If you know your television tropes, you’re probably familiar with Chuck Cunningham Syndrome, the rather clinical name given to TV’s long-standing tradition of sidelining characters — often children in family sitcoms and dramas — with little to no explanation as to why they aren’t more present in their own households.
Chuck Cunningham — the basketball-dribbling older brother of Richie and Joanie Cunningham on Happy Days, who was so extraneous during his scattershot appearances that he was played by two different actors — is the most extreme example. He disappeared after the first two seasons and was never seen nor referred to again. But other characters over the course of TV history — Judy Winslow of Family Matters, Cousin Oliver of The Brady Bunch, Owen Salinger of Party of Five, countless babies on various shows — also have been marginalized, either for behind-the-scenes reasons or narrative convenience.
Which brings me to The Americans and Henry Jennings, the younger of the Jennings children who, at various points over the show’s six seasons, seemed poised to join this illustrious group of cast-aside offspring. While he never came close to disappearing Chuck Cunningham–style, he was often out of the picture: at a friend’s house, across the street at the Beemans, off somewhere “doing his stupid Eddie Murphy routines.” The show didn’t neglect him, exactly — when he wasn’t there, his absence was frequently noted — but his parents certainly did. Their attention was more focused on Paige, the one who eventually emerged as their heir apparent in the Russian spy game. Henry was always the more blatantly American of the two, right down to the way he lived like a free-roaming, ’80s latchkey kid for whom parental guidance was barely even suggested. When he expressed interest in going away to boarding school and eventually got his wish, it seemed like the jettisoning of sweet, oblivious Henry was complete.
On any other show, it might have been. But The Americans is not any other show. Instead, in its final season, it took what could easily have become another full-fledged case of Chuck Cunningham Syndrome and made it pay off in utterly heartbreaking ways.
In the series finale, “START,” when Elizabeth and Philip realize the feds are hot on their trail and rush to leave the country, it’s Philip who says the obvious thing first: They should leave Henry behind. That moment carries enormous weight because abandoning one’s child is an awful, wrenching thing to do, but it’s also a gut punch because it’s obvious that Philip is right. Henry is a pure-blooded American and, more importantly, he’s been cast off by his parents for years. If he already feels more at home where his parents are not, how terribly would he feel if their home were suddenly in Russia?
When Paige is told rather hastily about this plan, she immediately protests and starts asking questions. As Elizabeth tries to explain that they don’t have a choice and that they all love Henry, Paige says what everyone watching this show has thought at one point or another: “Do you?” Elizabeth perceptibly recoils, not because she doesn’t love Henry, but because she knows her behavior for most of her son’s life has made it perfectly reasonable to wonder if that’s true.
Later, when the three of them call Henry to say what he doesn’t know is their final good-bye, Elizabeth talks to him the way an aunt might speak to a nephew on Thanksgiving. She’s his mother, but, really, she’s a distant relative. Which is devastating confirmation of something we’ve known about this family for a long time: Henry and his mother barely know each other. He and his dad are definitely closer — the fact that Philip instinctively knows Henry will be better off in the U.S. speaks to how much he understands his son — but the person who is really there for Henry, and will be there after his parents ditch him because of a work emergency for the very last time, is Stan Beeman.
It’s tempting to think that showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields had this planned all along, and that they alienated Henry from the family over the course of the series because they knew they wanted his parents to abandon him in the series finale. (For the record, this is the second time Philip Jennings has been cut off from a son.)
“We certainly were aware that people always thought about him as a neglected kid,” Weisberg told me. “But in our minds, we live in the parts of the story that aren’t onscreen, so we never thought of it exactly that way. We definitely got how they were busy, and he didn’t get as much attention. That’s really true. You can’t dispute that. But we were living a part of the story where, as you saw in these later seasons, he was closer to Phillip, and Phillip was more related to him. The boy’s mother cared about him, even though she had been blocked to experiencing that in a certain way. A lot of stuff that came to fruition on the screen in this final year, we always felt were family dynamics in earlier seasons that you didn’t see as much.”
It’s also worth noting, as Weisberg and Fields do in Vulture’s oral history of the finale, that they weren’t sure until the final season exactly what would happen when Philip and Elizabeth had to make a run for it. Weisberg and Fields toyed with the idea of them leaving both Paige and Henry behind, or bringing both of them to Russia, or bringing only one of the kids. Their storytelling process guided them toward the abandonment of Henry, but that was not some master plan that they tried to fulfill from the very beginning.
What happened to Henry Jennings on The Americans wasn’t intended as a more wrenching example of Chuck Cunningham Syndrome, though those of us who watch and analyze TV may have reason to see it that way. It simply reflects what happens in a lot of families when a unbridgeable chasm develops between parent and child: The relationship becomes defined by it.
After Philip and Elizabeth complete their escape, as they look out at the city of Moscow in the last scene of the series, unaware of where Henry and Paige are and what they are doing, they try to reassure themselves and each other that their children will be fine.
“They’ll be okay,” Elizabeth says.
“They’re not kids anymore,” Philip says. “We raised them.”
But the reason Henry Jennings will be okay isn’t because his parents raised him. It’s because he figured out how to raise himself.