“The Americans” Is the Love Story I’ve Been Waiting For

Men always told the writer she should be less "difficult." But the show’s gender-trope-flip offers the kind of brave new relationship—minus the murder—that lends hope to staunch women.

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When I was in college, I took a psychology class focusing on “archetypes within the world and within ourselves.” The class was team-taught by a pair of hippies tipping toward retirement, so we did a lot of quizzes out of self-help books like The Goddess Within to determine which of the Greek goddesses we were “ruled and guided by.”  I was an Artemis woman, a huntress in a ratty leather jacket who prized stoicism and solitude above the softer arts of empathy.

Though I snickered at New Age drippy-ness of the prose, I found solace in the Artemis chapter’s exaltation of personality traits I’d been told—by friends and colleagues, relatives and especially (oh God, especially) the guys I’d tried to date—were difficult. I wasn’t stand off-ish; I was self-contained. I wasn’t a stubborn bitch; I was proud.

And I was never lonesome, as long as I looked to the Artemis women on the screen (silver and small). I grew up with Alien’s Ellen Ripley and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, who—like me, a survivor of abuse—were burdened by circumstance to do battle. Then, I graduated to Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo, who was raw and wry in her roaring rampage to build a real life in the real world after enduring, and exacting, so much violence. When I balanced three part-time jobs with a full-time course-load, I watched Battlestar Galactica’s Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, pure of heart and foul of mouth, level her foes in the ring (and at the bar, and in the bedroom) with the same jab my father taught me as soon as I could walk. As I entered my thirties swinging my sword through the thickets of office politics and social expectations (no, really, when I was settling down?), I found The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings, women who’ve relied on bluntness and an arctic cunning to get by.

These characters could turn the alien queen into a rag doll and close the Hellmouth, leap motorcycle onto speeding train and pilot fighter jets, take down the Capitol and the U.S. government. And for a long time, that was enough. More than enough, that was everything I could ever want to do. Only when I was a little bit older, and a little bit lonelier, did I notice that my idols and I were, for the most part, alone—unpartnered entirely; paired with a doofus who is a flickering lighter compared to her wildfire; or debased and abandoned by someone who loses his soul after sex or puts a cap in her crown.

Seeing women be bad-ass without getting ass, refusing to blunt themselves for a typical happy ending was game-changing, life-saving for girls like me, who would never be the sweet and pliant love interest (or even the sweet and pliant love interest’s sassy gal pal who pairs up with the hero’s kind and dorky buddy). Still, in time, the foxhole of my solitude became a comfortable rut. I could hear birdsong above the barbed wire. And I wanted to know if the sky was as blue as I’d been told.  So, when I watch FX’s The Americans (the season-three finale airs April 22; a fourth season has just been announced), a series that gains its narrative and thematic momentum from the marriage between covert super-spies and bone-snapping, pistol-wielding warriors Elizabeth and Philip Jennings—I am heartened to see a love story that isn’t sweet, but as sharp as the knife-edge that can chop vegetables for the casserole and take out an eye, and is somehow more meaningful for that sharpness.

The Jennings are sent from the glacial bosom of Mother Russia straight to the gaudy, tinsel-wrapped heart of America, where they filter secrets back to the homeland to ensure that hammer-and-sickle beats eagle in the paper-rock-scissors of geo-political relations. Elizabeth is ride-or-die for the cause. Hers is a serpentine muscularity, seemingly delicate and lean until it devours a larger animal whole. Phillip is built of broader planes: His body is a brawler’s, brute yet lithe; his face, however, can betray his receptivity to the comforts and temptations of the adopted land he’s supposed to obliterate from the inside. The show’s first season was teased as a sexy spy vs. spy with the typical gender dynamics of the hard-liner vs. the soft(er) hearted flipped. In one scene, Philip and Elizabeth stand in the kitchen of their Reagan-era suburban home: She is cutting veggies and he stands behind her. “You’re my wife,” he says, perhaps more plaintively than he means to. The glint off her knife winks up into her eyes. “Is that so?” she taunts, her voice musical with erotic menace.

Elizabeth racks up bodies in the streets and the bedroom with dispassion and precision: She murders an innocent defense contractor by kicking the jack out from under the car he’s fixing just so her asset can move into his job; episodes later, she forces an elderly woman who walks in on her and Phillip tampering with government machinery to swallow all of her heart pills. As the woman sweats and gasps her last, Elizabeth sits and watches, troubled but unyielding. This is a rare chisel-tap to the mask that she wears so immaculately, especially when playing honey-pot. Elizabeth’s intel-gathering conquests are emotionally chaste—fuck-and-run affairs that don’t require the sustained emotional engagement of Phillip’s seductions.

