“Take the Good Life and Be Happy”: On “The Americans”

By Albert Wu, Michelle KuoApril 24, 2014

“Take the Good Life and Be Happy”: On “The Americans”

IT IS 1981 and, for the past 15 years or so, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a team of KGB spies, have been passing as Americans. They are married; they live in a manicured suburb of Washington, D.C.; they speak without accent. They have two children, both born on American soil. The son loves astronauts and hockey; the daughter wants her ears pierced. Neither has a clue that Mom and Dad sneak out in the middle of the night and do terrible things. Marriage, children, and a comfortable house in the suburbs — each forms a calculated disguise to look American.

But what happens when you wear a mask and begin to like the way it feels? Such a question propels FX’s TV series The Americans, created by Jacob Weisberg, a former CIA officer. “America isn’t that bad,” Philip, played by Matthew Rhys, says to a horrified Elizabeth, played by Keri Russell, in the show’s pilot. “What’s so bad about it? Electricity works all the time, food’s pretty great, there’s closet space.” When a mission takes a turn for the worse, Philip says they should consider defecting. “We could get relocated. Take the good life and be happy.” It’s the first time in their marriage that he’s voiced doubts in Mother Russia, so he expresses his desires tremulously.

In response, Elizabeth nearly spits at him. “Are you joking? Is this a joke?” she says. “Is that what you care about?” She is shocked, repulsed. A true believer, she joined the KGB when she was 17. Her father had fought against the Nazis and died at Stalingrad. “You want to betray our country?”

Elizabeth cannot fathom his doubt; he cannot fathom her lack of it. She’s an ideologue who hasn’t bought into America. He’s a realist open to new experiences. (You can say that Philip is undergoing a mid-life crisis.)

Their conflict opens up a series of rich meditations. On emigration: how does one leave her country without forgetting it? On marriage: can a relationship survive when one member changes — in this case, questioning the values upon which their relationship was premised? And ultimately, on belief: how do ideas maintain their claim as their claimant ages — as his priorities shift, as marriage and children change him? Is it inevitable that a person surrounded by loved ones will prioritize not abstract belief but humans, tangible as they are, complicated, contradictory, autonomous, vulnerable? Put another way, how does ideology win against its greatest threat — the comfort of intimacy?


The joke of The Americans is that it’s quintessentially American: all of the major characters on the show embark on a journey of self-discovery. What distinguishes The Americans is the journey’s starting point. Shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad center on selfish individuals, who traverse the path — viewers hope — of enlightenment. For Elizabeth and Philip, the principle of self-abnegation has dictated their actions from the beginning of their marriage. Indeed the two reject the very idea of a life premised on the fulfillment of desire: Elizabeth sneers at the idea of a “good life,” at domestic peace and material comfort, and Philip knows that to suggest his yearning for it is blasphemy. Thus this particular American journey seems twisted and backward. Philip and Elizabeth begin with the assumption that they must sacrifice themselves for the collective good (the “Motherland”). Slowly, tentatively, they begin to admit individual wants.

Now well into its second season, “The Americans” shows us a series of conversations between the self and these external ideologies. It makes an argument that what takes true courage is to grapple with, and unfix, one’s ingrown beliefs. What does it take to look at oneself truthfully? This is easier said than done. To anyone who has ever been reared in, or converted to, or fallen in love with, a particular belief system — whether it be a social cause, a religion, a political ideology, or some combination thereof — the fear of falling out of love can be intensely self-regulating. One enforces his own loyalty, surveys his emotions for diminishment. Selling out, copping out, getting soft, losing nerve, becoming lukewarm, betraying oneself — these are the terms of failure.


The early 1980s present the perfect historical backdrop to examine these issues of ideological conflict. In the 1979 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan had fashioned himself as a hardline anti-communist, accusing Jimmy Carter of weakness in the face of Soviet power. The Soviets sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979 in an attempt to stabilize a regime threatened by the Mujahideen, and Reagan and other hawks saw this as a sign of Soviet aggression. During the presidential debates, Reagan stated that if elected, he planned to intensify the arms race as a way to scare the Soviets into submission. He followed through on his plans. By 1983, Reagan announced the “Strategic Defensive Initiative” (SDI), which included plans so fantastical that the popular media dubbed it “Star Wars.” In the same month that Reagan announced the SDI, he also called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Reagan employed the rhetoric of a moral crusade: he believed communism had to be met not only with shows of force, but also with “moral will and faith.”

