Sara Fredman | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,965 words)
What makes an antihero show work? In this original Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.
Something happens to a person trying to watch six seasons of The Americans in just four weeks. First, the math: It’s about 60 hours of television, which is a realistic goal for someone without any significant responsibilities or sleep requirements.
But suppose you’re not that kind of someone.
You might find yourself, every so often, watching with the sound off and the captions on while your toddler feeds herself noodles. You know you should be stimulating her mind and promoting the development of her language, but there is work to be done. A mission, you might call it, though only to yourself. You may also realize that you’ve been wasting perfectly good time in the car and begin to listen to the show while driving, as if it is a poorly executed narrative podcast. This gets tricky when it comes to the Russian dialogue but also lends a new layer of intrigue to the prosaic tasks of suburban living. Against a soundtrack of what closed captioning calls “suspenseful music,” a seemingly innocent Target run could be anything, especially if you happen to be wearing a baseball cap. Later, when your 7-year-old refuses to clear her dinner plate, you might find yourself muttering about how when you were her age your mother was sick with diphtheria and you wished there was a dinner to clear. In short, you begin to have a secret life, which is watching The Americans.
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The spy genre relies on a precise interplay between secrecy and authenticity. We enjoy stories about spies because we get to experience the thrills of skilled artifice while being privy to the comfort of the authentic; the fun comes from watching a person pretend to be someone else while knowing who they really are. The Americans, a show about Soviet spies living in a D.C. suburb in the ’80s, offers this kind of entertainment. We relish seeing Philip and Elizabeth Jennings execute their missions while sporting a dizzying array of wigs, but that pleasure would be incomplete if we didn’t also see them return home, in their natural hair, to help the kids with their homework.
The homework-type scenes are important because we assume that, for Philip and Elizabeth, the authentic part is their family. Like David Chase recognizing the impact that the domestic could have on the mob genre, The Americans brings the spy thriller into the home. And family serves somewhat of the same function for Philip and Elizabeth as it did for Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper, humanizing them by showcasing their ability to exhibit tenderness and care toward their children. To this The Americans adds another layer. In making the Jennings’ spy HQ the home where they raise their children, the show turns a story about enemy agents raising a family into a relatable metaphor for the way parenting works, the way it has to work: the dining room versus the secret basement passport cache of it all. It becomes a story about the secrets one must keep as a parent, and also about the way feelings and beliefs and habits that have become unremarkable, or perhaps simply the way things are done, become troubling — perhaps even monstrous — when seen through the eyes of one’s children.
And so, it turns out that what we initially identify as the Jennings’ authenticity reveals itself to be just another locus of secrets. Until the end of season three, neither of their children have any idea that their parents are Russian spies; poor Henry doesn’t find out until the series finale that they have already fled the country without him. Every family moment is true and a lie at the same time, and The Americans uses the Jennings family to blur the boundary separating those concepts from each other. Family itself is multiplied on this show, with Philip and Elizabeth constantly making deep connections with other people. They’re always knocking on doors, entering lives and families, gaining trust and playing house. Philip marries Martha, who wants to have a child with him. Elizabeth cooks with Young-Hee and babysits her children. In the fifth season they both play family with Tuan, a Vietnamese agent who later reports them for jeopardizing the mission by indulging “certain petty bourgeois concerns.” When we see them slip seamlessly into these other familial tableaus, it destabilizes our own ideas about what is real and what is pretend. When they return to their children amid and in the aftermath of those missions, the domestic ministrations we once thought of as real can’t help but take on the patina of performance. Which, after all, is the real family? None of these homes is free of secrets.
Of course, we are able to tell which family truly matters to our protagonists based on how much anxiety they express over it. Philip and Elizabeth spend a lot of time worrying about the threats to their family, from the FBI and the KGB alike. This dedication to their children, the precarity of their family, humanizes them. But the show tempers that humanizing effect by presenting it alongside their role in the dissolution of other families. Together and separately, Philip and Elizabeth spend a lot of time threatening other people’s families, exploiting their particular weaknesses to destroy them. They leave those families worse than they found them, a trail of broken homes and irreparably altered futures in their wake. In the end, their own family is no exception. Their separation at the end of the series is not the work of any of their adversaries but instead the inexorable result of an authentic life built on secrets. They choose to leave Henry behind in the only life he’s ever known and, in a scene that guts me every time I watch it, Paige makes a last-minute decision to stay in the U.S. Her parents learn of this decision when it’s too late, seeing her standing on the platform as their train pulls away toward Canada. Philip and Elizabeth will finally be able to live a truly authentic, albeit slightly less comfortable, life in Russia. Henry will continue to live his American life in spite of his parents’ betrayal. Paige is the show’s true victim, most likely doomed to live off the grid. She is stranded forever between worlds, between what is real and what is pretend: a citizen of no country relegated to the purgatory of drinking vodka in a D.C. safe house.
