There’s a scene about halfway through the final season of “The Americans,” FX’s drama about married-with-kids Soviet superspies living undercover as an American family during the Reagan years, that I can’t stop thinking about. The father, Philip, stops by to see his college-age daughter Paige, a U.S. citizen who has recently been recruited into the spy fold.
He tries to talk to Paige about how her sparring skills — she recently drew attention to herself during a bar fight — may make her feel powerful, but it’s clear he wants to warn her about getting overconfident. Like most parents, he gets the brush off. Then:
“Okay. So come at me,” he says.
“I want to see what you’ve learned.”
She’s confused. Does he seriously want to fight? They don’t have any pads.
“Oh, there aren’t really pads in the real world,” Philip (played by Matthew Rhys) says acidly, and it’s not clear what he’s more frustrated about — the fact that she doesn’t respect his decades of experience as a secret agent, or the fact that, like any kid, she seems to think she knows more than her dad.
So she comes at him, and he puts her in a chokehold, again and again. When he’s made his point, he picks up his coat and says “not bad” quietly as he walks out the door.
The scene is almost physically uncomfortable to watch, taking a parenting dynamic that would be a cliche in another TV show and turning it on its head. Philip wants to show his daughter that her fighting skills — while impressive in dealing with handsy guys at the pool hall — are no match for a trained operative. It’s painful and humiliating for her, but is it a necessary humiliation? After all, he wants her to stay alive.
And here we get to the heart of “The Americans,” a spy show that feels more like a sleeper drama about the most searing agonies of parenting, marriage and family identity.
Through all of its six seasons examining the life of Soviet agents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings, “The Americans” has asked what it means to live and raise your kids in a culture you’ve been brought up since birth to despise. But more than that, it has become an extended metaphor for the struggle all parents face to pass their values onto their kids.
While never lighthearted, there was something sly and fun about the show’s early seasons, a mashup of spy tradecraft and 1980s culture that led to an endless parade of feathered wigs, high-waisted jeans, and acid-washed denim as Elizabeth and Philip went undercover. Their kids were younger; it was easier to convince them that when Mom and Dad rushed out in the middle of the night, it really was because a client got stranded in Houston. (The couple run a travel agency as a cover.)
Paige, once closer to her dad, is now, as a college student, firmly in her mother’s camp. At the end of last season Philip stepped away from spying, hollowed out by the double life, but Elizabeth is still active. She’s the true believer, not him, and better able to compartmentalize the brutality of their work. Now she’s recruited Paige over Philip’s objections.
Then there’s Henry, the younger son and the only one not clued into the family business. On a visit home from boarding school he sees his mom smoking. “You’re an adult; I don’t have to hide from you what I am anymore,” she tells him. It’s a moment that could be funny (she’s a spy after all), but instead it is devastating. As children grow up, they’re supposed to start seeing their parents as people, with their own inner lives.
While Philip and Elizabeth agree that Henry is better off in the dark, they’re divided over whether it was the right decision to tell Paige the truth. And because Paige’s work puts her in danger, it raises the stakes on another well-worn parenting plotline — when couples disagree over how to raise their kids.
Adding to that problem is that it’s not clear how much Elizabeth realizes she has treated her daughter as an intelligence asset, not as her child.
Rightly sensing that Paige longs to feel close to her, Elizabeth exploits it, using the revelation that she’s a spy to bring her daughter closer. She also effortlessly manipulates Paige’s religious faith and desire to do good — “I want to make a difference,” Paige tells her — knowing that she will spy for the Soviets if she believes it’s the right thing to do.
By the final season, Elizabeth has convinced her daughter that everything she learned about America is a lie. It can be hard to watch. As a parent, it’s also riveting.
That’s because the parent-child bond is one of the things that actually makes parenting work. With my own small children, I try to do right by them, and they, at least occasionally, want my positive affirmation — aligning those desires is one of the main ways we stagger into agreement on expectations and behavior.
But there has to be good faith on both sides. You can’t dangle your love as something to be bestowed or taken away. You certainly can’t use the knowledge you have of your child, as their mother (and as an intelligence operative), to make them over in your own image. What’s perhaps most tragic is that even as Elizabeth destroys Paige, she believes she is finally getting the chance to teach her daughter her values.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say there aren’t many parents who have to navigate raising kids as undercover agents. But the questions the show raises — when, if ever, do you need to teach your children cruel lessons about the world? When does leveraging your bond with your child become a betrayal? — linger long after the spy missions.
And then, “The Americans” has something to add to the work-life balance conversation. While the show takes place in the 1980s, it might as well be a billboard for the overworked, harassed parents of today.
I remember yelling at the TV, “Wait, they work at the travel agency FOR REAL!” when I realized that the Jennings’ cover was so deep they were expected to run an actual business on top of their spy missions. They also don’t seem to employ a housekeeper, probably because they’re afraid she’ll discover their secret compartments in the laundry room. On more than one occasion, as I’ve thought about Philip and Elizabeth raising two kids, doing the vacuuming, typing up travel itineraries, and seducing, murdering, and impersonating their way through the U.S. intelligence agencies, I’ve wondered, How do they do it all?
That’s the strange genius of this show. Nothing about ruthless spies living in a D.C. suburb during the Reagan era should feel relatable. And yet, again and again, “The Americans” hits uncomfortably close to home.
Anna Nordberg is a writer in San Francisco. She’s working on a memoir about becoming a mother without your mom.