Exploring True Intimacy and Marriage in FX’s ‘The Americans’

By Alexa Brown

Over the last decade, FX has produced some of the most highly acclaimed shows, including Fargo, Atlanta, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Shield. However, arguably the best FX show ever produced, as well as one of the most underrated and underappreciated dramas from the golden age of television, is The Americans. A drama series about a couple of undercover KGB agents posing as a normal American family during the Reagan administration, The Americans explores marriage, loyalty, patriotism, trust and intimacy, as well as traditional family dynamics. Despite critical acclaim, major nominations were not received by the cast and crew until its final season, in which the finale “START” won both Matthew Rhys ‘Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series’ for his devastating performance, and showrunners Joe Fields and Joe Weisberg for ‘Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series’. Being one of the last FX shows to join Hulu, the show remains under the radar to this day, struggling to capture the attention of even streaming services’ most frequent users. On the contrary, it depicts one of the most intriguing and complex marriages ever portrayed on screen. With the chemistry between leading characters, nuanced slow-burn writing and a terrific soundtrack, The Americans remains a drama so well worth watching that it will have viewers hooked from the opening pilot sequence right up to the finale’s final shot. 

Philip (Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) appear to be a picture-perfect couple with two kids and a nice house in suburban DC. However, their self run travel agency business is a front for the fact they are actually undercover KGB Russian spies, which becomes an immediate issue from the pilot. When FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who specializes in tracking down Soviet spies working in America, moves in across the street, Jennings becomes paranoid about whether the FBI are onto them or if it is simply a cruel, ironic coincidence. The first episode also encapsulates the drastic difference in the loyalties of this ‘couple’, as well as their differing views on jobs and marriage. The show does a great job at subverting American stereotypes of gender roles, in particular men as being more willing to commit dangerous acts for the greater good or to fulfill their own agenda. Here, Elizabeth is the hard-liner — cold, calculated, and fiercely loyal to Mother Russia — and doesn’t hesitate when receiving orders from superiors, even when they are morally questionable. Despite the motherly love depicted, she does not have natural maternal instincts, and rather is pained by raising children in a country she actively fights against. Her devotion to KBG and communism juxtaposes Philip’s, the  all-American dad who has grown accustomed to prioritizing his family over any duty to the Soviet Union. He hopes to defect in order to protect his family, even if it means betraying his homeland. Elizabeth, on the other hand, cannot fathom the idea of betraying Russia, even if that means putting her family in danger. It is also revealed from the outset that Philip has harbored unrequited feelings for Elizabeth since they were assigned to each other to pose as an undercover couple, whilst she views their marriage as nothing more than a work arrangement and simply followed the instructions to have children as a means of deepening their cover. 

A still of Keri Russell as Elizabeth in 'The Americans'. Two lit candles are next to her, and she looks longingly at Matthew Rhys's character Philip.
Image courtesy of FX

The couple start by capturing a Soviet defector, Timoshev (David Vadim). Philip almost hands him over to Stan, until he finds out that Timoshev raped Elizabeth when she was in KGB training 15 years earlier. He instead decides to kill Timoshev, refusing to betray his wife by handing over her rapist in exchange for immunity. He will always put her and their kids first, even if it means risking his comfortable American life, an act that finally opens Elizabeth’s eyes to Philip’s allegiance regardless of the cause or what brought them together in the first place. Typically in antihero shows — as seen in The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men — the husband is more ruthless and secretive, while the stay-at-home mother remains completely oblivious to what kind of work her husband actually does. The most notable examples include teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White (Bryan Cranston) or mob-boss patriarch Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). The Americans challenges this trope by having both Philip and Elizabeth on the same playing field. Although both skilled and intelligent spies, Philip is portrayed as having more of a conscience when it comes to the heinous orders they are forced to complete. He represents the disillusioning consequences brutal work wields, and the dilemma of differing expectations of a man by his country vs his family. By comparison, Russell nails the role of an ice-cold killing wife, thrillingly different from her beloved role as sweet college student Felicity Porter in Felicity. 

One of the best things about The Americans are the subtle nuances throughout it. There are small yet significant moments of intimacy and trust between the two characters that can almost go unnoticed. It isn’t the kind of show where characters declare their love or express feelings explicitly, but rather the actions and sacrifices show how much they mean to each other. One scene that stands out in particular is the tooth extraction from season three episode three “Open House,” in which Philip is forced to remove Elizabeth’s broken tooth with pliers after a run-in with FBI agent Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas). It is brutal and gruesome to watch. No words are spoken during, yet Russell and Rhys’ pained expressions are most telling. The scene ends with a close-up shot of Russell’s eyes that express so much relief and love towards her husband, the only person she trusts to help relieve her of her pain without hurting her more than absolutely necessary. This really cements the trust and intimacy that has grown between the two over the first three seasons. Another stand-out is in season six episode seven “Harvest,” in which Elizabeth is forced to go to Chicago for Thanksgiving to complete a dangerous mission that involves extricating another KGB agent who is under CIA surveillance. By this point, Philip has quit his life as a spy and is now a full-time travel agent. Elizabeth has agreed to take on all of the responsibilities so as to help her husband’s mental health, although this exacerbates her own feelings of work pressure and stress. Upon arriving in Chicago, however, she realizes that the mission will be nearly impossible to complete alone, and assumes Philip’s volunteering to help with the mission following his multiple years of retirement. Although he has been forced to complete unspeakable acts in the name of Mother Russia and since grown to resent the organization, he doesn’t hesitate to rejoin his wife as a team in a very dangerous assignment. His retirement from the KGB along with Elizabeth’s encouragement speaks volumes about how their relationship has evolved over the series. 

A still of Matthew Rhys as Philip in 'The Americans'. A lit candle is next to him in frame, and he looks longingly at Keri Russell's character 'Elizabeth'.
Image courtesy of FX

Whereas in the pilot Elizabeth kept Philip at arm’s length, never speaking to each other about their previous lives back in Russia, their developing relationship emphasises a newfound closeness, although one can’t help but wonder if their relationship would work out in ‘normal’ circumstances had they not been spies. For most of the series they both knew that as long as Elizabeth remained the fierce believer of Mother Russia, Philip would also remain a KGB agent. However, in season five, Elizabeth appears the most concerned for her husband that she has ever been. She goes to lengths in order to avoid putting the two of them in dangerous situations and honeypots that she normally wouldn’t protest against. In that season finale, she tearfully tells him, “I don’t want to see you like this anymore,” before admitting he should become a full-time travel agent. Season one Elizabeth would never have believed that just a few years later she would be willing to make such a sacrifice for her ‘fake husband’. Their marriage is anything but normal or easy to navigate, but these scenes represent why people choose to commit to each other for life: to have a partner by your side who ensures you don’t have to suffer through the hard times alone.