This post discusses plot details from the January 30 episode of The Americans.
As I wrote in my review of the show yesterday, I’m excited about the potential of The Americans for a great many reasons: its use of geopolitics to ask questions rather than assign solutions, its sick sense of humor, its portrait of domestic life, its louche use of eighties music. But what bowled me over in the pilot the first time I watched it, and what I didn’t expect from The Americans, was a deeply nuanced portrait of what it means to be a sexual assault survivor. The revelation midway through the pilot that Elizabeth had been raped by the man who was then her trainer, and now is a high-profile defector explains a great number of things we’ve seen her do so far. And the fact that she hasn’t been able to tell her husband about it is a shocking illustration of the fundamental cruelty of their arrangement: the KGB’s paired Elizabeth and Phillip for life, but forbidden them from exchanging the kind of information that could give them a shot at building a happy and functional marriage.
From the first sequence in the show, The Americans‘ approach to sexuality is part of what makes it clear that the show is engaging with spy conventions rather than simply replicating them. It’s a lot of fun to watch Kerri Russell in a blonde wig and a leather dress seduce a mouthy federal official, who brags to her “At this level, there aren’t many people he can trust,” or to hear, later, on a recording, her get more information out of him by explaining “If I was going to see you again, I’d want you to be a little—I don’t want to hurt your feelings—but stronger, maybe?” He may not be able to dominate her sexually, but he can demonstrate his importance verbally. But what most movies or shows wouldn’t give you is the moment after the seduction, Russell taking off the wig in the car to reveal strands of her own hair stuck to her forehead, her mouth twisting with at least momentary disgust. This isn’t a story about people who got into the spy game so they could sleep with beautiful women and gratify their own sense of attractiveness. Using her sexuality is part of Elizabeth’s job, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it.
And the idea that her sexuality is not her own to control as a condition of her employment becomes even more horrifying the show explains that Elizabeth’s sexual availability was taken to its logical conclusion during her training as a KGB agent. Timosheev first tells Elizabeth, who is still learning to speak English naturally and without an accent, to say “I’m sorry. Use the contraction.” And then, when he defeats her in their fistfight, he rapes her—presumably he isn’t stopping in part because she tells him no in Russian, rather than in English. Later, desperate, Timosheev tells Elizabeth “I never meant to hurt you. They let us have our way with the cadets. It was part of the job. A perk.” It’s both a pathetic excuse, an attempt to avoid responsibility or agency, and it lets Phillip know, for the first time, what happened to his wife before the KGB paired them up in a much warmer and fuzzier exercise of control.