Mar 20 2013 11:45am

Cold as Ice: The Americans’s Deliciously Twisted Romance

Philip, Elizabeth, Paige, and Henry in The AmericansIf 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 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.”

Black Ice by Anne StuartElizabeth 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 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.

Philip and Elizabeth in The AmericansIn 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.”

Philip and his old flameEverything 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.

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Darlene Marshall
1. DarleneMarshall
My new "must-watch" TV. I think it's especially enjoyable to those of us who lived through those years, and seeing Phillip and Elizabeth wonder if Reagan is insane. I was also struck by Phillip's statement that he sees what he does as preventing war. To the FBI, they're dirty commie spies. In Phillip's mind, he's a hero of the people--and maybe the entire world.

Awesome show, and good analysis comparing it to Stuart's novels.
Laurie Gold
2. LaurieGold
Darlene, my favorite bit of crazy was the Soviets thinking Al Haig was about to do a coup d'etat because he said, "I'm in charge."
Heather Waters
3. HeatherWaters
I am crazy about this show. Didn't think I would be at first but a marathon sucked me in and now I can't get enough! Looking forward to the new episode tonight.
4. AdeleAshworth
I love, Love, LOVE this show. After six (?) weeks, I'm now starting to marvel at the twists! Does Philip love Elizabeth (as I thought in the beginning), or is it just a job as evidenced by his lie to her about Irina? Or did he lie about Irina because he *does* love Elizabeth and doesn't want to hurt her (like real husbands would)? Will it turn out that Nina is a spy who's using Stan instead of the other way around? (I mean, she's cold and has no problem sleeping her way to safety, so is she wrapping him emotionally around her lovely body?) Did Gaad (Richard Thomas) set Stan up with Nina (or lead him in that direction) knowing he'd get attached ("Did she have you for breakfast, Stan?)? Every episode draws me in more because it's becoming a show in which the viewer has no idea who to trust. Who's lying to whom? Who's spying on whom? Who, exactly, is the good guy? But, as in good novels and movies, when the viewer/reader loves the bad guy characters, you know it's very well written. BTW, I've never read Stuart, but I kept thinking, wow, does Irina look a LOT like Julia Quinn or what?!
Heather Waters
5. HeatherWaters
@AdeleAshworth -- I know what you mean about not knowing who to trust. It's fun, huh?

I actually got to thinking that maybe Irina was lying about her son being Philip's (if she even has one, who knows!), like maybe she was sent to test whether he'd consider defecting and she used the idea that he had another son somewhere (with a woman he loved vs. Elizabeth, whom the Russians might assume he doesn't love) to further try to lure him into falling into the trap. After all, when Philip later asks if the boy is real, Irina says that nothing is real but duty and honor. Could be nothing there, but I was definitely a little suspicious of her...

As for why he lied, I took it as further evidence that he does love Elizabeth, though I'm still confused about why he slept with Irina at all when he and E. seem to finally be getting somewhere. Maybe he thought of it as a sort of good-bye, and that Elizabeth wouldn't care, but after the phone call he knew she might actually be upset. I don't know! They're really hard people to read. I'm looking forward to see how it all plays out.
6. AdeleAshworth
I thought the same things you did! I really felt Philip was disturbed when Elizabeth called, but then he's still doubting her loyalty to him (does she love the USSR more than her loyalty to him and their kids). It's my impression (could be totally wrong) that he slept with Irina because he used to love her and wanted to test the feelings (especially if he feels he's fallen for Elizabeth). But when she called it crashed in on him and he couldn't say he missed her too when Irina was in bed with him. Besides, he's still pissed, I think. But the fact that he didn't go with Irina means to me that he's faced reality and that he CAN'T trust that she has a son at all, much less know if it's his, and he CAN'T trust that she wasn't setting him up by the homeland to test his loyalty to his job. Her whole persona could be a lie. How would he know? That's what they're trained to do. And I think underlying all of this is the fact that these two love their American kids. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out. I think he could leave Elizabeth (though probably not kill her if ordered to) but not the kids. Parental love is too strong. It's going to be fascinating to see what develops with the kids. I think Henry hitting the pedophile in the head with a beer bottle was really telling. He did it, and at a really young age, and yet his sister seemed the least upset by the ordeal.

