This post discusses the Feb. 18 episode of “The Americans.”
Deep-cover KGB spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) usually have a lot on their hands, and the third season of “The Americans” is proving no different. But in between broken teeth, a new handler (Frank Langella), a neighbor dabbling in EST and a troublesome fake marriage, they have another problem: what to get their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), for her birthday. They debate a necklace vs. a 10-speed bicycle and squabble when Philip presents Paige with an extra present, a record, without asking Elizabeth about it. But it turns out that their teenager wants something very different: dinner with her pastor and his wife and permission to get baptized.
For a show full of twists that range from the outrageously clever to the breathtakingly grotesque, Paige’s big revelation ought to feel small. But instead, it’s a profound challenge to the beliefs of her communist, atheist parents. And it works because “The Americans,” along with the History Channel’s “Vikings,” has done something that almost nothing else in pop culture dares to attempt: It depicts Christianity as a seismic force, something capable of producing profound transformation in both individuals and society.
Pop culture may fancy itself a cosmopolitan industry, but movies and television often seem relatively baffled by people of faith. Jews and Muslims get managed by a kind of shorthand. The former are always secular, the latter divided between brilliant extremists and moderates working in law enforcement.
We at least get a range of Christians, from the devoutly Catholic obstetrician Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) on “The Mindy Project” to the rigid evangelical former vice president Sally Langston (Kate Burton) on “Scandal,” who suffers a breakdown after stretching her sense of self-justification to the limit and beyond. But often, pop culture treats Christianity as if it’s a symptom for — or at least of — something else.
Danny’s Catholicism is a powerful expression of his ethnic Italian identity. On “Parks and Recreation,” a show I otherwise adore, Christianity seems to give Marcia (Darlene Hunt) and Marshall Langman (Todd Sherry), a grandstanding Pawnee couple, a shtick that lets them deny that he’s gay and distract from any suggestion that he might be by accusing everyone else of immorality. In “30 Rock,” Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) practiced a cultlike brand of evangelical Christianity that was a quick way for the show to express that he was a hick, though the series did acknowledge that his faith gave him a resilience that his supposedly more-sophisticated colleagues lacked. And if Christianity isn’t acting as a cover for or a signifier of something else, it often produces a pleasant blankness, as it did with the dull Joe Hart (Samuel Larsen), who was brought on to “Glee” to provide a sympathetic Christian character.
Not so in “The Americans.” Over the past two seasons, Paige’s attraction to Christianity has dovetailed with a more sinister plot: the KGB’s request that Philip and Elizabeth recruit their daughter, turning her into a second-generation, American-born spy for the agency. This season we learn that Elizabeth has been accompanying Paige to church, convinced that what’s drawing her daughter to faith is the opportunity it offers her to work on issues such as the anti-nuclear movement. “Ideologically, she’s open to the right ideas,” Elizabeth reports to Gabriel (Langella), who has asked for a status report.
But after Paige asks whether Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife can be his guests for her birthday dinner, Paige and Elizabeth start to recognize that their daughter is growing away from them in a very different direction from what they’d expected. Over dinner, they learn that Paige doesn’t want anything of this world, be it a necklace or a bike, capitalism or communism. “What I really want this year is to get baptized,” Paige tells them. “It’s kind of like an initiation,” Pastor Tim explains to a confused Henry. “You wash away your old self and make yourself clean for Jesus Christ,” Paige tells her brother eagerly.
It’s a profoundly disturbing concept to Philip and Elizabeth. Where most shows might suggest that behind the veil of baptism lies only human psychological needs that can be filled by religious rituals, the couple now perceive profound mysteries, a draw to something they can’t understand or divert into another channel. Paige’s faith threatens the couple as communists, as atheists and simply as parents of a teenage girl who thought they knew their daughter. By shifting the baseline perspective of their main characters, “The Americans” gives Christianity the real power it so often lacks in pop culture.
That makes “The Americans” an excellent pairing for “Vikings,” Michael Hirst’s very different period drama, which returns to the History Channel for its third season at 10 p.m. tonight. Hirst’s series is set more than a millennium prior to “The Americans,” in an age before technology and psychology stripped religion of its mystery and authority. His characters start the series as pagans: They consult seers, travel to Uppsala to perform rituals and even offer themselves up as sacrifices to their gods. These scenes are staged beautifully, preserving both their violence and the great fear and joy of ancient religious worship.
The Vikings’ relative unity of belief is challenged, though, when Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), who rises from farmer to king, captures a Christian monk named Athelstan (George Blagden) on a raiding expedition into England. Ragnar finds himself compelled by Athelstan’s explanation of his faith in Jesus, while Athelstan is drawn to the rough decency of Viking society and the religious mysteries of Viking worship.
“Vikings” is, in effect, a story about moving from a monocultural world to a multicultural one. Athelstan’s story becomes an illustration of the costs of that transition. Because he participated in Viking worship to survive, he is crucified as a heretic on his return to England. But he survives and comes back to live with Ragnar and his family, who allow him to love both Jesus and the Viking gods. We tend to dismiss both religious torture and self-mortification as relics of the past, but in Athelstan’s suffering, we can see the true pull of his beliefs. They are not flimsy things to be cast aside simply to avoid pain, but real and deep parts of him.
On “The Americans,” Paige hasn’t yet faced a similar test. But it’s exciting to know that we have a television season where, on at least two shows, the contest for a person’s soul is a serious business.