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‘The Americans’ Open Thread: In The Air Tonight

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.In that space between the moment when we learn Elizabeth was raped and the moment Phillip gets that same information, The Americans offers up a number of subtle scenes that make clear how damaging it is for him not to know this element of her history. When they play Phillip’s game with the soft ice cream, her children embrace the sport, Henry painting ice cream war streaks on his face. But Elizabeth freezes up, telling Phillip “No. No thanks. I don’t want to.” And he sticks ice cream on her nose anyway. When Phillip comes up behind Elizabeth in the kitchen and kisses her neck, it seems irrational to him that she’s insisting “Stop. Stop. Just stop.” After all, as he puts it, “You’re my wife.” By which he means he’s entitled to the right to be tender, or sexual. When Elizabeth asks him “Is that right?” she’s challenging both the validity of their relationship and Phillip’s interpretation of it. But what she can’t say is that both the ice cream and the approach from behind remind her of being attacked, they are violations of her space and sense of comfort that Phillip can’t help committing because he’s never been allowed to have the information that would help him understand how to moderate and change his behavior.

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My heart broke for both of them in particular in the flashback that marked their arrival in America. Elizabeth, clearly still dealing with the aftermath of being raped, tells Phillip “I’m not ready” to have sex. And because Phillip doesn’t know why she needs time, he feels an understandable, and painful, rejection. “We’re supposed to be married now, that’s all,” he tells her, moving from the obligations of their job to his personal desire for her and need for validation. “They’ll expect us to have children, eventually. Or maybe you just don’t find me attractive.” Elizabeth doesn’t address his insecurity because she can’t. The Colonel, after all, told them when they were introduced to share “Phillip and Elizabeth’s lives. Not the other ones. Those should never be discussed.” It’s a sensible prohibition, but one that has doomed these people to hurt each other over and over again.

It’s one of the reasons that, cliche as it is, Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” was the perfect choice to score Phillip and Elizabeth’s disposal of Timosheev’s body, and the lovemaking that followed. The two of them have seen each other every day for years, but Elizabeth finally has an answer to the question “I don’t know if you know who I am,” and Phillip’s finally knows “the reason why you keep your silence up, oh no you don’t fool me / Well the hurt doesn’t show, but the pain still grows / It’s no stranger to you and me.”

And even more than that remarkably emotional sex scene, it’s astonishingly intimate to see Elizabeth begin to tell the rest of her story to Phillip, to put the fact of that assault into the context of her as a full person. “I was born in Smolensk,” she starts from the beginning. “My father died fighting the Nazis at Stalingrad when I was two. There was a picture of him. He was pale, with bush eyebrows. he was smiling, though of course he’s going off to die. My mother was a bookkeeper for the local party committee. My name is. Was. Nadhezhda.” There are a lot of things you can fake. But a real marriage isn’t one of them.