The Americans is a show about a lot of things: Cold War politics, international espionage, bureaucracy, ideological conflicts, and, of course, WIGS. But at its heart, it’s a show about marriage. It’s a show about trust, intimacy, honesty, and what it means to be truly seen in a world where we all are wearing some form of disguise more often than not. And that’s what’s made it stand out in both the sea of spy shows that have developed into their own genre over the years as well as the sea of antihero-driven dramas that have emerged in this Golden Age of Television. Instead of being focused on missions of the week or the internal struggles and dark deeds of one (usually male) character, the show has always been a kind of love story—a story that first and foremost cares about a husband and wife and how the world around them affects their union, and vice versa. From the pilot onward, the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings has always been the show’s driving force and its emotional core, and it seems that after a season of separation and tension, that relationship is poised to be at the center of what’s sure to be an emotional series finale.
My love for Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage is well-documented around these parts. It’s what initially drew me to the show, and it’s what’s kept my viewing experience from ever becoming too bleak. Even when bodies were being shoved in suitcases and throats were being slashed, one look from husband to wife had the ability to fill my heart with hope that even in the worst circumstances, something beautiful can be built. Even in a world of lies, something honest can exist between two people.
That’s why—despite the murder and the blackmail and the sex with other people—The Americans is the piece of fiction that I think best explains why people get married, why someone would choose to commit to another person for their rest of their life. And it’s because being married means having a partner. Even if your life doesn’t involve chopping up bodies in parking garages, it probably will involve raising kids and balancing careers and making big decisions in the same way Philip and Elizabeth have learned to do, and it’s nice to know you don’t have to do those things alone. And even if you don’t have to lie for a living, we all hide parts of ourselves from the world—but as Philip and Elizabeth have shown us, being married means finding the one person you can be your true self with. It means finding the one person who understands you better than anyone else, the one person you can be honest with, and the one person you know has your back when it feels like the world is against you. Even though there have been times when Philip and Elizabeth have struggled to be those things for each other, they always come home in the end. And that’s what marriage is more than anything else—it’s home. It’s the person who you stand beside when the rest of the world is falling apart around you, and that’s who Philip and Elizabeth have become for each other.
The journey Philip and Elizabeth have gone on—from strangers to fake married coworkers to co-parents to falling in love to getting married for real and all the stops, starts, and separations in between—has made for one of the most compelling relationship explorations I’ve ever seen in a piece of fiction. Brought to life through the incredible talents and heart-stopping chemistry of Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell (whose own working relationship turned into a real-life romantic partnership thanks to this show), Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are something special. As such, I wanted to celebrate the end of their journey (in whatever way it may end tomorrow) with a look back at their best moments.
These are the scenes, lines, and looks that I always come back to when I think of why The Americans told one of the most subtly affecting love stories of this Peak TV period. There were so many great moments between them that it felt nearly impossible to cut it to just 10. I hope you share your own favorites in the comments so we can keep the discussion going!
1. Elizabeth lets Philip in (1.01: Pilot)
I can trace my love for The Americans back to one specific moment from the show’s pilot: Philip’s voice cracking when asking Elizabeth how Timoshev hurt her and then him killing her rapist with his bare hands as she watched, completely transfixed. In that moment, both the audience and Elizabeth had to confront an essential truth of Philip’s character: Elizabeth always comes first. He will give up everything for her, and he will choose her and her needs over himself and his needs every time. And once Elizabeth finally let herself believe that someone had her back and truly cared about her, everything changed. It led to the perfect “In the Air Tonight” love scene, but even more importantly, it led to Elizabeth breaking the rules by telling Philip about her past and revealing her real name. That simple act of emotional intimacy, punctuated by the most adoring look I’ve ever seen in Philip’s eyes as she intertwined their fingers, showed that Elizabeth had found something more important than her orders to keep her true self hidden; she’d found someone who would love that true self.
2. “Come home.” (1.13: The Colonel)
With just two words, a broken marriage began to heal. As Elizabeth laid on a makeshift hospital bed after getting shot in a narrow escape from the FBI, she used her native language to ask Philip to come home to her. This wasn’t Elizabeth asking Philip to pretend to be her husband again; this was Nadezhda asking Mikhail to come back to her in the most real way she knew. To see such a self-sufficient character like Elizabeth make such a vulnerable request said so much about what their relationship had come to mean to her, and Philip’s absolutely heartbreaking reaction showed he understood the magnitude of those words. If you want to know why Matthew Rhys is one of the best in the business, watch this scene again and try not to cry when the camera focuses on his eyes above their joined hands. It’s impossible.
3. Philip drives straight through (2.02: Cardinal)
This is my favorite example of a small moment on this show speaking volumes about what marriage means. As Elizabeth was dealing with PTSD following her shooting and the brutal death of two other agents, Philip had to spend time away from her with Martha (the woman he married under an alias to get information). But as soon as he heard the distraction and anxiety in the long pauses in his phone conversation with Elizabeth, he abandoned the mission, canceled on Martha, and drove home to be with Elizabeth. And when he showed up at home, the soft relief on Elizabeth’s face was stunning; Elizabeth was openly happy that her husband chose her over the mission, and that said everything about how much she’d come to need him at this point. And the gentle concern in Rhys’s voice as he asked her if she was okay makes me melt. For being such a small moment, it’s their entire relationship in microcosm, and it puts tears in my eyes every time I watch it.
