This article contains many spoilers about seasons one through four of The Americans.
By the time Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’s teenage daughter Paige announces to her parents at the dinner table that she would like to be baptized as a Christian, we know everything Paige doesn’t: that behind their comfortable middle-class home in the suburbs outside Washington, DC, her parents are living a secret life as KGB spies; that their sworn loyalty to their motherland — where they haven’t lived in decades — and its ideals means their attitude toward organized religion is, at best, uneasily tolerant.
Paige’s declaration, which happens midway through the show’s third season, is a watershed moment for the show, because it’s where the show’s subtext, which has been boiling beneath the surface all along, breaks the surface and drives the action for the rest of season four.
You could call the Jenningses “irreligious.” They’re sworn atheists, KGB agents who’ve pledged their lives to the spread of a Soviet brand of socialism. Philip (Matthew Rhys) won’t go near church if he can help it. And Elizabeth (Keri Russell) eventually begins attending with Paige (Holly Taylor), but she’s got a hidden motive that has nothing to do with Jesus.
While FX’s The Americans — a show set during the height of the Cold War, a battle for power between ideologies — is certainly a period show about politics, it’s also about how a belief system doesn’t always have to involve sacred buildings or baptisms to act like religion. You might say it’s a show about how everyone is religious. Whether or not your beliefs have anything to do with God, if they’re totalizing enough, they shape how you live and what you’ll sacrifice your life for.
In The Americans, organized religion is just one category of religion — though it’s one that poses a real threat to the other prevailing religions in the show: communism and capitalism.
The Americans isn’t concerned with power. It’s concerned with belief and devotion.
The big question lurking behind everything that happens in The Americans is simple: Why are they doing this? What on earth motivates such unswerving devotion? It’s an interesting question to pose in the context of a seemingly political show, and the answer it gives is surprisingly rare.
Unlike virtually every other politically themed show on TV, The Americans is not interested in the people at the top of the food chain — the Frank Underwoods and Selina Meyers, those who stalk through the halls of power or covet the seats of the heads of state. The psychology of those people is pretty straightforward: You take great risks and endure great discomfort in order to satisfy your lust for power.
But The Americans doesn’t focus there. In fact, the characters don’t seem terribly attracted to those halls. There’s not a lot of social climbing or power grabbing. Certainly the Jenningses are powerful, in a way; they seem a little like superheroes, with their amazing powers of deception and fighting skills. But they still take their orders from their overlords at the shadowy Soviet “Center,” by way of their handlers (played by Margo Martindale and Frank Langella) and other secretive communications. They know that even if they do their job well, they probably won’t be praised or celebrated in their lifetimes (and if they do it badly, terrible things await them). They don’t stand to gain much personally, and what they’ve given up for the cause is almost unthinkable.
Everyone else in the show — other spies, assistants at the consulate, FBI agents, pastors — are in the same boat, at best middle management, answering to the big bosses. The Americans isn’t concerned with those driven by power, or really with power at all, but by the ideas that some people are driven by a cause outside themselves. Commitment to something bigger than oneself — the cause, the country, God, or something else, take your pick — is compelling. It isn’t rational. It’s even inadequate to call what drives them “ideas.” It’s something a lot more like faith, or even hope, or even, maybe, love.
The Americans paints unswerving loyalty to country — whether Russian or American — to be as strong as any religious faith
When we first meet the Jenningses, Philip is experiencing what can only really be termed a crisis of faith, while Elizabeth is the true believer. Her faith in the mission, in the goodness of the Soviet project, never seems to waver, even when it puts her through great personal discomfort and distress. Philip, meanwhile, wonders and wanders a bit. After a couple of decades living in the United States, he’s witnessed the country’s gross materialism and ugly underbelly firsthand, but he’s also started to wonder if it’s really all that bad. He sort of likes the comfort and the amenities. He’s gotten used to it. They only have one life; why not live it comfortably, in a country that seems not to interfere with its citizens all that much?
And if you’re living that life already, why not just join them?
Having joined the KGB as young people, dedicated to the cause of Mother Russia, Philip and Elizabeth were thrown together to pretend to be a young couple in a new land that had little in common with their homeland culturally or ideologically. They barely knew each other, but to be convincing in their work, they’d have to play the part well — working together at a travel agency, tending to their home, participating in the capitalist system, making friends with the neighbors, even having children as a cover: first Paige, and then her brother, Henry. All this while carrying out dangerous missions in disguises and sending information back to “the Center.”