One of Philip’s alter egos, Clark—a nebbishy “intelligence oversight officer”—marries Martha, the lonely secretary of FBI supervisor Gaad. Their “long-distance” marriage may be unconventional (to say the least), but, like any good husband, Phillip must continually woo her through long talks filled with hopes, ambitions, and in-jokes, spoken in that insular language of a “We”; and through long nights of dog-earring the Kama Sutra. For Phillip, slipping into the intricacies of a relationship is like flexing his fingers inside a careworn glove. Elizabeth is more proficient at killing. She serves as muscle and trigger-woman during most of their joint operations. And this does not make Phillip any less of a man, or Elizabeth too butch to be loved.

From the moment they first decamped in a shabby D.C. motel room to start their double lives together, he has wanted her, no matter how vicious or insular she can be. He can see, and soothe, the maiden inside the huntress because he can run with the hunt. Phillip joins with Elizabeth when she goes on a rogue mission to avenge the death of her early handler, mentor, and surrogate father figure; she comes within inches of the kill, but her target, a seasoned CIA operative, gets inside her head and teases out the vulnerability that so many of us who’ve put our instincts and ambitions above the idea of partnership and family by insisting that she’s incapable of loving or being loved.  She breaks down, and Phillip’s arms, his soft voice and consoling kisses, don’t so much build her up again as assure her that her scaffolding—that irrevocable core of her—is still strong.

Phillip is uniquely attuned to other people’s feelings, which makes him adroit at his job (though he’s pained about the ways he must use that talent to coax, twist, and bludgeon those feelings to achieve his ends) and makes him an ideal partner for Elizabeth, even (perhaps especially) when they are at odds. In the most recent season, the tension between the couple has sharpened and narrowed from true believer vs. daydream defector into a heartbreaking battle of wills about whether they should honor their Soviet bosses’ directive to reveal their real identities and indoctrinate their teenage daughter, Paige.

Elizabeth has visions of Paige sprinting alongside her, a quiver of arrows on the girl’s slim back, and three fingers pulling the bowstring taut; she can relate better to Paige as a comrade-in-arms (an early episode flashback shows Elizabeth teaching Paige how to swim by tossing her in the deep end of the pool) and not as the sensitive, inquisitive child that Phillip wants to insulate from the truth. And yet, when Paige pleads desperately for that truth—why do people call the house at such odd hours, and why do her parents leave immediately after those calls? Where is their extended family?—Elizabeth is caught speechless. She has the iron spine, but Phillip has the silver tongue: “Your mother and I were born in a different country,” he says, and his choice of words is the surgeon’s first cut, pain and relief in one deft gesture.

This delicious inversion of gender tropes, with the woman as the dealer of the deathblow and the man as the curator and custodian of emotions, is also evident in the Hunger Games series. In her essay, “What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Her Movie Boyfriend, Peeta,” NPR’s Linda Holmes describes a relationship that is ideal one for women like Katniss, women like Elizabeth, women like me; taciturn, often to the point of brusqueness, preoccupied with our own interests, often past the point of obliviousness: “He encourages her to talk about her feelings. He encourages her to share herself with others. He promises her, falsely but selflessly, that her indifference doesn’t hurt him and she owes him nothing … He loves her as she is, while knowing he’ll never change her and parts of her will always be mysterious and out of reach.”

The Peetas and the Phillips do not try to love the roughness out of the women in their lives; a welcome contrast to the narrative where the wild-child is tamed by a patient man and made suitable for domesticity (a narrative that is parodied in Kill Bill via “Arlene Machiavelli’s,” a.k.a. Beatrix Kiddo’s, attempt to become a Texas housewife). I remember one old boyfriend, a kindly, uncomplicated twentysomething guy who was unconsciously auditioning to become the man in the grey flannel suit, taking me in the vise of his arms, whispering into my neck that I “didn’t have to be this way.” I can’t speak, now, to the context (except for alcohol, lots of it), but I can still conjure that elevator-drop in my stomach and the shame that boiled my cheeks. I took in his smell, clear and sharp, slightly sweetish with cologne he’d overapplied with a boyish earnestness that repulsed me; I took in the heat and the heft of him, which I liked more than I wanted to, and I thought, what if “this way”—stubborn and introverted, aggressive and unapologetic—is just how I am?

In the third-season opener, two FBI men try to get the drop on a disguised Elizabeth; she pulps their faces, but just before she delivers the final knockout blows, she takes a hit to the jaw. This vulnerability, in the form of a broken, swollen tooth, pains her for weeks afterward. Phillip begs her to try a dentist. She is obdurate in her insistence that it’s too risky; the FBI will be watching all of the dental offices around the region. So she makes him remove it in their basement, with a pair of pliers. Their eyes meet just as he lowers the metal into her mouth; his ask for permission and hers dare him to go ahead, because she can take it.

And in that twist and crack of a rotten tooth, there is true intimacy—a woman demanding to be loved on her terms, no matter how savage or strange they seem. The Americans is rightly praised for the nesting-doll quality of its plotting, and for its way of roasting new smells, new textures in the old chestnuts of morality and duty, family and country. But the show is equally profound in its interrogation of gender and its reimagining of romance. It’s a duet between equals, even if Elizabeth leaves blood on the dance floor.

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