It is this refusal to deal in binaries that facilitates the astounding accomplishment of The Americans: the refusal of the show to turn on its wife.
Read the first post in this series on Golden Age antiheroes and the nasty women who humanized them.
Blurring this line between inside and outside, between real and pretend, between work and family, is representative of The Americans’ goal of weakening our belief in the very notion of lines. The antihero genre, dedicated as it is to selling us on characters who are neither wholly good nor irredeemably evil, is the perfect vehicle for this project, and The Americans hews closely to the antihero script. Philip and Elizabeth are special because they are highly trained Soviet operatives. They are really good at what they do; they get away with things. And we want them to get away with those things because they also have interiority. We’re privy to several flashbacks and reminiscences aimed at illustrating their difficult childhoods, the sacrifices they’ve made in their lives, and the misgivings they have about their line of work. They’re humanized not only by their children but also by the remorse they feel when they kill anyone whose death does not serve their mission.
But what about the other important element of the antihero formula? Who are the easier-to-hate characters who make our murderous protagonists more likable? Here is where The Americans diverges from the genre as we know it and takes it to even grayer pastures. We would expect a show about the Cold War to present an abundance of options for antagonists and there are certainly a handful of stock villains who crop up throughout the show’s six seasons. But more often than not, The Americans surrounds Philip and Elizabeth with individuals who are, like them, neither wholly good nor irredeemably evil. Almost everyone on this show with more than a few minutes of screen time gets nuance, from Nina, who survives by making herself a helpmate to every man she meets but who ultimately risks her life for something greater than herself, to Martha, who starts off as a naïve mark but becomes one of the show’s most sympathetic and respected characters. Claudia, Philip and Elizabeth’s KGB handler, is introduced as an antagonist but by the end gains our respect and some sympathy. FBI agent Stan Beeman is the Jennings’ most proximate adversary but he is also Philip’s best friend. Characters who on any other show would have been the unsavory antagonists meant to make Philip and Elizabeth look better instead serve a more noble purpose, testifying to the ways in which people ultimately defy the categories into which we want to sort them.
It is this refusal to deal in binaries that facilitates the astounding accomplishment of The Americans: the refusal of the show to turn on its wife. When even the American-Soviet binary is called into question, it is easier to imagine a world in which an antihero husband does not need a nagging wife to win viewers’ allegiance. But this feat is still remarkable given that Elizabeth mostly refuses to traffic in what Kate Manne calls feminine-coded goods. In her monogamous American life, she bakes brownies and asks her husband if he’ll be home for dinner, but in her secret spy life she kicks serious — usually male — ass, sleeps with multiple men to gain information, and often leaves her husband and children to order takeout. That we as viewers did not turn on her is especially surprising given that she is not the kind of mother our culture respects and rewards. Flashbacks reveal that she had reservations about having kids and it’s clear that Philip is the more natural parent. The show not only gives us a wife who is smart, strategic, and quick-thinking, but it also allows that wife to be a stubborn and somewhat-absentee parent who is sometimes very, very wrong without losing her humanity and with it our empathy. The result is that we root for a wife and a marriage in a genre that has made a pastime of destroying them.
If their roles were reversed, would we have turned against Elizabeth the way we turned against Skyler? I’m not sure.
Read the second post on the wives of Ozark and House of Cards.
This is not to say that The Americans is free from the marital friction characteristic of other antihero shows. In fact, the show’s dramatic stakes depend as much on the fault line between Philip and Elizabeth as it does on whether they will be caught by the FBI. This was my second time watching the show and I had forgotten how much the pilot relied on the traditional formula for an antihero and his wife, presenting them at odds rather than as allies. Philip wants to defect and live as wealthy Americans while Elizabeth is a loyal KGB agent for whom the mission always comes first. They argue like Marty and Wendy Byrde (“So you’re just deciding for both of us?”) and Elizabeth rejects Philip’s sexual advances. The moment for defection passes by the end of the first episode but the tension between Philip and Elizabeth persists throughout the series, sometimes simmering and other times boiling over. As the one who yearns to stop spying and live a normal American life, Philip is in the position usually occupied by the antihero’s wife, standing in the way of the show’s plot and threatening to undermine its entire premise. We don’t turn on him either, though I wonder whether that’s a function of his gender. If their roles were reversed, would we have turned against Elizabeth the way we turned against Skyler? I’m not sure.
