This post discusses plot points from the February 13 episode of The Americans.
It’s Valentine’s Day today, but we’ve been living in a moment of television romanticism for some time now. Homeland started out as a nervy thriller and turned into an epic love story, which as Lorrie Moore persuasively argued in the New York Review of Books, works only if you’re able to believe that an obsessive Central Intelligence Agency analyst and a dedicated al Qaeda terrorist would be able to shut out everything else and fall uncritically for each other (whether or not they have an intense and believable sexual attraction to each other is a separate question). Downton Abbey has won over significant followings in the United Kingdom and the United States on the strength of Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens’ performance as Lady Mary and Matthew, members of the British nobility slowly finding their way to each other. And The Americans, FX’s Cold War drama, is effective precisely because it’s a portrait of a marriage, albeit one arranged by the KGB.
But there’s something that makes Homeland and Downton Abbey very different from The Americans, and it’s not just how the relationships in each show began. In Homeland, Carrie sets aside her loyalty to the United States, and Brody’s loyalty to al Qaeda wavers because in each other they find kindred, intense, obsessive spirits. Ideology is less important than love. And in Downton Abbey, ideological concerns for Matthew and Mary after they’re married, as they debate how to modernize management of the estate and how to manage questions ranging from Edith’s offer to write a newspaper column and Branson’s integration into the family. Politics, for Downton Abbey is a means of creating obstacles for a couple in what is primarily a love story.
In The Americans, though, politics and ideology serve a very different function. They’re among the things that draw people to each other, providing the basis for conversation, mutual conviction, and real love. As Elizabeth explains to Phillip after he discovers her affair with Gregory (Derek Luke), a civil rights activist who Elizabeth has turned into an operative, and who is pulled back into their lives when they need to conduct an operation to deal with their colleague’s secret wife, “I was 17 when I joined the KGB. I never had a boyfriend. They put me with you. When we got here, I was 22 years old. I was living in a strange house, in a strange country, with a strange man. And I met Gregory and he was passionate about the cause. He was passionate about everything. He was passionate about me. I recruited him. And he didn’t even want everything. He just believed, like I did. He was the first person I felt I could really talk to. And I needed that. It just happened. It never really happened that way for us, did it?”
Politics aren’t a side issue here. They’re not a gimmick The Americans is pulling in to the show in order to create problems for a couple in order to artificially spin out the amount of time it takes to get them together, or to create drama for a couple we want to believe is essentially happy. In this show, politics is one of the things, other than good looks or ephemeral chemistry, that draw people together, that give them the basis of work they want to do together, that gives them something to talk about and a sense that they’re profoundly in step.
As we’ve seen in previous episodes, differences in their ideology is one of the reasons that Phillip and Elizabeth have found themselves in tension, and unable to have a genuine relationship. The decision to defect or not to defect isn’t just a matter of their political views shifting: it means dramatically changing the terms on which their relationship is conducted. And it’s been an understandably traumatic conversation to have come out into the open. But the fact that they’re discussing defecting, and the impossibility of the things they’ve been asked to do by their KGB handlers, and what being in the KGB has done to them is the very thing that’s made a real relationship between them possible for the first time. The breakdown of Elizabeth’s loyalty to the agency is what let her violate the rules she and Phillip were given, and to talk to him honestly about her sexual assault, removing one of the obstacles to them having a genuine sexual life where they don’t harm each. “Things are changing at home with me and Phillip,” Elizabeth tells Gregory. “You mean you’re finally leaving him?” he asks her. “The opposite, actually,” she tells him.
Not all couples have the same challenges that Phillip and Elizabeth have to deal with. Most of us don’t have to manage country estates, our relationships determining the economic fates of hundreds of people in the region where we live. And for all Romeo and Juliet-style romances between couples dramatically divided by differences imagined, a la the Capulets and Montagues, or real, as between the United States and al Qaeda, most of us aren’t working a James Carville-Mary Matalin schtick. But politics and passionate convictions matter to our relationships, too. Whether it’s the division of housework, or the ability to genuinely support each other’s work and share our interests, our ideas and our romances aren’t separate, or obstacles to each other. The Americans is the rare show to recognize that.