It is easy to dismiss Reagan’s ideological conviction as outdated, a relic of the past. However, absence of belief, the show suggests, ought not be our default condition. Unlike Mad Men, which in some ways eroticizes Don’s disinterest in politics, The Americans takes political commitment seriously. The show is empathetic toward a person who is willing to die for a system of beliefs. Lucia, a Sandinista, wants to expose the U.S. government’s secret (and illegal) military support for the Contras. Gregory, a black communist who is in love with Elizabeth, explains that they met in a march with Martin Luther King. “It wasn't about race or Vietnam,” he says. “It was about equality.” On the other side of the conflict, the show also does not treat the FBI agents, who are trying to uncover Elizabeth and Philip, as buffoons. When an American physicist is assassinated along with other federal agents, the FBI’s desire for justice, framed in a moment of patriotic ejaculation, does not seem contrived.

The Americans treats ideology as a character of its own. What threatens it — what will make it crumble? Marital intimacy is the first threat. After years of emotional coldness — “it never really happened for us,” Elizabeth remarks early in the show — Elizabeth and Philip have been trying to spark new feelings of intimacy in their marriage. And for a moment, they succeed. They steal playful kisses and laugh at each other’s corny jokes.

After a failed mission, however, Elizabeth blames her newly discovered emotions for clouding her judgment. “If you start to think of your marriage as real, it doesn’t work,” Elizabeth and Philip’s KGB handler, Claudia (played by the brilliant Margo Martindale: the show is worth watching just for her performances), reminds Elizabeth. “It was an arrangement, do you understand?” Claudia is protecting the KGB’s interests. She fears that Elizabeth will lose her fervency; Elizabeth, not Philip, is her best agent. “I know you’d throw yourself on a fire for the motherland,” she says. “Him? I’m not so sure.”

This tension — having to choose between the cause and the marriage — constitutes the heart of the first season. Each episode swivels between the marital drama and more conventional spy thriller material (whether they can implant a bug in the secretary of defense’s home, whether they can identify a mole). And the show encourages us to root for their success, in both their marriage and in their missions. Yet these worlds are doomed to be mutually exclusive: marriage requires trust and communication; espionage demands secrecy, subterfuge, and seduction.

Ideology persuades Philip and Elizabeth to do nasty things on its behalf — mainly violence and deception. Among the most difficult scenes to watch involve Philip and Elizabeth deceiving others. The most devastating target, probably, is Martha, who provides Philip useful information as a secretary in FBI counter-intelligence. Doe-eyed and lonely, she’s easy to seduce. “I’m in love with you,” she says to Philip. “I waited my whole life for you. I would do anything for you. All you have to do is ask. Please just tell me one thing. Is this real?” Philip looks at her straight in the eye and says, “Yes.”

Secrets, deployed in the name of protecting ideology, destroy nearly all the relationships in the show. Stan, the neighbor next door (played by Noah Emmerich), is an FBI agent and, unbeknownst to his wife, Sandra, is sleeping with his Russian informant. After cooking dinner and being stood up for the umpteenth time, Sandra nonetheless tries to rationalize his absence. “Your father is doing some extremely important work,” she says to her skeptical son. But with Elizabeth, she lets down her guard. “He can’t talk about his work, it’s a national security thing,” she begins. Then she trails off. “I miss talking,” she admits wistfully. In another scene, Stan is up late, practicing his Russian vocabulary (with audio tapes). When she asks him to come to bed, he notices that she’s wearing lingerie he hasn’t seen before. “Is that new?” he asks — and then continues working. Stan imagines that he is serving a higher purpose of American national security; his wife tries to convince herself that he is too.


Secrecy does not only corrode the relationship between husband and wife, but also between parent and child. In the propulsive finale of the first season, Elizabeth and Philip’s daughter, Paige, skulks about the laundry room of the house, looking for clues. Her instinct is right — this is where her parents keep their fake wigs, glasses, and other materials for disguise — but her search is interrupted by her mother. The scene makes literal the most universal of themes: that children find out their parents differ from what they claim to be. Thus the great stakes of season two: if Philip and Elizabeth’s children discover their betrayal, will the relationship be irretrievably broken?

Though Paige has begun to suspect that her parents have a secret life, her parents repeatedly shut her out. She is chastised for snooping around: “Don’t keep secrets from us,” they tell her, as viewers burn at the hypocrisy. Paige’s blossoming autonomy baffles her parents, and thus crystallizes another argument of the show: a sure counterweight to ideology is having children of your own. Theirs are views you can try to manipulate but cannot change; whose judgments cut sharply, without an ounce of diplomacy; whose observations gravitate toward your hypocrisy; and whose resistance to your ideas vibrates with adolescent fervor (perhaps not unlike the fervor with which you discovered your own beliefs).

