guys we love rooting for. I figured that had to be what was keeping me from hating Philip and Elizabeth: the allure of the antihero. In fact, the original objective of this entire piece was to discuss and theorize why we’re so attracted to antiheroes on television. (I’ll definitely revisit this idea in a future post.)
As I was diving into that argument though, I came across this interview at Slate with the show’s creators, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. In the piece, the showrunners were asked if Philip and Elizabeth are antiheroes, to which they reply no, “they’re heroes for the other side.” They go on to explain how it was important for them to compare, and find similarities with, the missions they were writing for the Jennings’, and what actual CIA agents would have been doing in Moscow at the time. This reframing of the characters instantly resonated with me. An antihero is a character who lacks the customary attributes of a hero, such as idealism, courage, and morality. They are often seen acting out of self-interest; a definition that suits Philip and Elizabeth even less so than protagonist.
They are full of idealism, particularly as it relates to commitment, and especially where Elizabeth is concerned. They have courage in spades. Their entire lives have been dedicated to serving their country, for which they sacrificed leading any type of normal life, which is far from acting out of self-interest. (There are, of course, occasions where their actions can be seen as selfish, but what characters don’t have those moments? Boring ones.) Philip and Elizabeth may not always do the “right” thing, but their struggles with moral complexity are on an equal playing field with that of Stan’s – a character who might typically be seen as the Good Guy on the Right side of the equation – who is also guilty of not always doing what’s “right.”
So, as my antihero thesis flew out the window, I had to ask myself once again: what was behind my adoration for Philip and Elizabeth? Was there a figurative line in the sand, which, once crossed, I would start to lose that admiration? Where would that line be drawn, anyway?
When Philip was ordered to befriend, and even seduce if necessary, an unsuspecting 15-year-old girl, to use her as an asset for her father’s CIA intelligence, I felt queasy, but the line hadn’t been crossed. When Elizabeth forced an elderly woman, Betty, to overdose on heart medication, simply as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I cried, but my affection remained. As I watched Martha learn the whole truth about “Clark” and come to the startling realization that she had no choice but to defect to Russia, alone, my heart broke and I was furious this had happened to her. However, when Philip reassures Elizabeth that he would never leave with Martha even if he had the chance, because it’s not like that with her, because Philip loves Elizabeth, I was like, “bye, Martha.”
And in considering this metaphorical line crossing, the answer hit me unexpectedly: I root for Philip and Elizabeth, and I continue to forgive them for the unforgivable, because I love their love story. Suddenly I remembered I had been angry with both of these characters at times, but only ever when they’d upset each other. That was it, my unwavering devotion for the Jennings’ was nothing more than a classic shipping situation. This was the kind of revelation that simultaneously blows your mind, and makes you want to kick yourself because it was so clearly evident all along.
On its surface, The Americans is maybe the least romantic show ever to centre on a married couple. There’s plenty of sex and seduction (with both each other and their marks) in almost every episode, but there are no grand gestures of romance. With the exception of the scene described earlier, Philip and Elizabeth don’t even use the words I love you with one another. When it comes to matters of the heart in storytelling, The Americans reigns supreme in its subtlety. The simple gesture of holding hands, one’s head laid on the other’s shoulder after a gruelling mission, or the exchange of a knowing and meaningful glance when words can’t be spoken, are some of the most powerfully passionate moments in the show.
There are rare moments of more overt romance, like when Philip and Elizabeth made their marriage legitimate. Still, the ceremony took place in an abandoned building, in the dead of night, with no witnesses, and neither of them dressed in the traditional garb. That the vows were spoken in Russian, and the priest used their birth names, added intimacy and warmth. But it’s the subtext of the scene, which elevates its emotion to a level most other shows simply can’t compete with – for nearly two decades Philip and Elizabeth had been married for (and to) the cause, but now they’d made a choice to marry each other. This wasn’t an order from the KGB, there were no external motives; they did this for themselves, for love. Honestly, I now totally want to be married in a derelict building with a Russian priest; I mean, they even got to wear crowns!
Part of what makes any depiction of true love between Philip and Elizabeth so special is the rarity and restraint of it all. The Americans has trained us well to yearn for, and find great satisfaction in, these special moments. Like when Elizabeth told Philip, in Russian, to “come home” at the end of the first season after they’d been living apart. Or when Philip didn’t hesitate in rushing to Elizabeth’s side when she showed up to a safe house trembling and covered in blood, as though their massive argument just hours before had never happened. Or the silent but utterly relieved embrace they shared when Elizabeth finally returned home after a very close call with the FBI. We’ve come to understand how fleeting those moments can be – whether because of the simple nature of the Jennings’ work or because of their conflicting beliefs on how certain work should be carried out – and we know how crucial it is to enjoy them while we can.
