Covert conversion on The Americans

David Kern

In 1928, Somerset Maugham, having retired from the British Secret Service, published Ashenden: The British Agent, widely considered the first espionage novel to reach the heights of “great literature.” Later, Eric Ambler, John le Carré and others followed in Maugham’s footsteps, expanding the genre’s possibilities. Where once it had been driven by thrills and adventure, these writers were skilled wordsmiths and masters of mood, with characters as richly drawn as any in 20th-century fiction.

Today, that mantle has been assumed by television’s most fascinating show: FX’s The Americans, whose fourth season debuts Wednesday night. The series centers on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), Soviet intelligence officers posing as a married couple in 1980s Washington, D.C. They have two children — Paige and Henry — who know nothing of their parents' long con and want only to be a part of a "typical" American family. But the Jennings are too bound in their deceit to be typical anything. 

When we first meet Elizabeth, she is undercover, drinking martinis alongside one of D.C.'s many civil servants. She's seated at a bar, facing him, but she's next to a mirror so that she's framed as if she's looking at him from the front and behind. She has him surrounded. When she decides to make her move, he's powerless to resist.

Elizabeth has a chameleon’s ability to slip in and out of costumes. She doesn't second-guess, and she rarely asks questions. Her commitment to the mission is total. Philip is less doctrinaire about his job. To Elizabeth, the cause is holy. For Philip, it's complicated. They share a common goal, but often don't agree on how to attain it. They share a common vision, but often see its particulars differently. This difference is the show's defining conflict and is seen most clearly in their relationship with their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor). Like most teenagers, Paige seeks to carve out her place in the world. Alas, the world she lives in is one her parents hope to destroy. So when, in season three, she has a spiritual awakening in a local church, they cringe as she prays, is baptized and finds community outside their home.

"They get them when they're children," Elizabeth says. "They indoctrinate them with friendship and songs and cute boys cooing about Jesus."

While Philip lives out his beliefs covertly, Paige expresses hers publicly.

To curtail Paige's growing zeal, Elizabeth wants to reveal the secret of their identity to her ­— to indoctrinate Paige before the Christians can do it. But Philip wants to protect his daughter from the chaos such knowledge would bring. He isn't comfortable with her newfound spirituality, but he understands it.

Once upon a time Philip felt trapped by the hopelessness that often is the paraphernalia of war, and so he joined the shadow world of espionage. Paige’s circumstances are not as dire as her father's, but in her own way she is trapped too. She senses that the threads holding her family together are wearing thin. So looking elsewhere, she finds camaraderie in the church. Hers is not a conversion of rebellion but a genuine expression of metanoia. She finds hope in repentance. Throughout season three, Paige’s participation in the life of the church deepens. She begins to take part in causes that the church values. She comes to view her pastor — portrayed as an admirable if overwhelmed defender of justice and hope — as a guiding light.

As Phil Christman notes in his excellent preview of season four for Christianity Today, Paige has what Philip wants. While Philip lives out his beliefs covertly, Paige expresses hers publicly. Where Philip’s expression of belief comes in the form of killing, Paige’s occurs in the life-giving waters of public baptism. Through her faith, Paige has attained a sense of freedom that Philip has never known, and when she’s lifted gently out of the waters of a baptismal font (while her parents fidget in the pews), her loneliness seems to be washed away.

Later, Philip admits to a mark that he’s not a good man. He’s working when he says this, but his remorse is genuine. His conscience is heavy. If only he could be purified by the same waters as his daughter.

In these moments The Americans earns its place in the pantheon of espionage fiction. It's not about what makes a good spy so much as what makes a good husband and wife and parent. It's not about capers and car chases and gunfights (although it has each aplenty). It's about conscience and faith and hope. Even as The Americans is about living a lie, it's also about learning to be honest.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure