High Fidelity: The Marriages of “Billions” and “The Americans”
By Phillip MaciakApril 14, 2016
I want to start talking about The Americans by talking a little bit about Billions. I did not think I was going to like Billions. I like Paul Giamatti, I love Maggie Siff (#TheOneTrueRachelMenken), I am skeptical about Damian Lewis, and I feel like the energy Hollywood has put into trying to make Malin Akerman happen over the past decade is energy that could have easily been spent elsewhere. Plus, the whole promotional lead-up — with its character actors and its Machiavellian maneuvering and its sex and its f-words deployed as if they had shock value — made the show seem like a parody prestige series that Alicia Florrick would be watching on The Good Wife.
But it turns out I do like Billions. I like it quite a lot. Part of what I like, I think, is that it’s as aware, or wary, of the tropes of the prestige serial genre as I was, even as it liberally deploys them. Where a show like this could easily be ponderous, grim, or overly serious in its melodrama *cough*HouseOfCards*cough*, Billions has been playful, silly, gamely over-the-top. (It shares a certain thrill with Scandal in this way, though its pace is slower and plotting less knotty.) Casting Paul Giamatti as an angry and brilliant district attorney and just letting him off the leash every week is among the best decisions TV — as a medium — has made in its new Golden Age. I would gladly listen to Paul Giamatti furiously seethe the phone book in Damian Lewis’ face. It doesn’t resist this aspect of the anti-hero age; it leans in. But, as opposed to a show like Vinyl, for instance, Billions’s excesses feel almost earned. It’s not flailing randomly trying to hit all the buttons. It’s flailing strategically. There’s an editorial eye to its overkill, a sense of hard/soft dynamics.
Indeed, the reason I bring up Billions is for another of the ways it acknowledges, considers, and then exaggerates a trope of this type of TV. The show just aired its season finale, and in 12 hours of television focused on two powerful, flawed, angry men, there is not one single act of protagonistic adultery. (To be fair, the penultimate episode features a gray-area dalliance that’s cut short when the dominatrix realizes Giamatti’s character doesn’t have his wife’s permission to be in the dungeon — it’s a long story. That Siff, as Giamatti’s wife, reacts to this news the way you might expect her to react to the knowledge of a full-on, sustained infidelity makes it the exception that proves the rule.) This show that has been roundly pilloried for its semi-cynical guzzling and regurgitation of Golden Age anti-heroic tropes has managed a season of television without a single act of adultery among the four leads. I don’t think I was ready for how revolutionary this would feel.
There is greed, there are lies, there is betrayal, there’s even the appearance and suspicion of adultery, but there are no goomah’s, so to speak. Think about the canon of series upon which Billions is built, and think about how few of them pass this faithful spouse test. The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, even Breaking Bad — adultery is almost de rigeur for shows like these. Billions itself shares space in the ShowtimeAnytime app with The Affair, a series that has spent two seasons being about, you guessed it, AN AFFAIR. Do the holy bonds of matrimony mean nothing to the fictional characters of the post-Sopranos television landscape? The pope is displeased. Or maybe he’s not. It’s hard to tell with that guy.
But Billions, as much as it indulges in the other luxuries the Premium Cable boom vouchsafed it, makes really sharp, rich dramatic material from the idea and practice of staying together. Giamatti and Siff’s characters, for instance, have to negotiate professional rivalries and conflicting ambitions while maintaining their emotional partnership. Their sex life is silly but fascinating! They enjoy each other’s company and complain about their lame-o couple friends while also secretly judging their own relationship against those lame-o couple friends! They share glasses of wine! Their chemistry has layers to it that are not simply the pre-packaged layers that TV writers bestow upon couples by hiding romantic infidelities under their beds. It’s easy to show why the relationship between a faithful partner and a cheating partner is complex. It’s much more difficult to show why and how a marriage is complex if nobody is cuckolding anybody else. There are ways of being faithful that are more interesting than the well-trod plot points of a marriage undone by infidelity. And there are other ways to be unfaithful that don’t involve hookers or handsome young men at the country club. Don’t get me wrong, Billions isn’t going to win any Peabody Awards, but it’s managed to become one of the most vital — or at least imaginative — shows about marriage on TV.
