Covert Conversion on THE AMERICANS
A shorter version of this piece was published at Think Christian.
In 1928, W. Somerset Maugham, having recently retired from the British Secret Intelligence Service, published Ashenden: Or the British Agent, widely considered the first espionage novel to reach the heights of “great literature.” While largely forgotten today by all but the most enthusiastic connoisseurs of espionage fiction, Ashendon kicked off a renaissance of sorts within the genre. Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and others followed in Maugham’s footsteps before eventually passing the torch to John Le Carre, Alan Furst, Len Deighton, and others, all of whom pushed the boundaries and expanded the possibilities of the genre. Where once espionage fiction had been driven primarily by thrills and adventure, these writers were artists. They were skilled wordsmiths, and masters of mood, with characters as richly drawn as any in 20th-century fiction.
Today, that mantle has been assumed most brilliantly by television’s most fascinating show: The Americans, whose fourth season is set to debut tonight on FX.
The series centers on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, Soviet intelligence officers posing as a married couple in 1980s Washington, D.C. They have two children — Paige and Henry — who know nothing of their parents’ long con and want only to be a part of a “typical” American family. But the Jennings are too bound in their deceit to be typical anything.
When we first meet Elisabeth in the pilot, she is undercover, drinking martinis alongside one of D.C.’s many civil servants, looking for classified information. She’s seated at a bar, facing her mark, but she’s next to a mirror so that she’s framed as if she’s looking at him both from the front and behind. She has him surrounded and is in control. Her look is one of total confidence. When she decides to make her move he’s powerless to resist.
Elisabeth has a chameleon’s ability to slip in and out of costumes, to jump from role to role. She doesn’t second-guess, and she rarely asks questions. Her commitment is to the mission above all else. Phillip is less doctrinaire about his job. He likes living in America and isn’t inclined to do as he’s told without considering the ramifications. Unlike Elizabeth, he’s okay with the West, even as his day job (or, rather, his night job) is to topple it.
For Elisabeth, the cause is holy. For Philip, it’s complicated. He believes in it, but not without conscience. They share a common goal but often don’t agree on how to attain it. They share a common vision but often see its particulars differently. This difference is the show’s central conflict and that which makes it an essential commentary on family life.
This is seen most clearly in their relationship with Paige, who, like most teenagers, seeks to carve out her place in the world. Unfortunately, the world she wants to live in is one her parents are out to destroy. And when, in season three, she has a spiritual awakening in a local Evangelical church they cringe as she prays, is baptized, and finds community unattainable in their home.
“They get them when they’re children,” Elisabeth says fearfully to Philip. “They indoctrinate them with friendship and songs and cute boys cooing about Jesus.”
To curtail Paige’s growing religious zeal, the devoutly atheistic Elisabeth wants to reveal the secret of their identity to Paige, come what may. To indoctrinate Paige before the Christians can do it first.
But Phillip wants to protect his daughter from the chaos that such knowledge would bring. He doesn’t want her to be compelled to live a life of anxiety and violence and impurity, for her life to be a shadow of what could have been. He isn’t comfortable with her newfound spirituality, but he understands it. After all, the reasons she chose to join the Church aren’t all that different than the reasons he opted to fight for his country.
Once upon a time Philip felt trapped, caged in by the loss and hopelessness that often is the paraphernalia of war, and so he joined — or allowed himself to be drawn into — the shadow world of espionage, into a life characterized by violence and betrayal. Paige’s circumstances are not so dire as her father’s, but in her own way she is trapped too. She senses that something in her family is missing, that all is not as is it should be, that the threads holding them all together are wearing thin. Looking elsewhere, she finds camaraderie in the Church. Hers is not a conversion of rebellion but a genuine expression of metanoia. She finds hope in repentance.
As season three goes on, Paige’s public participation in the life of the church deepens. She begins to take part in causes that the church values and she comes to view her pastor — portrayed as an admirable if overwhelmed defender of justice and hope — as a guiding light.
As Phil Christman notes in his excellent preview of season four over at Christianity Today, Paige has what Philip wants.
While Philip lives out his beliefs covertly (literally in disguise), Paige expresses hers publically. Where Philip’s expression of belief often comes in the form of killing, Paige’s expression comes in the life-giving waters of public baptism. While his mission is to destroy, hers is to build up. Through her faith, Paige has attained a sense freedom that Philip has never known, and when she’s lifted gently out of the waters of a baptismal font (while her parents fidget in the pews), the weight of her loneliness seems to wash away.
Later, Philip admits to one of his marks, a girl the same age as Paige, that he’s not a good man. He’s working when he says this, sure, but his remorse is genuine as well. His conscience is heavy. If only he could slip beneath the same waters as his daughter. If only he could be purified.
It seems unlikely that Philip will follow his daughter to the church (although I wouldn’t rule it out given the many directions the show has taken us already), but he sympathizes with her. He doesn’t believe as she does, but it’s clear they long for the same things.
In these moments The Americans earns its place in the pantheon of espionage fiction, up there with Maugham and Ambler and Le Carre. It’s not about what makes a good spy so much as it’s about what makes a good husband and a good wife and a good parent. It’s not about capers and car chases and gunfights (although it has each a-plenty); it’s about conscience and faith and why we love the things we love. It’s about longing and hope.
Even as it’s about living a lie, it’s about learning to be honest.
“I want us to be able to say what’s true,” Elisabeth tells Phillip. “I want us . . . to be … real. Do you think we could do that?”
“I don’t know,” he says. He’s not confident, but he’s hopeful.
“I would try. Will you try?” She is patient as if working a mark.
He hesitates. “Yes,” he says.