Holding on to Humanity: My Journey with The Americans (So Far)

Today’s The Americans analysis is going to be structured differently than what you’re used to around these parts, but hopefully my rationale makes sense when all is said and done. There are only so many weeks in a row that I can talk about how well Keri Russell is playing Elizabeth’s downward spiral, and there are much more important things I want to get around to now that we’re a few episodes into this final season.

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Source: spoilertv.com

As many of you know, I don’t watch a lot of “prestige dramas.” I never warmed up to Breaking Bad, Mad Men didn’t interest me at all, and The Sopranos was before my time and never beckoned me to discover what all the fuss was about years later. All those male-driven antihero dramas just seemed too depressing to keep watching every week for years on end. Life can be hard enough; I didn’t want the media I consumed to be another source of doom and gloom.

And then I discovered The Americans.

What made that show different? Why did I fall so deeply in love with what many people have called one of the bleakest shows on television when I couldn’t stomach other similarly dark dramas? Obviously the fact that its main antihero was a woman made it immediately more compelling to me. Elizabeth Jennings drew me into her messed-up mind in a way that Don Draper, Walter White, and all the men who came before them never could. But it was so much more than that.

It was the fact that, from the pilot, this has been a show about two broken people learning how to love each other. It has always been a show about a marriage. But even beyond that, it has always been a show about humanity. It’s a show about the things that makes us human—our need to connect with each other, our need to find some level of truth and honesty with another person, our desire for intimacy. From the moment Philip chose killing Elizabeth’s rapist over turning him in and Elizabeth then chose telling Philip the truth about herself over following their orders to never mention their pasts, The Americans has always been a show about choosing people—flesh and blood and warmth—over hard and cold ideals.

That focus on the connections between people has kept The Americans from being too dark. Even at its lowest points—the death of Nina, the sad story of Martha—there was always an underlying sense of humanity amid tragedy. Nina was killed in a brutal way, but she died because she chose friendship over following orders and betraying a good man. And Martha’s life was shockingly spared in no small way because Philip had come to care for her. Also, she may have ended up in Russia, but she didn’t end up alone. Her dream of being a mother was realized in the form of an orphaned Russian girl the KGB arranged for her to adopt.

It all comes back to people. On a show about warring ideological forces, the human beings on both sides are shown to be exactly that—human beings. And human beings have a desire to connect with each other, to build relationships and develop intimacy and form families.

That’s what made The Americans different for me. It was a show that ventured into very dark territory, but it balanced that darkness with humanity. Even when the show seemed bleak, it never became completely nihilistic. It never preached the idea that nothing matters because everything and everyone is terrible (which would have been an easy thing to preach given the subject matter). In fact, it seemed to be preaching the opposite: There is meaning to be found in even the saddest lives and most tragic stories. But that meaning isn’t found in something intangible like patriotism or even idealism; it’s found in the relationships we form with each other.

Nowhere was that message projected more loudly and more clearly than in the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. From the start, the show could have been a depressing nihilistic slog: We’re essentially watching two people doing horrible things for what we know is the losing side in the Cold War. But their story has never really been about that. Even as we watched their situation grow more perilous and we watched the two of them becoming increasingly burdened by what they were asked to do, we were also watching them find a meaning to their lives and their partnership beyond their cause. Their role as spies had a greater purpose than just fighting a losing battle; it led to a real marriage—a genuine human connection.

That’s why the much-maligned fifth season of the show will always be one I look back on fondly. Where many people saw only plot stagnation and increasing bleakness in the form of Philip’s growing sense of discontent and depression, I saw a story about a woman learning how to love her husband even as he was pulling away from the cause that brought them together. Season Five was, in my opinion, an intimate and moving study of Elizabeth finding some meaning in her life independent of her job and her cause. Her choice to marry her husband as herself—not the self the Center created but the truest version of her—was the most meaningful act in five seasons’ worth of character development for Elizabeth. Their marriage was just for them—the KGB couldn’t find out about it—and that made it the kind of daring act of love that, on this show, is heroic in its humanity.

The same could be said for Elizabeth’s choice at the end of that season—to sacrifice her professional partnership with Philip because she could see that spying was destroying him as a human being. It was the most human and compassionate thing we’ve ever seen Elizabeth do—acknowledging that his mental and emotional well-being mean something not just to him, but also to her—and it was the culmination of years of growth. It was the very antithesis of a nihilistic moment: It was the admission that Philip means something more to Elizabeth than a partner in spy work; his life has value beyond what he can do for Russia, and she sees that.

