This post discusses basic premise details of The Americans.
In the post-Tony Soprano world, television’s so obsessed with creating successful anti-heroes that it’s corrupted the word beyond its original meaning, applying it to all manner of dark characters. If a hero is someone we want to and should, within the structure of the story, root for, a villain is someone we want to and should root against, and an anti-hero is someone a show succeeds in making you want to root for, even though, by all the conventions of morality, we know we shouldn’t. Characteristically, the way we’ve known we shouldn’t cheer for an anti-hero is because they employ violence, either for reasons we know to be wrong, or to be ridiculous, be it Tony living out the terminal decline of the fantasy that is The Godfather in suburban New Jersey, Omar Little robbing drug dealers in Baltimore (both he and Maurice Levy are absolutely correct about each other), or Walter White cooking meth to live out a fantasy of his own genius and dominance that he failed to achieve in legal life.
Elizabeth Jennings (Kerri Russell), the KGB spy living under cover in the United States of 1980 in the Cold War drama The Americans, which premieres on FX tonight, represents a major break from this anti-hero tradition for two reasons. First, she’s a woman. As much as television has tried to create female anti-heroes, it’s often succeeded in doing something rather different. On Damages, for example, super-lawyer Patty Hewes was more of an anti-villain, a character we might have wanted to root for, given her work going after amoral corporations, but who the show succeeded in making chilly and repulsive, just as Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison is a conventional hero complicated by mental illness and fanaticism. In The Mob Doctor, Grace Devil, who the show’s creators billed as an anti-hero, was really a conflicted, dark hero. Elizabeth may be the first female character who truly fits that definition.
And the reasons she’s an anti-hero represent a significant break with the intellectual tradition of that trope on television. Elizabeth isn’t greedy, or myopic, or casually violent. She’s a deep and true believer in an ideology that will be alien to almost everyone who tunes in to The Americans, a devoted KGB agent who is working as hard as she can for the downfall of the United States. In one of the show’s nicest twists, Elizabeth is actually much more ideologically dedicated than her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys), who feels the lure of American prosperity, and with whom Elizabeth runs that most bourgeois of business as their cover, a Dupont Circle travel agency. When we see them arrive in the United States in a flashback, both Elizabeth and Phillip marvel over the availability of air conditioning, but while Phillip says that America exceeds his expectations, Elizabeth tightens her lips and declares “There’s a weakness in the people.” As Phillip begins to consider defecting, Elizabeth snaps at him that she would never follow him, “Because I am a KGB officer. Don’t you understand that? After all these years, I would go to jail, I would die, I would lose everything before I would betray my country.” And to hammer home her commitment, she tells Phillip in a subsequent episode that if their options are to be “Tortured, locked away, forced to betray everything we believe in if we ever want to see our kids again? I’m not going to make that choice.”
It’s a great source of pain to Elizabeth that keeping her cover means allowing her children with Phillip, Paige and Henry, to grow up to be Americans, with all the appreciation for capitalist consumer culture that entails. “I’m not finished with them yet. They don’t have to be regular Americans, they can be socialists, they can be trade unionists,” Elizabeth protests, in an argument that suggests she still believes that there’s some flexibility in the society she’s trying to take down. Phillip, more in love with the country they’re hiding out in, is less optimistic. “This place doesn’t turn out socialists,” he tells her.