The Americans Offers a Rare Lesson in Humility

Patrick Harbron / FX

This post contains mild spoilers through Season 5 Episode 7 of The Americans.

“Who’s she?” Philip asked Elizabeth. They were spying on Ben, the scientist helping to develop a strain of pest-resistant wheat that the couple wanted to claim for Russian uses—and the man with whom Elizabeth, disguised as “Brenda,” had been having a relationship. They had not counted, as they watched him from a phone booth, on catching Ben meeting a woman who was not Elizabeth—greeting her, kissing her, guiding her into a night club. Philip dragged out his question (sheeee), seeming to understand, in an instant, all it might suggest.

“Don’t know,” Elizabeth replied. She paused, unwilling to allow the revelation to compromise their mission. “Let’s get it.”

This would normally be an exceedingly odd conversation for a married couple to engage in: wondering about the man who might, in so many other contexts, have represented a threat to their marriage. But of course Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are not an ordinary married couple. And The Americans is not a show that subscribes to the traditional logic of romantic partnership. In its universe, marriage is work—not in the capitalism-inflected, self-help-oriented way that became so popular in the 1980s, but in the more literal way: The Jenningses’ job is their marriage, and vice versa. In their world, and in their relationship, work and love are entwined so tightly that it’s pretty much impossible to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

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In early reviews of The Americans, the common refrain among critics was that it is a show about marriage that is cannily (and fittingly) disguised as a show about espionage. It remains that, certainly: The series still focuses its dramatic attentions on the relationship that is the axis around which everything else revolves. The fifth season of the show, however, has introduced a new and potentially destabilizing element into the Jenningses’ unique relationship: romantic insecurity. For both parties. Tuesday’s episode of the show, “The Committee on Human Rights,” found Elizabeth cheated on by a partner she was coming to like—a mild affront, perhaps, in a series that regularly depicts murders, but a significant one nonetheless.

“I didn’t think he was like that,” she confessed to Philip.

“You didn’t buy his act anyway,” her husband replied.  

“There was something about him that—I thought that maybe…,” she began.

“You liked him,” he offered, magnanimously.

“No, I didn’t like him.”

“It’s okay to care.”

“No, it isn’t, Philip. Not for me.”

She had cared—and caring, she well knew, represents its own kind of weakness and loss of control. And caring, in a world that so seamlessly blends work into everything else, can make you less good at your job. The plots of The Americans—and, indeed, the assignments from the Center that determine the Jenningses’ missions and movements—take one crucial thing for granted: that Elizabeth and Philip will be able to complete their assignments in part because they will be able to charm and seduce their marks, easily and efficiently and with minimal emotional complication. Elizabeth can lay, Sphinxian, on the bed of a hotel room, and the man she has lured there will be, automatically, ensnared. Philip—“Clark”—can bumble sweetly around Martha, and there is never any question that she will find herself falling into his tailor-made trap.

So the minglings of work and love have, in The Americans, also been the minglings of work and sex: To do their jobs effectively, at least as those jobs are currently conceived, Elizabeth and Philip need to be able to seduce—and to trust in their own abilities when it comes to the seduction. And they need, as well, to trust in their abilities to stay detached, to keep not only their emotions, but also their egos, out of things.

But, then, enter Ben, the charming cad who has made a dupe of poor Brenda. And, in the same episode, there’s Deirdre, Philip’s mark—the woman he seems to have won over, romantically, through sheer force of will. On Tuesday, Deirdre breezily informed him (in this case, “Gus Alexander”) that, were he to move to Topeka, “probably this would end.” By “this,” she meant their relationship.

“Why?” he asked, flummoxed.  

“Because I just—I just want to be together like two normal people right now,” she replied, offering an early version of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

He recovered, and they moved on, and there was no more discussion of a move or a breakup. And yet, he remained baffled. Philip—never mind Gus Alexander—is not accustomed to such breezy rejection. He’s used to breaking hearts, not begging for them.

So “The Committee on Human Rights” brings a new twist to an idea that has long animated The Americans. The show, channeling the assumptions of its main characters, has often taken for granted that romantic love itself can be dangerous: Within work that demands precision in its lies and control in their execution, love looms as an agent of chaos and violence. It was love that helped to get Nina killed. It was love that helped lead Jared to do the worst. It has been love, in this season—or the potential for it—that has made Paige’s life even more complicated than it already was. It’s love (in this case, with a woman who may or may not herself be a spy) that could get Stan into even further trouble at the FBI.

In this show, love is not many-splendored, or all you need, or any of that—it is unpredictable, and unmanageable, and uncontrollable, and these are enough to make it a threat. “We’re having a lazy romantic morning,” Martha murmurs while she’s on the phone with her mother, as she enjoys said lazy romance with “Clark.” She adds: “Romance is so important,” and this is precisely the moment it becomes clear that she is doomed.

Elizabeth and Philip have been, throughout the show’s seasons, largely impervious to all those dynamics: They have had each other, and they may even have found a way to love each other, but they have not allowed themselves to be victims of romance’s vagaries. They have kept their wits about them. Love, still, though, has found a way to humble them—just as, in previous episodes, misinformation has found a way to humble them. “The Committee on Human Rights” brings with it several endings: Paige breaks up with Matthew—supposedly on the grounds that “you don’t know me, Matthew,” but more specifically on the grounds that she came to understand how complicated it would be to keep up a relationship with him. Gabriel, retiring, leaves the U.S., and his pseudo-family there. The episode also, however, brings a kind of end to innocence for each partner in the Jennings marriage: Even Elizabeth and Philip, it turns out—people who are beautiful and charming and trained to make others fall into whatever trap they care to set—can find themselves unlucky in love.