I just love the fact that it's so hard to trust any character! There isn't one who makes me trust what they're doing and saying and yet I like them all. What makes it interesting, I think, is that as spys, we (the viewers) know that they can't trust anyone, either. Not spouses, employers, comrades. It's a fascinating dynamic. What do they REALLY feel? Who knows? LOL. BTW, it's been given a second season.
Darlene Marshall
7. DarleneMarshall
@redline--I too wondered if Irina was lying about her and Phillip having a son. Based on what happened to him earlier, he's got to think she may have been testing his loyalty.

Haven't watched last night's episode yet, but I'm looking forward to it.
Heather Waters
8. HeatherWaters
@AdeleAshworth -- I like your read of Philip's motives w/r/t Irina much better than mine. That makes a lot of sense, that he was kind of testing himself and his feelings (and that he's still pissed at Elizabeth, which makes sense, and then there's the fact that he's loved her for years while she felt she could only ever talk to Gregory) before Elizabeth's phone call messed with his head. Their reactions in last night's episode were really interesting too (and touched on what you said about their love for their kids!), but I won't ruin it if you haven't watched yet.

I think you're right that at this point, they could separate, and deal with that, but that their love for their kids is already very real and they wouldn't deal with not seeing them as much well at all. But I do hope they get to the point where they care about each other that much, because I want to see it!

Yes, I saw the Season 2 news. VERY happy about that.

@darlenemarshall -- Okay, glad it wasn't just me. You'll have to let me know what you think of last night's episode.

Our conversation is making me wonder if we should try recaps of The Americans. I'd love to talk about it more with fellow fans!
Laurie Gold
9. LaurieGold
What do you all make of Stan and his wife...Stan and Nina...and Stan and John-Boy?
Heather Waters
10. HeatherWaters
@LaurieGold -- Hmm, good question. I like Stan and I like Nina, but their story line feels pretty cliched. Plus, I do like Stan's wife and feel really bad for her. That said, I do think Stan/Nina will probably lead to some fireworks, which'll make for good drama.
Darlene Marshall
11. DarleneMarshall
@redline_: After this week's episode...


We don't know what happened during Nina's conversation with Arkady. She told Stan she was promoted. But was she? Or was she co-opted into being a double agent? Or did she volunteer to be a double agent? I think Nina's a player in all of this, not a poor commie waif in need of rescue, which is the fantasy playing out in Stan's head.
Heather Waters
12. HeatherWaters
@darlenemarshall -- I could not agree more. She's a smart one and is playing him like a fiddle--and why not? He's being an idiot and, like you said, has this whole fantasy that he's her white knight going on in his head.
Laurie Gold
13. LaurieGold
After watching yesterday's episode, I agree that Stan is off in fantasy land. I thought the KGB boss who told Elizabeth about Philip and Irina was not doing it out of sisterhood. What I don't know is whether that break in his voice, where it seemed like he was going to cry to save his marriage was genuine. What I think is even more intriguing is that the house of cards might fall because of a jealous FBI agent stalking Martha.
14. emmel
Absolutely love this show, love the relationships on it. I have to say, one character who fascinates me is Stan's wife. Wondering what she will do about their relationship (or lack thereof) makes for some interesting viewing. And the Elizabeth/Philip story is fantastic. I do hope they do make their relationship work, mainly because that makes for a much more interesting story than "they just live in the same space, it's all about the job." (And am I the only one amused that they're named after the Queen of England and the Duke of Edinborough?)
Darlene Marshall
15. DarleneMarshall
@emmel--I never made the Queen/Prince Phillip connection. Thanks for that. Not only is it worth a grin, but it emphasizes that Elizabeth is the Alpha in this couple. Phillip's the consort, though that may change.

I'm wondering if they'll try to coopt Stan's unhappy wife into giving them info or access. That would be intriguing.
Heather Waters
16. HeatherWaters
@emmel @darlenemarshall -- Wow, that didn't even occur to me! Definitely interesting symbolically.


Heard Stan's wife will be upped to a regular for Season 2, so sounds like she'll play a bigger role in some way... It WOULD make sense for Elizabeth and Phil to bring her into their spy games more, to get more info/access.
17. Laurie Evans
I LOVE this show! At first I was like, eh...but then I really got into the romance storylines. So many twists and turns.
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