The Activism of Elizabeth and Paige on The Americans

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Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

The Americans entered its fifth season with a weight that felt at odds with its trademark lack of fuss. Amid accusations that the Russian government interfered with the U.S. presidential election, FX’s quiet Cold War drama had a sudden, piping-hot relevancy. The series — which follows Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), two married Soviet spies living undercover in Reagan’s America — now carries qualities of the metaphorical. It’s hard, for instance, to ignore the similarities between President Reagan’s demonization of the Russian people and President Trump’s damning words about Mexican and Muslim immigrants. Coincidence, yes (the show started in January 2013, a week after President Obama’s second inauguration), but no less predetermined. As the Jennings’ daughter Paige says in season one, “It’s history. It repeats itself.”

But beyond the show’s obvious news hooks, The Americans is particularly well-suited to our current cultural moment in another way: It is also, ostensibly and perhaps subliminally, a show about activism. As the fifth season moves along, that activism feels less blatant and more a dressing, coloring Elizabeth and Paige’s mother-daughter bond, which is strengthened as their passions — once wildly disparate — find a mutual shade of grey.

Elizabeth’s activism is the bleeding heart of The Americans, and one of its best gender subversions. While her husband toys with the idea of defection and questions the moral implications of their grisly work, Elizabeth remains devout, speaking often of “the greater good” and “the cause,” terms she tosses around but never quite defines. To her, Russian-born and stalwart, activism is an unquestioned cultural norm, an adherence to the chimes of Communism that mandated the impoverished conditions she was raised in and eventually escaped. Her fervency is juxtaposed with the more easygoing American way. In a flashback to her arrival in the U.S., she says of its citizens, “There’s a weakness in the people. I can feel it.”

Elizabeth, who was once a girl named Nadezhda in the war-ravaged city of Smolensk, is incentivized by the injustices she’s both witnessed and been oppressed by, including the sexual abuse she suffered in training. She’s fought on the picket lines and recruited other passionate people to the KGB — like Gregory (Derek Luke), a former black militant whom she converts, later romances, and eventually gets killed. The tensions that drive her feel modern in a different way than The Americans’ more outright political themes. Television theatrics aside, her radicalized state is a template many first-time protesters might adhere to: victim, survivor, fighter. If the show had more pop-culture appeal, you might have seen her face on banners at the Women’s March.

Likewise, her daughter Paige is driven by a want for justice and cultural betterment. In season two, she gets involved with a local church, all but desecrating her atheistic Marxist lineage. Though she’s at first troubled by this, Elizabeth comes to rationalize Paige’s faith through the lens of the church’s liberal activism. “They’re active in the anti-nuclear movement, South American liberation, they’re talking about apartheid,” Elizabeth tells her handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella), to explain why Paige’s involvement with her church will make it easier to recruit her for their own cause.

Later, when Philip and Elizabeth reveal their true identities to Paige, it disrupts her entire worldview, forcing her to lie to the other people in her life, namely her beloved Pastor Tim and his wife Alice. But a clever Elizabeth softens the blow by relating their work as spies to Paige’s demonstrations. Slowly, Paige seems to accept this. Through their mismatched passions, a familial bond is forged around a common interest in activism.

Now, in season five, that mother-daughter bond is both strengthening and complicating. Elizabeth has started physically training Paige in the family’s garage, disguising the lessons as self-defense. Their conversations border on confrontational, but it’s a whittling process. If Elizabeth can keep Paige in line, she might convert her, or at least prolong their commonality.

Another complication is Paige’s crush on the neighbor boy, Matthew, who just so happens to be the son of FBI agent, Stan. Their relationship, forbidden by the Jennings, is the show’s very own Romeo and Juliet story. But it also calls forward Paige’s inner conflict when it comes to justifying the work her parents do and how that fits into the overall state of the world. In episode three, “The Midges,” Matthew asks a distracted Paige what’s on her mind.

“The world just seems so messy right now,” she admits. “It’s hard to figure out what to do about it.”

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Matthew responds.

His casually defeated response perplexes Paige, whose anxiety about doing enough and being enough has her head in constant rotation. Perhaps, she’s more like her parents after all — thirsty for change, disgusted with apathy, and willing to fight for what matters.

Unexpectedly, it’s Pastor Tim who even further incentivizes Paige’s curiosity. In episode four, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” he gives her a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital: Critique of Political Economy to mull over. The move is similar to Elizabeth’s immersion process — it functions as an act of mutual understanding. A pastor assigning Marx seems laughably ironic, but it is in service of something. Pastor Tim, who knows the Jennings are from the USSR, is showing Paige that despite a clashing of fundamental ideologies, there is common ground between what their church stands for and what her parents are actively in pursuit of: fighting for the greater good, whatever that means or has ever meant. It’s a message for Paige, but it doubles as a message for us.

The Americans: The Activism of Elizabeth and Paige