That Paige is part of the Jenningses’ cover doesn’t mean they don’t love her as their child, though. In the same vein, their sham marriage blossoms early in the first season into an actual love relationship. The Jenningses are pretty good parents, and their relationship with their children is even closer and more affectionate than some of the families around them — notably Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), their new neighbor, who also happens to be a high-ranking FBI agent, and whose marriage is in the process of breaking up.
The strongest contrast with the Jenningses’ devotion to country (at least until Paige has her religious awakening) is capitalism as crystallized in Stan. He’s a good agent, committed to his job and to the ideals it represents — enough to have rendered him a workaholic and driven him apart from his wife. When he meets Nina (Annet Mahendru), a former KGB officer working at the Rezidentura in DC, what begins as an effort to blackmail her into giving the FBI information grows into an affair and, at least for Stan, something like love.
After Stan’s wife leaves him, she (and then, eventually, he and Philip) begin attending EST meetings — another of the show’s nods to another belief system. “It’s not religious, not a church,” Stan’s new girlfriend, whom he met in EST, tells the Jenningses at dinner one night. It’s about “being in touch with where you’re at — being you.” And when she finds out that Paige was recently baptized, she’s delighted: “That’s cool! Whatever works. Everybody’s got their own thing.”
In The Americans, ideological dedication can feel like the opposite of being part of something bigger than oneself
But sometimes your own thing doesn’t make you feel better. It doesn’t help that in the pursuit of the cause they believe to be good, Philip and Elizabeth have to engage in work that they know is unethical at best.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter: Eventually you get used to killing anonymous people, or enemies of their state who would threaten the lives of their families. But other times it’s more jarring — when friends of theirs, also KGB agents, are killed, for instance. Or when lovers they’ve had, in the years before their sham marriage became something more, are hurt. Or in Philip’s case, when he must pose as “Clark,” then woo and marry Martha (Alison Wright), a woman whom he knows doesn’t deserve the hell he’s about to put her through as he uses her for the information she can gather.
Both Philip and Elizabeth are always having to seduce targets, whose lives sometimes come to a violent and meaningless end — like informant Annelise, whose death later serves as blackmail fodder on yet another informant. Annelise’s death particularly saddens Philip, but in Martha’s case, it really hurts (as with a later, ickier plot line in which Philip is meant to seduce Kimmie, a 15-year-old girl).
By the start of the fourth season, Philip’s faith in the whole enterprise is thoroughly shaken, and traumatic memories have begun to surface. He escapes to EST, and seems to be contemplating abandoning the “faith” altogether — much more seriously than he was at the series’ beginning.
As is often the case, it falls to Elizabeth to work to bring him back to the fold while also continuing their mission. Eventually, their handler Claudia catches wind of Philip’s doubt and brings them to account. Has living in the United States for so many years weakened their faith and commitment to their country’s ideals? No, Elizabeth replies with brutal force. They’ll continue their mission, at least for now. They are committed to the cause.
The Americans sets up a world where strong beliefs and ideologies coexist, and cause friction
Yet shortly after the couple’s faith in their cause (and each other) is reconfirmed, they discover their daughter — whom they’ve raised like a normal American kid, if a tad less materialistic — has gotten interested in God, by way of a youth group led by the affable and earnest Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), with whom they eventually become at least somewhat friendly.
At first, they don’t have time for Paige’s “potluck, poster-making singalong,” as they call it. But they slowly become tolerant of her new interest. The church she’s attending — in contrast to what you might expect from a church in a show set in the Reagan era — is a lefty, socially conscious bunch: “We believe in social justice with a healthy dollop of Jesus in the mix,” Pastor Tim says with a smile. They picket and protest and run a soup kitchen and go to Ethiopia to construct buildings.
When Paige decides to commit to her Christian faith by becoming baptized, though, it throws a wrench in the Jenningses’ world. They can’t fully see that their own unswerving dedication to a cause has its parallel in Paige’s interest in the church. And yet, at Paige’s baptism, Tim describes her faith in terms that make her parents thoughtful:
Paige gives her whole heart to every political action we engage in at this church — whether it’s drafting letters to the White House to demand that President Reagan end his support for dehumanizing racial segregation in South Africa or picketing the insanity and waste of the nuclear arms race, Paige is always on the front lines, challenging, questioning, yelling. But Paige, this is your most defiant act of protest yet, because today, you make a public declaration that you are a child of God.
“Are you ready to be renamed and reclaimed in the name of Jesus?” Tim asks her.
“Absolutely,” Paige replies.
An interesting series of events. Earlier in conversation after Paige’s announcement, Philip and Elizabeth had debated whether to allow her to be baptized — “If you tell her no,” Philip said, “this will all blow up,” meaning that their cover would come to be blown.