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But in crafting the Jennings’ relationship the way it did, with doubting Philip and committed Elizabeth, The Americans ends up doing something far more interesting than pitting a wife against her husband. As much as the pilot played with the elements familiar from other antihero shows, its conclusion throws the normal trajectory of such shows into reverse. First episodes of antihero shows have to work incredibly hard, establishing what its main character does wrong while making the case that we should root for him anyway. The Americans pilot does that for two different characters at once and the sum of its hard work is greater than its parts. By the closing credits the show has bound us to Philip and Elizabeth individually, and, perhaps more importantly to their relationship.
Most husband-wife pairs in antihero shows share a history of love. We imagine, or are given flashbacks to, a time when they were in a state of uncomplicated adoration and devotion. A Breaking Bad season three flashback gave us a young and upwardly mobile Walt and Skyler; Ozark’s second season offered a similar look back at the happier and non-money laundering Byrdes. Usually, by the time we get to them, most of that love is gone and only conflict remains. The Americans works in the opposite direction, both in the first episode and in the series as a whole. The pilot reveals that Philip and Elizabeth are essentially strangers sharing a home and a family, having been instructed to never divulge anything of their past lives. Their entire relationship is a lie by omission and they don’t fully trust each other. Elizabeth has even reported on Philip’s weaknesses to their KGB higher-ups in the past. But something happens over the course of the first episode. Elizabeth shares an experience from before they met and by the end of the episode has told Philip her real name; there is a moment of real affection between them. Other antihero shows begin with authenticity and devolve into secrets and lies. The Americans takes a relationship built on lies and guides it toward authenticity. It builds a marriage rather than destroying one.
We cling to this marriage like Jack Dawson to a floating doorframe in the vast and icy sea of pain and destruction that Philip and Elizabeth perpetrate throughout the six seasons of the show. We want them to keep getting away with things but we also want them to continue to love and trust each other. The final season unsettles us as the chasm between Philip’s and Elizabeth’s worldviews widens and threatens their family and their mission, if those can be said to be two different things. Philip, a devotee of EST, the personal transformation seminars popular in the ’70s and early ’80s, wants to trust his gut. A convert to the American cult of the individual, he wants to be free to live his life without destroying the lives of others. Elizabeth has put her trust in an institution and, though she is beginning to see that her loyalty may have been misplaced and abused, she still believes in the cause and the collective that she signed up for. Philip ends up spying on her, trying to figure out whether she is part of a plan to overthrow the Soviet government and derail peace talks. But just when it appears that we’ll finally get our showdown between this particular husband and wife, Philip comes out of retirement to fly to Chicago and help Elizabeth with a dangerous mission. He doesn’t want her to do what she’s doing, and he really doesn’t want to be doing what she’s doing, but when he thinks she’s in danger, he goes to help. When he said, “Sit tight, I’m on my way,” I cheered silently. The final season shows Elizabeth at her worst. Not only is she chain smoking and snapping at Philip, but she is also not getting away with things. Her missions are getting sloppier and less successful and it would be easy for us to shift our loyalty entirely toward Philip. What keeps us from turning on her?
The result is that we root for a wife and a marriage in a genre that has made a pastime of destroying them.
In the penultimate episode of the series, Philip talks about Elizabeth with fellow Soviet operative Father Andrei. This is just moments before he will realize that his cover has most likely been blown but at that moment his biggest problem is Elizabeth’s anger toward him. He admits that he has broken some of his vows — “I haven’t been as honest with her as I should have been” — but Father Andrei thinks the marriage can be saved: “There must be something between you she thinks is worth staying for.” The thing is, Philip replies, Elizabeth “thinks bigger than that … she cares about the whole world.” I think this is key to Elizabeth’s success as an antihero: her commitment to a cause outside of herself and her family, and Philip’s commitment to her. Where personal and familial ambition failed to rally us to the causes of wives like Claire Underwood and Wendy Byrde, selfless dedication to saving the world, no matter how misguided, allows us to feel empathy for Elizabeth. Perhaps more importantly, Elizabeth has what other wives do not: her husband’s love and his trust. They may not always be on the same page, but they aren’t rivals. Philip cares about her. He roots for her, so we do, too.
This is not necessarily where we need to be; wives shouldn’t have to want to save the world to gain our support, and I’m not convinced that Philip and Elizabeth could have switched roles without altering our allegiances. I suspect that a line-dancing, responsibility-shirking Elizabeth would have garnered a different audience response. Her success as an antihero is still in many ways contingent on her proximity to heteronormative marriage, and it remains to be seen whether we can root for a woman who doesn’t have a man vouching for her. But it is progress. In compelling us to root for a marriage — no small feat in an antihero show — The Americans tricks us into rooting for a wife.
What happens when there’s no husband? Next, we’ll take a detour into half-hour television for our first solo female antihero — single mom Sam Fox of Better Things — because there’s no audience more adept at pointing out a woman’s flaws than her children.
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Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.