If you’ve not seen The Americans—currently showing on FX—here’s the premise: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are two travel agents living in the suburbs surrounding Washington D.C. at the start of the Reagan presidency. They are KGB sleeper agents, sent to the U.S. more than fifteen years earlier. Their two children are U.S. citizens, their marriage is in name only, and they are damn good at their job.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell) long ago took a lover, and both use sex as just another tool in their spy arsenal. In one such scene, an asset of Elizabeth’s begins to whip her with his belt. Though she could easily kill him by “twist[ing] the guy’s neck like a Stoli bottle cap,” she meekly endures the S&M interlude.
Of the two, Elizabeth is more dedicated to her job as a KGB agent; she inhabits the role like, say, Isobel Lambert, the very Alpha and ice-veined head of the secretive Committee in Anne Stuart’s Ice series. Her beef with Philip (Matthew Rhys) is that he likes the U.S. too much. In fact, when it got dangerous earlier in the season, he suggested defecting.
Traditional, Reaganesque gender roles are reversed in The Americans. Early on Philip listens to a recording of Elizabeth boinking an asset for information. It’s part of the job, but he does not like it...at all. Were the situations reversed, I don’t think at this point Elizabeth would be nearly as bothered. She is more dedicated to the motherland—Philip is more invested in the “marriage.”
This changes when they capture a high level Soviet defector who had raped Elizabeth when she was a youthful KGB recruit. After Philip learns why she’s beating the hell out of him, he takes over and brutally snaps the man’s neck like a twig. She generally slays her own dragons, but is turned on that he would slay one on her behalf. So much so that after they dissolve the rapist with acid (the family that slays together stays together?), they Do It in the car. The Cold War may continue, but for now their cold marriage is thawing out.
The genius of The Americans is that hardened killers are presented as three-dimensional human beings, just as they were in The Sopranos. Philip is a devoted husband and father in one moment and in another uses an innocent woman’s devotion to her own child to force her to betray her nation.
As ruthless as is Philip, Elizabeth is more so; her belief runs deeper. She’s like a killing machine, but what makes her so dead-eyed is that she lived with Philip for years and years, made two children with him, yet until he kills her rapist, she seems to view him as simply as a comrade with benefits. If this were a romance novel, it would be written by Anne Stuart, Elizabeth would be the man and Philip would be...if not the woman, than a “switch.”
Elizabeth reminds me not only of Isobel, but of Peter, also in Stuart’s Ice series. We know him from Black Ice as a spy who has sex with a man as part of his mission. He’s not gay, he’s not bi-sexual, he just uses his body as a tool to get the job done. In Cold as Ice he tells the heroine that he kissed her to distract her so he could knock her out. She then asks what he would do if he needed to distract a man. Without missing a beat he answers, “I would do the same thing.”
I can totally see Elizabeth doing all of that.
What I can’t see is Elizabeth getting too bothered—at least pre-détente—by hearing Philip having sex with an asset to extract information. And I can’t see it bothering some Stuart heroes, like Bastien (Black Ice), who, after all, sexually overpowers Chloe to figure out her angle, knowing they will be filmed and watched. Or Lucien (Breathless), who plans that his “honeymoon” with Miranda will include her being debauched at an underground sex club for wealthy aristocrats (the Heavenly Host).
When Philip discovers the welts on Elizabeth’s back after visiting her sexually sadistic asset, he vows to go after the man. She won’t allow it. This, mind you, happens after she has decided to make her marriage real. Philip acquiesces almost immediately. I can’t see her backing down so easily were the situation reversed. To use the Alpha metaphor, he’s kind of her bitch.
Certainly Stuart’s heroes would not have behaved like Philip...at least not initially. It is only at the last moment, for instance, after Miranda is naked on a sex altar, that Lucien realizes he doesn’t want her to be sexually debased, no matter how much he wants revenge on her family.
As for Bastien, to protect his cover and his mission he leaves Chloe to a man sure to torture and kill her. By the time he returns, he can smell her burned flesh and see the knife wounds on her arms. But does he put an end to this? Nah. Instead, he tells Hakim, “I'm not going to interfere with your fun. I just thought I'd watch a master at his work.“ Finally, after watching Hakim sear the flesh on her arm man with a burning knife—and just as the man readies to stab her to death—Sebastien kills him.
In the first episode of The Americans, Elizabeth declares marital détente. In the sixth, their cold war resumes when Philip comes to believe that she has betrayed him to their bosses. To get back at her—before assuming his disguise as the mild-mannered “Clark” to visit an unsuspecting, mousy asset—he asks Elizabeth for one of her baubles to give the woman. She gives one to him without batting an eye.
The bauble turns out to be a heart pendant he’d given her as a gift. The symbolism is clear: If he fucks with her, she’ll give him back his heart. In an Anne Stuart novel, this very hurtful moment on Philip’s part would not lead to such a cavalier reaction on Elizabeth’s part...unless she were Isobel Lambert. But on The Americans they go for broke. The coup de grâce at the end of the episode—the feelings of betrayal, the cold-heartedness—again reminds me of Stuart. From TwoP:
At home, Philip...reports back that relations with Martha have been normalized. She asks him what he wants from her, and he says she's already done enough. Then he grabs a blanket from the closet and goes to sleep on the couch. “You're not the only one who got hurt today,” she says, finally opening up to him. She tells him these were the people she trusted most, believed in most and they betrayed her. “The people I trusted most my whole life,” she says. Philip just looks at her and says, “Yeah, I think that says it all.”
Everything begins to change again in episode seven, Duty and Honor. On a mission in New York, Philip works with his first love, another Soviet spy. Though he may seem softer than his wife, we see in this episode that he’s as divorced from his emotion while on the job as she is; he beats his old flame badly so they can use photos taken afterward to blackmail their target. Later, when they are in bed together, Elizabeth calls, asking that he come home. Looks like both are capable of being switches. She turns into a real wife and like many an American husband, he lies to her.
Just as with many Anne Stuart romances, there is a secondary romance going on. In itself deserves an entire article because though viewers felt it coming on for weeks, it actually came into fruition in Duty and Honor. Perhaps we can discuss it in the comments.
The Americans fascinates on multiple levels, making good use of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War presidency, Al Haig telling reporters “I’m in charge,” and the histrionic paranoia on both sides that accompanied the notion of mutually assured destruction. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings make it personal, even for those not old enough to remember “duck and cover.” We’re not supposed to root for them because they’re the bad guys, but we do. Will they make it through the Cold War alive and safe, and as a couple? Stay tuned.
Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Keep up with her on her My Obsessions tumblr blog, Goodreads (where she spends much of her time as late), follow her on Pinterest, or on @laurie_gold, where she mostly tweets about publishing news and [probably too often] politics.