“But at least she’ll know who she is,” Elizabeth replied. That was the crux of the matter: Paige is not a normal American kid, but the daughter of KGB spies, and her parents long to bring her into their fold. Her religious faith competes with their own loyalties. The two can’t coexist.
As Elizabeth tells Pastor Tim, she was worried about losing Paige to God, and to Pastor Tim as well. “You opened yourself up to her,” Tim says. “That took faith … in Paige.” Philip and Elizabeth (especially) also believe that this is a sort of phase in Paige’s life, and they hope, and plan, to “turn” her to their side eventually. After Paige demands to be told what her parents’ true identity is, they finally tell her. And we get to hear what they believe in, too.
“We’re here to help our people,” says Elizabeth. “Most of what you hear about the Soviet Union isn’t true. Everything that we’ve told you about being activists, about wanting to make the world a better place…”
“We work for our country,” Philip adds. “Getting information. Information they couldn’t get in other ways.”
“You’re … spies?” Paige asks, incredulous.
“We serve our country,” Elizabeth replies. “But we also serve the cause of peace around the world. We fight for people who can’t fight for themselves.”
The cause of peace and fighting for the weak — that resonates with Paige. Although the church is a place where she is in Jesus’s fold, her parents have spotted a way in. The challenging, questioning, and yelling as part of social action is something they can work with.
The Americans takes its characters’ dedication to their belief systems very seriously
One of The Americans’ greatest strengths is the decency it has to treat each of these commitments as if they are serious beliefs that intelligent adults might hold. The Jenningses, Stan, Martha, Nina, Pastor Tim and Alice, even Paige — all of them are treated with respect. This is not the show positing that all beliefs are equal, but rather underlining the tremendous amount of faith and even integrity required to hold any belief, and to act on it, instead of just using it as means toward an end.
Philip and Elizabeth are both whip-smart and, on some level, hoodwinked, as we know from this point in history. When they say to Paige that they “serve the cause of peace around the world,” we know from our vantage point that the regime they serve is not peaceful or equitable. Stan is engaging in reprehensible tactics in service of the American cause. Poor Martha and (to some extent) Nina find themselves caught in the middle.
That is what makes the case of Pastor Tim, his wife Alice, and Paige so unique among other modern television series: They are as smart and committed as the others. Religion, often treated as a “symptom for — or at least of — something else,” as Alyssa Rosenberg put it in her Washington Post column on the subject, is considered by The Americans to be at least as legitimate a driving action as the competing ideologies of capitalism and communism the other characters hold to (and far more legitimate than EST, which mostly comes off as silly, even if the characters who try it out aren’t). The Christians, after all, are the only Americans on the show who are fighting for ideals without finding it necessary to kill people in the process.
The Americans particularizes beliefs into characters, and thus challenges what viewers assume about people based on their loyalties
The Americans demonstrates the important shift that is meant to happen — idealistically, anyhow — when belief systems collide in a pluralist world. The communists and the capitalists still grossly mistrust one another as well as the church (though Pastor Tim seems a little more live-and-let-live about it). Early in the show, Elizabeth tells Philip, “The Americans are capable of anything. Do you listen to what they say? What they say about us?”
“Do you listen to yourself when you talk about them?” Philip says.
“The Americans” (or “the communists” or “the Christians”) are an easy group of people to file away as one sort of people, but it’s when those ideas and commitments are particularized into humans — all of whom, as in one episode, might end up at a dinner table together — that the proverbial rubber meets the road.
Pastor Tim is a great example of someone who keeps thwarting Philip and Elizabeth’s ideas about “religious” people. But Pastor Tim, and even Paige, is confronted with cognitive dissonance upon discovering the Jenningses’ true identities. You can think you understand a person from what they believe, but when you’re confronted with the real person — the beliefs embodied — things get tricky.
When Elizabeth says that “most of what you hear about the Soviet Union isn’t true,” we know she’s a bit deceived herself (at least some of what she has heard about the Soviet Union isn’t true either), but we get it, because we as viewers have lived alongside the Jenningses for several seasons as well. We’ve seen the emotional and ethical conflicts they confront, even after decades as undercover spies. We know they love their kids. We watch them mourn and know they’re out to destroy our way of life.
We are all born into some belief system. Today we can swap one for another with minimal consequences, but we know we’re doing it, rebelling against our upbringing, and we spend our whole lives figuring out how to live with two sets of values and voices in our heads. As the culture and religion scholar David Dark likes to say, some of us are raised capitalist. Some are raised communist. Some are raised Christian. There are dozens of other possibilities. The Americans places those belief systems into conflict and asks an important question of its viewers: In whom, or what, do you believe? And why?
And what if you are wrong?
The Americans returns for its fifth season on FX on March 7.