This post discusses some minor — and entirely predictable — plot points in the second season of “The Americans.”
For three seasons, “The Americans,” FX’s beautiful, ambitious drama about Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), deep-cover Soviet spies raising their children in the United States, has been the best show on television. It’s no mistake that it’s also one of the most ethically serious shows airing anywhere in any medium, a series that’s not content with the easy cynicism that’s come to define prestige drama.
I’ve written in the past that “The Americans” is one of the more remarkable depictions of any religious faith anywhere in mass media, a series that managed to make Paige Jennings’s (Holly Taylor) conversion to Christianity a radical act that set her on a collision course with her parents. “The Americans” has always been a morally preoccupied show, comparing the Soviet Union and the United States without asserting a false equivalency and examining the toll it exacts on individuals who take it on themselves to carry out evil acts in service of what they believe to be a greater good. But if the third season of “The Americans” involved Paige getting saved, the fourth grapples with what it means to bear the weight of the sins you can’t extirpate.
For some characters, that burden is only beginning to dawn on them. In an early scene, Martha (Alison Wright), the FBI secretary who clandestinely married Clark, one of Philip’s aliases, learns that she’s been saved from the investigation into a pen recorder she planted in her boss’s office, but at a terrible price. Her face twists as she tries to comprehend what has happened, and what sort of person she has become. “I didn’t agree to this. I don’t want this. How could you do that?” she asks Clark, desperate to understand. “What have I done? It’s my fault.”
After Paige revealed her parents’ secret to Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) at the end of last season, she has to confront the fact that living by the tenets of her new faith may have led her to harm her family. “I’m not a liar, Mom. I told you that,” Paige protests at one point. “You put me in this position. You did this to me.”
This focus on sin might seem to cut against the cold, utilitarian calculations of Soviet ideology. But it also exposes the inadequacies of the American culture of self-help.
Philip goes back to EST in hopes it will help him deal with his pervasive guilt, both about his job and an incident of violence from his youth, but the EST instructor can’t even begin to fathom the depths of his torment.
“To forgive yourself, you have to create a space for it to exist. You’re confusing the feelings with the event itself. But they’re different. The kid was bullying you. Why isn’t he asking you for forgiveness? Did you ever talk about it?” the trainer asks him. Afterwards, former neighbor Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner) encourages Philip to accept the absolution he’s been granted, telling him “He’s not saying that if you forgive yourself, that means that you think beating a kid up is okay. He’s just saying that spending the energy pushing it away is what’s making you angry… You need more support.”
What neither of these Americans comprehend is the possibility that Philip’s guilt might not be out of proportion to his crimes. He is suffering, but that suffering, that refusal of absolution, is a great deal of what makes Philip a deeply sympathetic character. If he were a typical anti-hero, Philip’s lethal competence would be the thing that draws the audience to him in spite of ourselves. What makes “The Americans” distinct is that Philip’s skills damn him.
But if EST can’t save Philip and Elizabeth, they still hunger for a system that will explain the world to them. Whether they recognize it or not, their mutual curiosity about EST is a sign that the Soviet worldview is no longer quite sufficient to them. A system that denies Elizabeth a chance to be with her dying mother, or insists that Paige is the property of the state is not one that they can live in forever (at least not without conflict), nor is it one that can provide all of the answers to their questions. “What does EST say about death?” Elizabeth asks Philip at one point. “I don’t know. It never came up,” he tells her.
The Soviet Union and the United States may offer radically different ideas for what it means to live a good life. But when it comes to death and other big questions, these competing ideologies are at a loss.