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Is 'The Americans' Season Two Ignoring a Crucial Religious Question?

Thompson on Hollywood By Terry Curtis Fox | Thompson on Hollywood May 16, 2014 at 4:56PM

Even Russian spies can't dis religion on American television. That's an odd lesson from the second season of "The Americans," a show that has built its well-deserved reputation by crossing boundary after boundary, which were once immutable on advertiser-supported networks. (Season two spoilers abound.)
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'The Americans'
'The Americans'

Even Russian spies can't dis religion on American television.

That's an odd lesson from the second season of "The Americans," a show that has built its well-deserved reputation by crossing boundary after boundary, which were once immutable on advertiser-supported networks. (Season two spoilers abound.)

Start with the fact that we actually identify with "Phillip" and "Elizabeth Jennings," the aliases of the deeply undercover Russian agents who are the protagonists of the series. In drama, we always identify with the protagonists, no matter their allegiance or what they do. (In this, former CIA agent and series creator Joe Weisberg follows Aeschylus, who fought at Marathon but wrote "The Persians," our oldest extant drama, from his enemies' point of view.) 

The Jennings' peculiar marriage -- arranged by the KGB, supportive of honey traps, and subject, at least in Elizabeth's case, to unauthorized desire -- does not merely accept extra-marital sex: it actually demands it.

How they deal with this -- precariously -- is fascinating. Both are jealous and both accept what the other does. They kill but not with impunity. They justify their actions as acts of war (and Weisberg is explicit that they are simply doing what we do in return, an attitude typical of former agents) but at huge emotional cost. Killing is seen as both horrendous and a fact of Cold War life, leaving us, the audience, standing on extremely unstable ground.

Questions of loyalty and belief are inevitable aspects of any spy drama. In season one, "The Americans" dealt with such questions in a traditional espionage manner. Phillip is a bit too comfortable with America's materialist comforts; neighbor/FBI agent Stan falls in love with a Russian woman, fissuring a marriage whose rules are violable while placing Stan in a position where (as of last week's episode, SPOILER ALERT) seems about to have to choose between loyalty to his lover and to his country.

But this season, an even more interesting test of beliefs comes into play: the Jennings' daughter, Paige, has been seduced by an Evangelical church. On the one hand, this is a beautiful, series-specific, story: the Jennings marry and have children so as to go undercover as a typical American middle-class family. To maintain their cover, they have to raise their children with values that are contrary to their own.

Of course, children often do not share their parents' value system. (Think of the generational shift on gay rights as an obvious example.)  The story resonates because, like the series' treatment of extra-marital sex, it examines a social issues obliquely, and with a dramatic center. What do you do if your child begins to believe in something that is antithetical to your core values?

Yet this is one instance where "The Americans"' solution is not reflective of the problem it raises.

This article is related to: The Americans, Keri Russell, Television, FX


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.