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'The Americans' made motherhood the ultimate disguise

"I saw them out of their disguises ... once."So says a Russian Orthodox priest with KGB ties being interrogate...

Posted: Jun 3, 2018 1:24 PM
Updated: Jun 3, 2018 1:24 PM

"I saw them out of their disguises ... once."

So says a Russian Orthodox priest with KGB ties being interrogated by the FBI in the series finale of "The Americans." Having wed Philip and Elizabeth Jennings to each other as their true selves Mikhail and Nadezhda in the penultimate fifth season, Father Andrei has borne witness to their true love and in so doing, can unmask them to the authorities as the spies we have known them to be all along. (For those planning to watch the series at some point, this piece contains spoilers.)

Philip's and Elizabeth's masks have been more than their stock in trade; their disguises have been a highlight of the FX series, hailed by many as the best on television. One of the pleasures of watching has been to see the creativity of the costume designers unfold, the endless but somehow delightfully 1980s looks Elizabeth and Philip could carry off as they killed their way across America.

Some of Elizabeth's most memorable disguises were as a home health aide, a Washington consultant, a Mary Kay saleswoman, a fashion buyer and a flight attendant. Between those disguises and her cover identity, as a travel agency co-owner who also made brownies for the new neighbors across the street (even when one of them is an FBI agent), she became the many faces of the '80s working mother.

When "The Americans" debuted in January 2013, America was only months beyond President Barack Obama's needling of Mitt Romney for his "1980s" foreign policy that designated Russia as a primary global threat. It seemed quaint and almost laughable for showrunners to ask viewers to care that much about two Soviets locked in a duel whose ultimate geopolitical outcome was a foregone conclusion. Six seasons later, our world order has undergone radical shifts, making a show about Russian espionage on American soil into a far more politically relevant enterprise, to put it mildly.

But even though 2016 changed everything we think of when someone says "Russia," "The Americans" didn't need the zeitgeist to rise up to meet it. For those who watched it, it was never about that. Its brilliant deployment and manipulation of cultural nostalgia got us on board, wielded in the form of referential soundtracks that only got better as the seasons wore on and in the period-perfect costuming of characters both in and out of disguise. Keri Russell's Elizabeth captured what kept us there in this line to her son Henry in the series finale: "What your father said -- I feel the same."

What Elizabeth, an exposed spy on the run, was really saying to Henry, whom she was about to leave behind at his New England boarding school, was "I love you" and "goodbye." She can't say the words, so she has to rely on this double act of translation -- echoing Philip's expression of love as her own and parroting his parental instincts to say something meaningful to forge the farewell that Henry misattributes, as many adolescent boys might, to his parents being inebriated.

This translating gesture is an appropriate conclusion to a story putatively about Cold War espionage that was, at its core, really a chronicle of parenthood. In saying goodbye to Henry, Elizabeth is, in heartbreaking fashion, also bidding farewell to the ultimate disguise her cover has required her to wear: motherhood.

By the end of the finale, she will have abandoned one of her two children and been abandoned by the other. We hear Elizabeth tell a lover in a dream that she never wanted children, and it is the jagged contrast between knowing that to be true and knowing how much it will still hurt her never to see them again that reveals who Paige and Henry really are: the disguise that grew inside her and will remain a part of her even once she returns to being Nadezhda.

It's not that the men in "The Americans" don't matter -- some might easily argue that the love story of the show is the friendship between Matthew Rhys' Philip and his FBI agent neighbor, Stan Beeman, whose love for his friend is the instrument of the Jenningses' escape (and potentially Stan's psychological undoing in the final episode). Noah Emmerich's Stan is the conscience of the show -- like we might want to, he holds the Jenningses at gunpoint but ultimately lets them go.

But it's the power and limitations of motherhood -- and by extension, matriarchy and female friendship -- that are the real story of "The Americans," more than any of the twisty murder plots or historical Cold War signposts (such as Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" speech, which closes the third season).