The Americans is better at that game, though. It’s one of the best shows about parenthood on TV right now, but it might also be one of the best shows about marriage ever made. And yet, the comparison with Billions’s unexpected chastity might seem strange. The Americans is a show in which adultery is almost constant. The first scene of the pilot, before we even know who the characters are, involves Elizabeth going down on another man in a hotel room. Extramarital sex is the primary tool of the Jenningses’ trade. Philip is married to another woman, for Pete Campbell’s sake! But this strategic polyamory loops back around the spectrum. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen or that it doesn’t produce the jealousies and imbalances that cheating on TV tends to do. But the special nature of these jaunts puts the marriage at the center in a unique light. Especially as these past episodes have unfurled, it’s hard not to think about The Americans as a show just as invested in representing marital fidelity as Billions.
So what is fidelity for The Americans? Good question! Part of the reason that this show has such a strong hold on this material is that the answers are many, varied, and often inconsistent. For Philip and Elizabeth, there’s fidelity to Russia, to the job itself, to their children, to their assets, and to each other. Sometimes these are untouchable, and sometimes they have limits. You can protect an asset only so far as it goes. Sometimes they make it out okay, sometimes you have to pack them into a suitcase.
It’s no great insight to suggest that The Americans is a show about loyalties — divided or deeply held, weakening or holding firm — and this isn’t limited to our two spies. Paige, for instance, knowing what she now knows, is torn between loyalty to her conscience, to her religious faith, to Pastor Tim, to Henry, and to her parents. All of these loyalties require specific and costly tithes, even as some of them overlap, and her management of them is one of the most compelling dramas of the season so far. But it doesn’t stop there: these conflicts become even more abstract for Paige. Pastor Tim’s betrayal of Paige’s trust — to his gossipy wife, of all people — is a betrayal of a lot for her. She perceives it to be Tim’s choice of his loyalty to civic duty over the sanctity of her confession, loyalty to his formal relationship with the state rather than his personal relationship with her, and, though this isn’t teased out to a lurid extent, loyalty to his wife over loyalty to her. The show never suggests that their relationship is a sexual one, but part of what we’re watching is Paige’s maturation as an adult, her coming-of-age, and whatever feelings of desire she’s not devoting to boys or girls her own age seem at least potentially displaced to the golden locks of Pastor Tim. This doesn’t need to be surface text for it to feel like a rejection when Tim privileges his own marriage over Paige’s intimate confidence.
So it’s a betrayal of fidelity, but the fidelity Paige has to betray in response is one that’s almost more existential. She can no longer be who she is. She can no longer act with her own self as her guide, or at least not react to this betrayal in the way she’d like. As exciting — and somewhat fun — as it is to watch Philip give Paige an intro lecture in tradecraft, and as lights-out fantastic as it is to watch her improvise, pivot, and completely own doofy Pastor Tim in their conversation this past episode, this masquerade constitutes an act of infidelity. Paige’s act crosses a line. (On a side note, making Paige a naturally good spy despite herself is such an extraordinarily twisted and wonderful turn.) And these cascading infidelities and loyalties structure the show. But nowhere is this more complex or more rewarding or more daring than in the dueling marriages of Philip and Elizabeth and Clark and Martha.
For most of these episodes, Martha has felt as though her marriage and her sanity are on unstable ground. In her moment of greatest need, when even the FBI Xerox seems on the verge of betraying her, Clark is nowhere to be found. So, when pressed, she turns to her cover story: that she’s having an affair with a married man. Like almost everything that ever happens to Martha, the low-key sadness of this story is undercut by an even greater cruelty. There is a telling twinge, as Martha tells the story — and Lili’s right, Alison Wright is elevating this role to something else this season — that the way she’s able to tell this lie so convincingly is that she’s telling it as a truth. In other words, she is seeing a married man; she’s just secretly married to him. And it is an honest relationship, except that he is honest to her about the lies they have to tell. She doesn’t even need to cross her fingers! This is a sad rationalization, but it’s even worse because it’s not true in the way she thinks it is.