All of that beautiful character and relationship development that was presented to us in Season Five has made the start of Season Six a bit jarring, to say the least. I can appreciate the tragic irony of it all: Elizabeth’s most humane and loving act became the catalyst for her descent into the almost inhumanly disconnected figure she is in 1987. But just because I can appreciate it, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The Americans has always been heavy, but it never felt completely hopeless. Even when it’s seemed clear that the entire Jennings family will never make it out of all of this alive, there was always hope that their fate might be like Nina’s—tragic but meaningful, not for political reasons but for personal ones. And I still fully believe the show will end this way—with the human connections between characters being the most important thing when all is said and done. But it’s become harder this season to hold on to that belief.

The divide between Philip and Elizabeth has been handled brilliantly by the actors, but it’s made what’s always been a hard show to handle border on “too tough to take” territory. The setup for a final showdown of Philip vs. Elizabeth is clearly there, and while that’s always been an option the show could take, it’s an option that makes the entire journey we’ve been on feel not just tragic, but also meaningless.

On the surface, the differences between them have always hinted at the potential for explosive conflict, but on a deeper level, the show seemed to be building a story about the bonds that mean more than ideologies. My gut says that this will still ultimately be the direction the story takes in the end, but sometimes my hope for it feels as fragile as Elizabeth’s current mental state.

The Americans has always been a Cold War drama with a surprising amount of warmth, and that’s what’s kept me watching even when bodies were being shoved in suitcases and people were being killed on buses to the sounds of “Tainted Love.” That’s what made me connect with these characters, and as this show has taught me, those connections are never meaningless or without worth—even if they break your heart in the end.

 

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8 thoughts on “Holding on to Humanity: My Journey with The Americans (So Far)

  1. What an incredible article! I am such a fan of the show and you have put into words exactly how I feel about the characters and the storyline. I love your analysis of all of it, both how accurate and well-written it is. I’m really looking forward to reading what you’ll have to say as the season unfolds!

  2. What a great write up Katie! I agree this season feels more heartbreaking than normal with Elizabeth and Philip being so distant. It makes sense that this is something the show would want to explore, but a part of me wishes they found a way to do it earlier in the show rather than saving it for the end.

    I also really enjoyed last season. The stakes felt higher than they ever had, but it was easy to root for the Jennings because they had never been closer or more of a team. Now that the team is gone, the high stakes and sense of dread are still there, but as you mentioned, its a little harder to care when that team is no more.

    There were a few moments in this last episode where it looked like both of them were extending an olive branch, but they both ended up closing themselves off again. And now that Philip has made that choice to spy on Elizabeth it feels like that rift has become the size of the grand canyon. It feels like the ultimate betrayal. One that I dont see Elizabeth forgiving, and a part of me doesnt think she should forgive unless Philip has a major change of heart early on.

    This show has had a lot of difficult storylines, but the one that finally broke me is the “Philip awkwardly runs the travel agency and is having money issues” storyline. Elizabeth racking up a body count of innocent bystanders? Totally calm. Yet Philip putting his employees on the spot makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry. That whole storyline has been a major source of anxiety for me this season and I usually have to fast forward through those parts. I guess its just TOO American for me haha.

    I really hope we get some strong relationships to root for soon, because right now everything does feel pretty bleak. The most sympathetic character on the show at the moment is the American negotiator with the sick wife, and that feels wrong after 5 seasons with the Jennings family.

    • Thanks, Shauna! This has been a strange season for me to write about so far because, as we all know, my favorite thing to write about is Philip and Elizabeth and their marriage. So having them be so separated has been a real challenge for me as both a viewer and someone who writes about the show. I’m hoping something changes soon because I’m with you—the relationship between the negotiator and his wife is the most moving and beautiful one of the season so far for me. I think it’s meant to make us think about where Philip and Elizabeth are now (with the wife slowly dying and the husband trying to help her), but it breaks my heart because we get to see so much more love between the minor characters now than we get to with the main characters. I’m really thinking that will have to change before the season is done or else it would be such a waste of Keri and Matthew’s chemistry to have this tension between them all season.

      And I’m so glad I’m not the only one struggling with anxiety over Philip and the travel agency. I know it’s not as immediately stressful as what is going on with Elizabeth, but as someone who manages a team, it makes me want to turn away every time Philip has to talk to his employees in a way that can’t show how much financial trouble they’re in while still getting his point across. Who would have thought the travel agency storyline would get to us more than the murders?

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