Rules for Spies: The Americans Finds Heartsick Ethics in Cable Sex and Violence

For the protagonists of cable dramas, sex and death are twin forces of titillation, pressure valves for frustrated middle-aged men or steely-eyed careerists. That’s also true for the audience of cable dramas, of course, but there’s a reason we eagerly pursue onscreen what often makes us squirm in real life: Even when they don’t go exactly as planned, screwing and murdering usually look like a blast on TV. On The Americans — the FX drama about two Russian spies posing as regular Americans in Cold War–era Washington — they look like hard work.

The show, which returns for its fourth season on Wednesday, March 16, centers on a seemingly normal couple who run a travel agency and live in the suburbs with their two teenagers. In truth, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) were yenta’d by the KGB in their early 20s and shipped off to spy on the States. Their American accents are flawless, their wig collection bounteous. They do a lot of ironic Wonder Bread–eating. Even their children don’t know who their parents really are. Neither does Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent who lives next door.

The Americans is TV’s ultimate paean to commitment — not the gooey American kind but a rather more Soviet version. This is the kind of commitment that doesn’t wrap you in a warm Snuggie but binds you in chains. Philip and Elizabeth are united by necessity, and their primary loyalty is to their mother country, not to each other. (If that sounds severe, it is; this is among the most agonizing — and, not incidentally, hottest — romances on TV right now.) The Americans is truly till-death-do-us-part devoted to its concept and its characters, a quality that makes the series not just heartrending but ethical. It’s never easy to decide just who is the hunter and who is the prey on this show; it explores the lives of its characters with enough depth for us to see that people can be victims and victimizers at the same time.

Over the course of three seasons, the show’s creators have proven adept at crafting stand-alone episodes without shifting their focus away from the long game. The show breathes; like a good spy, it advances slowly and deliberately. It’s equally patient in its commitment to characters that I had assumed at the outset were throwaways, such as Nina (the stunningly good Annet Mahendru), a worker at the Soviet Embassy in Washington who becomes Stan’s asset — and later, a double agent — in the first season.

But the big one for me is Martha (Alison Wright), a secretary at FBI headquarters whom Philip, under the guise of “Clark,” seduces at the series’ outset. I initially assumed Martha would be just one in a string of women Philip uses throughout The Americans, and she’s certainly not the only one. But in the second season they get married, and he slyly starts handling her, convincing her to plant a bug in her boss’s office and then teaching her how to lie about it.

Long-term commitments like that require intimacy, and Philip-as-Clark struggles to dodge Martha’s increasing emotional demands. The one place he can keep her happy is in bed, which is where spy work on The Americans always seems to lead. In a devastating scene from the third season, Philip remembers his training in the Soviet Union, where he was forced to have sex with a succession of random people — men and women, young and old — to learn the art of sexual manipulation. He successfully works Martha: “In the sack,” she gushes, “he makes me his.” But this work also forces Philip to manipulate himself, and the strain takes a toll; this is the rare show in which a man sleeps with a lot of women and feels bad about it.

On action series, pawns like Martha and Nina often are jettisoned once they’ve fulfilled their purpose in the plot. In putting so much focus on these kinds of characters, The Americans displays a remarkable moral compass. True, there are plenty of poor unfortunates killed off after one or two episodes; that’s the nature of the Jenningses’ business. But by keeping Martha around season after season, the show makes it difficult for viewers to see these casualties as disposable, interchangeable victims.

At the same time, The Americans doesn’t make it easy to throw your sympathy behind the victims alone. The fact that Martha continues to play such a significant role in the series suggests the effect she has on Philip’s conscience — her and the parade of innocent people he’s sacrificed over the years for Mother Russia. Rhys plays Philip as a man wounded beyond repair by the things he’s been made to do. When people get killed onscreen here, more often than not they take an excruciating amount of time to die, forcing us to imagine not just the victim’s pain but the agony of the killer, too.

The Americans cultivates an atmosphere of inevitable disaster: The weather is always overcast, and the color palette is far more muted than most period productions set in the ’80s (although recent series like Show Me a Hero, Halt and Catch Fire and Deutschland 83 also cast off that neon glare). Nothing appears as if it will end well, and no one is safe — not even the couple’s oldest child, Paige (Holly Taylor), who finds out her parents’ true identities at the end of the third season. Now, the KGB wants the Jenningses to start grooming their own daughter.

Even as Paige resists her parents’ influence — she’s furious to discover she’s been lied to her whole life — she’s starting to show it. By the third season, her hair, which was once straight with bangs, is wavier and parted on the side — exactly like Elizabeth’s. She stops herself from storming out of her parents’ bedroom just long enough to close the door behind her. When Philip shows her a photo of the family on a camping trip to prove that she’s really their daughter, she recalls of her brother, “He thought a bear was gonna eat him.” “I didn’t know that,” Philip says. She replies, “He made me promise not to tell.”

Paige is a Jennings through and through — which means she’s doomed. At this point in the series, we’re witnessing a sinking ship. The brilliance of The Americans lies in its insistence that we watch it plummet all the way to the bottom.  

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