Russian spies can’t dis religion on American television.
That’s an odd lesson from
the second season of “The Americans,” a show that has built its
well-deserved reputation by crossing boundary after boundary, which were once
immutable on advertiser-supported networks. (Season two spoilers abound.)
Start with the fact that
we actually identify with “Phillip” and “Elizabeth Jennings,”
the aliases of the deeply undercover Russian agents who are the protagonists of
the series. In drama, we always
identify with the protagonists, no matter their allegiance or what they do. (In
this, former CIA agent and series creator Joe Weisberg follows Aeschylus, who
fought at Marathon but wrote “The Persians,” our oldest extant drama,
from his enemies’ point of view.)
The Jennings’ peculiar
marriage — arranged by the KGB, supportive of honey traps, and subject, at
least in Elizabeth’s case, to unauthorized desire — does not merely accept extra-marital
sex: it actually demands it.
How they deal with this —
precariously — is fascinating. Both are jealous and both accept what the other
does. They kill but not with impunity. They justify their actions as acts of
war (and Weisberg is explicit that they are simply doing what we do in return,
an attitude typical of former agents) but at huge emotional cost. Killing is
seen as both horrendous and a fact of Cold War life, leaving us, the audience,
standing on extremely unstable ground.
Questions of loyalty and
belief are inevitable aspects of any spy drama. In season one, “The
Americans” dealt with such questions in a traditional espionage manner. Phillip
is a bit too comfortable with America’s materialist comforts; neighbor/FBI
agent Stan falls in love with a Russian woman, fissuring a marriage whose rules
are violable while placing Stan in a position where (as of last week’s episode,
SPOILER ALERT) seems about to have to choose between loyalty to his lover and
to his country.
But this season, an even
more interesting test of beliefs comes into play: the Jennings’ daughter, Paige,
has been seduced by an Evangelical church. On the one hand, this is a
beautiful, series-specific, story: the Jennings marry and have children so as
to go undercover as a typical American middle-class family. To maintain their
cover, they have to raise their children with values that are contrary to their
Of course, children often
do not share their parents’ value system. (Think of the generational shift on
gay rights as an obvious example.) The
story resonates because, like the series’ treatment of extra-marital sex, it examines
a social issues obliquely, and with a dramatic center. What do you do if your
child begins to believe in something that is antithetical to your core values?
Yet this is one instance
where “The Americans”‘ solution
is not reflective of the problem it raises.
At no point do either
Phillip or Elizabeth sit down with Paige and say, “look, we don’t believe
in this.” They never detail the horrors that religion has caused. They
never even turn to each other in private and agonize about not being able to
raise their children in consonance with their beliefs. While Elizabeth’s
devotion to the Communist state is treated with great dignity and respect, Phillip
feels angry and throws a vandalous tantrum at his daughter’s spiritual
It’s not as if the
Jennings go to church as part of their cover. They keep at least that part of
their true belief system intact. In this one instance, the show blinks —
behaving as if there were no secular Americans, rather than delving into the
waters of what happens when secularists have a religious daughter. (The church
that captivates Paige is also handled with kid gloves: despite the Reagan-era
setting, it’s not a part of the then-formative religious right but rather a
liberal one that protests armaments, and at a time when actual liberal churches
were sheltering undocumented migrants.)
For the past twenty years
or so, television has been going where feature films fear to tread. Race was
the subject of “Homicide” and its descendent, “The Wire.“ Class and income inequality were at the heart “Friday Night
Lights” ten years before it became a national discussion. Cliche though it
may be, the introduction of openly gay characters paved the way for gay
Television has always had
a penchant for social drama (think “The Defenders,” “Cosby,” the collected works of Norman Lear), albeit often in code (“Star Trek,” “M*A*S*H”).
In our current age, it appears that we can now openly talk about anything.
But we can’t: we can
barely talk about abortion (imagine Maude getting an abortion today) and, as “The
Americans” demonstrates, we cannot talk critically about religion at all. Programming
that is supportive of religion — from fuzzy spiritualism to the fundamentalist
“Walking Dead” — is not merely fine; it is welcome.
The pity is that, poised
at the end of the cold and the beginning of the cultural wars, “The
Americans” is in a perfect position to address the rise of the religious
right without preaching on either side of the battle. Phillip and Elizabeth
are, after all, a priori atheists. Their daughter is, presumably, sincerely
religious and, deprived of community by her parents’ occupation, precisely the
sort of person who would find religious community attractive. Wonderful
dramatic material, if only it were handled with as much sophistication as the
sex and violence.
Given the hold that
fundamentalism currently has on American life, it’s a debate that desperately
needs to be had. Only not, it seems, on even the best American television.