It’s true because Philip is a married man. It’s not wink-wink true. It’s factually accurate. And “Clark’s Place” performs something like an act of emotional acrobatics around this fact. Because they suspect that she’s being watched, the Jenningses decide Philip can’t meet with Martha for their usual Tuesday, fold-out couch session. And, as much as the guilt of murdering living humans is tearing PJ up inside, this abandonment registers on his face as a worse crime. All episode, we watch Elizabeth watch him, trying to read her gaze — jealousy? anger? exasperation? — and then we watch what happens when “Under Pressure” starts to play.
This seduction could be tawdry, it could feel like a gorgeous woman taking pity upon her husband because it’s soooo hard to have two wives. (What’s up, Big Love?!) But there’s an understanding there — we feel it too — that, even as much as what they do is wet work, even as much as it is sex work, to some degree or another, it’s also care work. Gabriel tells them that the fact that they care about their assets makes them uniquely able to do their jobs. Philip and Elizabeth fake it all the time, but when they go this deep — they way Clark has with Martha — it has to be at least a little real. Put another way, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Philip doesn’t care for Martha, that he doesn’t, to some extent or another, actually love her. What the show asks us to do, though, is to imagine that Elizabeth’s seduction is also an act of love and care, however bizarre in context.
Philip taking comfort (well, a lot more than comfort) in his wife while Martha remains alone and afraid, miraculously, doesn’t feel only like cruelty in this episode. It is an unforgivable cruelty, to be sure — and cross-cutting this unusually explicit and satisfying sex scene with shots of Martha alone in bed makes it feel even worse — but the chemistry and the passion between Philip and Elizabeth ensures that we have some ambivalence about it. Regardless of all the assets and affairs, this is the real relationship. And fidelity to marriage in that light takes some strange forms. When Philip tells William he’d like to run away, William sees — and confirms — that he means with Elizabeth only. Philip’s fidelity to their mission, from the very first episode, takes the primary form of fidelity to Elizabeth, commitment to their marriage as an institution and as a living thing.
The easiest, and perhaps most provocative, way to describe this is that it is a portrait of an open marriage. These two get what they need — for love and for work — all over the place, but they return home to the primary couple. And that’s certainly been true at points in the show. But I think the series is less invested in portraying their marriage as sexually progressive in this way than in portraying it as a kind of perverse, self-justifying, self-contradicting, self-sustaining monogamy. The sex that matters is theirs, the love that matters is theirs, and all the other sex and love isn’t sex and it isn’t love. It’s a Kama Sutric contortion akin to the one they have to perform in order to be “Americans.” The final montage of the episode draws out all the damage that such commitment can have, the number of people it can leave utterly alone. And it’s not difficult to read Elizabeth’s seduction of Philip as an act of aggression and territoriality against Martha, or, conversely, as an act of tradecraft itself, knowing that the only thing keeping Philip loyal to the ugly demands of their cause is his loyalty to her. But I think the thing that’s revolutionary is that the show keeps open the possibility that it’s neither of those things, that it’s an expression of love and commitment and chemistry that is able to encompass, and even tend to, Philip’s love for another woman.
The joke of the song suggests that Elizabeth is just getting Philip off to focus him, to relieve his pressure. But the length of the sound cue, the length of their sex scene — this episode is significantly longer than most episodes of the show, in part, because of the length of this montage — suggests something more. It makes us stay with this act long enough to grapple with its significance. This is fidelity rooted in infidelity. It is, like most marriages, an intensely specific and unusual thing, even as it shares a name and an institutional privilege with all other marriages everywhere. Their marriage is terrifying and cruel, a couple form that devours all other couples. And, like Giamatti and Siff on Billions, what’s dramatically interesting about it isn’t whether or not it will be undone by infidelity. What’s interesting about it is the show’s accounting of how much this particular, soulful, deadly fidelity costs everyone who comes into contact with it. Love is patient, love is kind, and sometimes, it is absolutely monstrous.
Why can’t we give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love,
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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