Watching The Americans

SPOILER ALERT: this post contains plot points of “The Americans” series finale.

They actively undermined the United States government. They killed dozens of people, some of them just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They used sex to manipulate those with power or access. They spat upon faith, calling it “the opiate of the masses.” And yet, I cared about “The Americans” characters Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, longtime Russian spies posing as upwardly-mobile travel agents and parents of two in 1980s DC.

Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields made these enemies of the state relatable through masterful storytelling. We saw Philip and Elizabeth’s struggles with ideology and morality. With raising kids born into a culture they were taught to despise. With growing together and apart multiple times, ultimately trusting their partnership despite their diverging outlooks on the state of the world. They were three-dimensional characters. So too was Stan, the FBI counterintelligence agent who moved in across the street in the pilot. Stan was a true patriot and an unfaithful husband, bedding a KGB officer he (thought he) had turned.

So when the series finale aired last month, I was invested. Philip and Elizabeth had been exposed. Would they be able to escape? Stan had realized the truth about the neighbors he regularly shared meals with. How would the inevitable confrontation go? And what about the kids – college student Paige, who had been recruited into the spy business, and high school junior Henry, who had nary a clue about his parents’ true identities?

Stan’s ambush – and ultimate release – of Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige was anxious and heartfelt. For me the real gut punch, though, was the severing of the parent-child bonds. Philip decided Henry’s best shot at a normal life was to abandon him in the only country he’s ever known. In a surprise move, Paige hopped off the train she and her parents are traveling on just before it crosses the U.S.-Canadian border. All of these decisions, so permanent, yet made so quickly out of necessity. I haven’t been able to view the finale again yet. It’s too raw – and this for someone who thinks her feelings.

But maybe my re-watch hesitation has nothing to do with the show. I wonder if it’s actually about the real-time crisis happening on our southern border. Sure, Philip and Elizabeth might never see their kids again. But their children were more or less grown and able to get along on their own. They remained in places familiar to them, where they spoke the same language as most everyone else. They were untethered from their parents’ uncertain destinies by the sacrifice. One of kids was able to choose her own fate. And, of course, they were fictional characters.

None of this is the case for Central American families moving north into the U.S., seeking better, safer lives, many of them engaging the proper channels for asylum. Instead, children – even infants – were being whisked away with no guarantee of when or whether they will see their parents again. (While the executive order means newly-entering families are being detained together, it does nothing to help the children who have already been separated and farmed out to various “welfare” agencies.) Even if you’re not a parent, we were all once small children. Imagine being separated from your mom and dad, held in a cage or an abandoned Wal-mart, put on a plane to another state while no one is really keeping tabs on your location, supervised by people who are forbidden to hold and comfort you in your confusion and distress. It’s traumatizing. It’s inhumane. And if faith doesn’t compel us to action, maybe we are just taking in “the opiate of the masses.”

If I can care about Russian spies on tv, then surely I – we – can have compassion for the flesh-and-blood children of God, coming to our country with hopes of contributing to it, of raising their intact families in it. God help me if I don’t advocate for them exponentially more fervently than I love a tv show that was, at its root, about humanizing the other. May we all be watching – and calling and protesting – the real-life Americans who are causing irreparable harm.

Image courtesy of FX.

One thought on “Watching The Americans

  1. What a powerful connection between the fictional story and the real story going on right here in our midst. The line that struck me the hardest was, “And if faith doesn’t compel us to action, maybe we are just taking in “the opiate of the masses.” Wow. Thank you, Laura.


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