4. Philip and Elizabeth talk about icicles (2.05: The Deal)
I have a soft spot for any moment that features Philip and Elizabeth talking about their pasts, and this is one of the best. After tough assignments, they faced the dawning of a new day the best way they know how: together. Wrapped in each other’s arms on their couch, they reminisced about icicles and listened to their kids get ready for the day, perfectly symbolizing the idea that they share everything—memories of a past in a home they’ll never see again, a future represented by the sounds of their children, and a present moment of peace amid the chaos of their dual lives as spies and parents. The quiet intimacy of this moment has always left me deeply moved, and I think it speaks beautifully to the idea that these two characters have created a sense of home for each other in between two countries and two identities.
5. Elizabeth offers some kitchen table comfort (2.10: Yousaf)
In one of the gentlest scenes in the series, Elizabeth comforts Philip after he loses his cool with Paige. This moment showed what a multifaceted character Elizabeth Jennings is. She can kill people without a second thought, but she can also take her husband’s face in her hands with a shocking softness and embrace him with no ulterior motives beyond wanting to be there for him. This scene is such a great showcase for Rhys and Russell’s breathtaking chemistry, and it’s a reminder that marriage means having someone to hold you together when you feel like you’re falling apart.
6. The world’s most romantic tooth extraction (3.03: Open House)
This scene is everything that makes The Americans special. It takes the brutal realities of life as a spy—in this case, needing to pull a tooth at home because the FBI is watching dental offices—and uses them to reveal a truth about relationships. This scene is deeply intimate—in many ways, it’s even more intimate than a sex scene. And in that intimacy (played once again with wordless brilliance by Rhys and Russell), a stunning level of trust is put on display. Elizabeth was in a horribly vulnerable state—mouth open, tears of pain welling up in her eyes—but she trusted her husband not to cause her any more pain than was absolutely necessary. And Philip did his best to honor that trust and to treat her with care. There’s no more honest definition of love than giving someone the power to hurt you but trusting that they won’t, and that’s what this scene is all about.
7. Making it real (3.05: Salang Pass)
Marriage isn’t easy. Sometimes you have to make it real—when you’re tired or angry or disconnected for a million other reasons that make it hard to feel a spark with the person sleeping on the other side of the bed. And that’s a hard truth to reveal, but it’s an important one. And when Philip opened up to Elizabeth about his sex training, he ended up sharing much more than just the brutal realities of his past. Faced with Elizabeth’s insecurities about his relationships with the other women in his life, he revealed that he makes it real with everyone at times—even her. But meeting her vulnerability with his own, he gently told her that in this moment of complete honesty, he didn’t have to make it real with her. In the world these characters inhabit, emotional intimacy means so much more than sex, and this scene shows that the intimacy Philip and Elizabeth have developed is something they’ve never had before—and will never have again—with anyone else.
8. “I love you.” (4.07: Travel Agents)
The Americans is a show about marriage, but it’s not a show that casually throws around the word “love.” So when a character says “I love you,” it’s a big deal. And there’s perhaps no better example than Philip telling Elizabeth he loves her—with the kind of frustrated, how-do-you-not-get-it certainty that only Rhys can deliver—after she asks him—with the kind of hesitant vulnerability only Russell can project underneath layers of disguise—if he’d be happier with Martha. Those three little words mean everything to both the man saying them and the woman hearing them, and they mean everything to those of us watching, too, because they come as such a surprise. Philip’s love for Elizabeth is the most obvious thing in the world to him, but it’s still not obvious to her—a woman for whom love has always been a difficult thing to accept. And watching the truth seep into her bones as she kisses him before sending him off to bed with another woman—another wife—is the kind of messy, magical moment only this show could create.
9. “It’s us.” (5.05: “Lotus 1-2-3”)
Season Five of The Americans was not its most popular season, but I will continue to make the case that people who found it boring weren’t paying attention to the right stuff. Tectonic shifts were taking place under the surface of this marriage throughout the whole season in quiet moments like this one—as Elizabeth suggests to Philip that he let her handle the dirtier aspects of their work before he cuts her off with two words that sum up the entire show: “It’s us.” And in those two words, the entire trajectory of the rest of their journey was set. Despite the fact that Elizabeth’s suggestion (and more) eventually came to pass, at the end of the day, it all comes back to two people and the partnership they share. No matter how hard things get or how far apart they may seem, they’re an “us.” Back when I wrote about this scene the first time, I likened those words to wedding vows, and I still think that they’re two of the most important words ever said on this show.
10. A real wedding (5.10: Darkroom)
I said it more than a year ago, and I’ll say it again now (and not just because Father Andrei was the reason Philip and Elizabeth are on the run): Philip and Elizabeth’s decision to get married in a Russian Orthodox ceremony using their real, Russian names was the most significant thing to ever happen on The Americans. It was the most dangerous thing they ever did: They let another person see their real faces and know their real names, and they did this without the permission of (and against the orders of) the Center. They essentially risked everything to honor their true selves—Mikhail and Nadezhda—and to make what had once been a lie as real as it gets. This wedding symbolized their commitment to each other over everything else, and it symbolized a choice they were able to make for themselves after having so little agency in their lives for so long. It was one of the most shocking things to ever happen on a show that’s been filled with surprises, and it feels right that it’s this moment that the show keeps calling back to in its final hours. From Philip remembering his vows to Elizabeth grabbing their rings before she leaves their home for the last time, it’s clear that they both see this wedding as a defining moment in their lives—and, as such, it was also a defining moment for the show.