It’s a very weird thing to cheer for the bad guys, but that’s exactly what happens when watching Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Soviet spies in The Americans. While there has always been a sort of sympathetic bent to the politics that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings subscribe to, they are in fact, the characters that as Westerners, we should view as the show’s antagonists. They are, in modern parlance, terrorists, tasked with destroying America “because they hate its values of freedom and equality” (whether or not these values are in name-only is an article for another day). Still, the show has positioned them as sympathetic figures, particularly in their roles as parents to a teenager daughter and young son.
It is their relationship with their daughter Paige that has become the focal point of the current season, and it is through this relationship that the lens through which the audience views the Jennings has begun to change. At the end of the previous season, the KGB requested that the Jennings prepare to reveal their identity to their daughter in order to bring her into the fold as a “second generation” operative. Philip, who has adapted much more easily to American life than his wife, is reluctant to say the least. On the other hand, Elizabeth is wary of the grip American life is having on Paige, particularly through the younger Jennings’ involvement with the church (keeping in mind the doctrine of separation of church and state so essential to Soviet communism). Elizabeth is more amenable to indoctrinating Paige, thus setting up a ideological conflict between Philip and Elizabeth that could tear their fledgling relationship apart.
Concurrently, the assignment that Philip has been tasked with requires him to form a bond with the fifteen-year-old daughter of a CIA agent in order to gain information about the American government’s plans in Afghanistan. Philip is pressured by the Centre to initiate a sexual relationship with the daughter, Kimmy, in order to gain her trust, which he is loathe to do for obvious reasons. While the storyline is nonetheless distasteful, to say the least, Rhys has been exceptional in his portrayal of a man conflicted between his duty to country and his moral aversion to the assignment. Although I commend the show for pushing the envelope, the storyline skirts very taboo territory and is, at the very least, uncomfortable for the audience. It is a very fine line they are walking, and the repulsion that Philip feels about his work has to remain close to the surface. If it is lost, so is the audience. It is to Matthew Rhys’ credit that the anguish and conflict he feels over both of the teenagers in his life is so palpable. It is what keeps the Jennings from being caricatures of the “other.”