Stunned, hurt, and isolated, Paige knows she’s being lied to but is unable to prove it. In a brilliant plot twist, she begins to secretly attend a Christian youth group — her parents, raised as communist, loathe religion. “I’m allowed to have my own life,” she says to them. “And we’re allowed to know about it,” they retort. The discovery of religion is a way out of her parents’ deceptions, a way for her to build her own system of beliefs that offers solace from the home that shuts her out. Her parents cannot accept that Paige has begun to think for herself. That they cannot do so reflects how far they have to go as parents.

Yet it is also the parents’ unequivocal love for their children, and desire to protect them, that makes them feel human. Crucially, it is this love for her children (and not for Philip) that begins Elizabeth’s disenchantment with the cause. The threat of violence against her children shakes her belief. And here the show reminds us that disillusionment itself is often generated by acts of violence. At the very least, disillusionment itself feels violent, like a firmly anchored tree ripped from the ground.

Ultimately, the show makes the argument that each character needs to make choices: between work and marriage, between ideology and intimacy. The Americans argues that these choices are a zero-sum game. We can’t have both: we can’t maintain ideological fervency when the loved ones around us are hurt by it. Choices come at a cost. One cannot be violent on behalf of one’s ideology without sacrificing his children’s respect for him. One cannot tell his children to be honest but also keep secrets.

Elizabeth and Philip are most sympathetic when their ideological convictions waver. “Come home,” Elizabeth says to Philip later. To hear home in Elizabeth’s tones means that she’s softened; that ideology is losing on this particular day.

In one of the best episodes thus far, Philip meets an Israeli agent who is bewildered to learn that Philip misses Russia. “Ha! You miss the cold?” he laughs. Philip does not see what’s funny. The Israeli’s condescension is palpable: to him, Philip is clearly brainwashed, infected by self-deluded sentimentality. Still pondering this conversation, Philip returns home. He asks Elizabeth whether there were icicles in Russia; he’s been away so long that he’s forgotten. She says there were. “We used to have sword fights with them,” he begins to remember, as he holds her. It’s one of the first times we see a tender memory of his childhood. He has begun to suspect that his loyalty to the Soviet Union is propped up by mythmaking, and now the fact of the icicles — the correlation between memory and fact — reassures him. By the second season, what binds the couple is not so much ideology, but the fact that they are immigrants unwilling to forget home.


In his now infamous 1989 essay, “The End of History,” Francis Fukuyama expressed an elegiac regret toward the end of ideological combat. “The end of history,” Fukuyama predicted,

will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.

In some ways, Fukuyama was prophetic. Indeed, ours is an age filled with technocratic bureaucrats and Silicon Valley developers hoping to create next generation credit cards. Yet The Americans complicates his picture of the Cold War as a heroic age populated by ideological fervency. Those who stood on the “frontlines” of the Cold War, the show suggests, were not driven merely by their loyalty to an abstract ideology. They needed intimacy, feared loneliness, and questioned their own beliefs.

What makes the show smart is that it knows its viewers — the Americans of the 21st century — aren’t particularly invested in an American triumphalist narrative. And though it’s a period piece, our attitude toward these protagonists is nothing like that of our feeling toward the male characters of Mad Men; we do not believe that we are superior to the characters, in spite of their losing ideology. Though we may bristle at Elizabeth's dogmatism and prefer Philip's doubt, we don’t want them to be like us.

But why is this — why don’t we want the “real” Americans to win? Probably it’s because many of us identify with the show’s ambivalence toward any kind of particular ideology, including nationalism. Yet within this ideological vacuum, the show recognizes, and feels warmly toward, the desire for belief, the desire to sacrifice oneself for a greater idea. “There are worse things than dying. Shame. Shame’s not an option for me,” says the FBI agent Amador to his partner Stan. A concept of honor, of duty, is elevated. But what idea is worth dying for?


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Michelle Kuo is a writer and lawyer. She is working on a book, to be published by Random House.

Albert Wu teaches history at the American University of Paris.

LARB Contributors

Albert Wu (@albertowu) is an associate professor of history at the American University of Paris. His first book, From Christ to Confucius (Yale University Press, 2016), examines Sino-European through the lens of missionaries.He has published in academic and popular journals, including American Historical Review, Commonweal, and The Point. With Michelle Kuo, he writes a weekly newsletter: ampleroad.substack.com
Michelle Kuo (@kuokuomich) is an associate professor at the American University of Paris. Her award-winning book, Reading with Patrick (Random House, 2017) combines memoir, reportage, and research on racial and economic inequality in rural Arkansas. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of BooksPublic BooksThe Point, and other publications. She has worked as an attorney for undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and incarcerated people. With Albert Wu, she writes a weekly newsletter at ampleroad.substack.com


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