It's no mistake that episode is the same one in which Elizabeth bucks protocol to visit her dying mother in Berlin, to say goodbye but also to introduce her daughter (and fledgling prot-g-) Paige, to forge an in-the-flesh matriarchal line among the women that will further bind them all to the motherland. (And it's a line that Paige drafts Stan into when she tells him after Stan learns the truth, "You have to take care of Henry." There's no other word than maternal for the body language Stan uses when we see him tell Henry the truth about his parents in the finale's closing sequences.)

For better and for worse -- and it was often for worse, or at least for bloodier -- Elizabeth's moral and emotional journey was the beating heart of "The Americans," and her interactions with women were the engine that drove it.

Some of these interactions are brief, or horrific, and all involve subterfuge. That's because in the game Elizabeth's playing, women are the most necessary -- they're the way in, the backbone of the operation or sometimes the most gruesome collateral damage.

In Season 3, Betty, a bookkeeper at the machine shop repairing the FBI mail robot Elizabeth must bug, forces her to question her own moral clarity. Not knowing that Elizabeth is a mother, too, Betty talks of her son in the hopes her life will be spared.

As Elizabeth forces her to take a fatal overdose anyway, she says: "Do you think doing this to me will make the world a better place? Elizabeth replies: "I'm sorry, but it will." Betty's response, and Elizabeth's tears after she watches Betty die, foreshadow much of the last season's character development: "That's what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things."

In Season 2, Elizabeth tells Lucia, the Sandinista freedom fighter, "Your revolution is beautiful." She sees herself in Lucia, acts as a sisterly mentor, but when Lucia can't put the work above her revolutionary passion, Elizabeth fails to stop her death.

With Young Hee in Season 4, Elizabeth experiences what feels like true friendship with another woman (before drugging that friend's husband to blackmail him for information). In Erica, the dying artist who teaches Elizabeth to draw -- to see -- she meets a twin devotee to a higher calling but begins to feel what it might be like to have a vocation to express, rather than repress, herself (before mercy-choking Erica to death with a paintbrush).

And then, of course, there are Elizabeth's relationships with women that span the seasons -- with Martha, with Claudia, and most of all, with Paige. Martha's primary relationship is with Philip, posing as her husband "Clark," but Elizabeth -- as Clark's sister, "Jennifer" -- is an important seal on that bond. There's also a kinship between Martha and Elizabeth in the suggestion the show makes that after her near-exposure and exfiltration, Martha -- like Elizabeth -- may end up with a child in Russia. Martha, too, would be an alien, bound to a foreign nation by one of its children.

If Martha shows Elizabeth the cost of loving a person more than you love your country, then it's her handler, Claudia, who reminds her of the opposite. Claudia and Elizabeth team up to teach Paige about her Russian heritage, and in between the history lessons and the bonding over losing their virginity, it becomes clear that Claudia is exerting her grandmotherly role at least as much to bring Elizabeth to heel as she is to bring Paige further into the fold. Elizabeth's filial relationship with Claudia is what helps her realize that the mother she's always had is Russia; when Claudia tries to redirect that loyalty exclusively toward the KGB to depose Gorbachev, Elizabeth severs the bond by exposing the plot.

The conflict between loyalty and maternal instinct also brings down Elizabeth's relationship to Paige, the child she was grooming for spycraft. Even when she tells Paige the truth about colleagues getting killed, or her own rape, Elizabeth still lies about her own roles in the darker side of her professional world, the murders and sexual manipulation. It's what any parent would do -- gloss over the truth to shield a child from the worst of their parents -- but this breach of comradeship with Paige as a fellow operative prompts a rift with her mother that Elizabeth can't mend. It's one of the last conversations they have before Paige abandons both her parents at the Canadian border, to be with her brother or to stay an American or to be free finally to find the purposeful life for which she's longed.

Costume designer Katie Irish told one publication recently of the disguises on "The Americans," "It's not as interesting to get dressed as it is undressed."

Her daughter is the disguise Elizabeth can't take off, so Paige does it for her. And when Elizabeth and Philip make it back to Russia, and we see them looking out over the Moscow skyline at night, knowing they only have each other, the story of the marriage of Mikhail and Nadezhda isn't over, but the story of "The Americans" -- of their lives with Paige and Henry -- is. We too can now say we saw them without their disguises, once.

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