Many of the instances just mentioned have analogous versions on other TV shows; a couple running into each other’s arms after a brush with death, or something like it, isn’t uncommon. There aren’t many shows, however, where a husband extracting one of his wife’s teeth would feel so intimate, tender, and unusually sexy. The Americans is also probably the only show where the disposal of a dead body can be such a thought-provoking illustration of trust and teamwork. You know what they say: the couple who breaks a dead body’s bones so it can fit into a suitcase and be removed from a hotel room without suspicion together, stays together.
The Americans depicts numerous typical relationship dynamics – intimacy, trust, teamwork, honesty, and jealousy to name a few – in highly atypical ways, making the couple at the centre of it all delightfully unique.
Take honesty, for example. Philip and Elizabeth are obligated to say exactly what’s on their minds, even when it risks hurting one another. This brutal honesty can be beautiful though, too. In season three, Philip laments to Elizabeth about a part of their KGB training, where they learned to “make it real” while being intimate with an asset in the field. Elizabeth wonders if that’s what he has to do with Martha. Philip shrugs his shoulders, “I guess.” And as they’re lying in bed, face-to-face on their pillows, Elizabeth somewhat hesitantly asks, “Do you have to make it real with me?” “Sometimes” he replies, “not now.” Their tender kiss that follows is one of the most touching from the entire series.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects in regards to the show’s alternative look at relationship dynamics though, is the way in which the traditional (and worn-out and sexist) gender roles have been swapped. Philip is vulnerable and open with his emotions – he’s the one attending self-help seminars – while Elizabeth is cold and reserved – believing too close a connection can lead to weakness. He tries to remain optimistic about his children’s future, wanting to shield them from the realities of their secret. She’s a realist who wants her children to be tough enough to handle whatever might come their way. There are times when Elizabeth’s work does conflict with her maternal instincts, but in the end, she’s the one pushing for Paige to be part of the family business.
The subversion of these stereotypes has refreshing outcomes, too. While Elizabeth may have her reservations about how it affects his job performance, Philip’s emotional availability is never viewed as a shortcoming in terms of whether or not it makes him a good “man.” Likewise, though Philip sometimes questions Elizabeth’s staunch devotion to the cause, he never perceives her (as many men would) as a bitch, too difficult a woman to love.
The Americans gives us relationship innovation even when it mirrors more conventional love stories. The beginning of the series is also the true beginning of Philip and Elizabeth’s bond. Similar to a show revolving around a new and developing couple, we were privy to what was essentially the starting point for the Jennings’. They may have known each other for nearly 20 years, but it’s only in the pilot that Elizabeth admits she’s finally feeling something for Philip. It’s also the first time she shares her birthplace and real name with him – the kind of details most people share on a first date.
It was as if the Jennings’ were moving backwards. The old, “first comes love, then comes marriage” chestnut didn’t apply, because they had the house, the car, the kids, the rings, but the love was still something they were working on. Admittedly, it didn’t take long for that love to mature, likely because they’d spent so long trusting in and relying on one another already. All those years of putting their lives on the line, of only being able to act as their true selves (or as close as they could get) around each other, all of that shared history made for one hell of a bond. Philip and Elizabeth’s love evolved into something remarkably profound, something I’ve never seen depicted before; not quite like this.
Imagine, then, the panic rippling through my Philizabeth shipping heart during the sixth season premiere, in which it’s made abundantly clear that all is not well between my two beloved spies. With Philip out of the biz, a huge aspect of their relationship has dissolved. Continuing to do this job after more than 2 decades isn’t what’s exhausting and depressing Elizabeth, but doing so without Philip certainly is.
I’ve resolved to stay optimistic about the Jennings’. I have to believe we’re going to get at least one more of those subtle yet powerful moments, which renders their love for one another indisputable – but fingers crossed for something “bigger” like their wedding. And, as the show has trained me to do, I’ll need to remember to savour every single second.
Saying goodbye to The Americans will be tough on all accounts; there really is no other show quite like it. It’s inevitably going to devastate us with at least one huge character death, and with the simple fact the Jennings’ and our other Russian friends will see their country collapse after decades of trying to stop it from doing so. By far the hardest aspect to reconcile with, however, will be the end of Philip and Elizabeth’s love story. Even if things wind up happy for them – it probably won’t – we’re still losing one of the most unique marriages on TV, ever, and that is truly a tragedy.