Jennifer Walters may have accidentally become a Hulk. But she’s a bit different shade of green than her cousin Bruce Banner.
If there’s one thing television teaches us, it’s to never, ever trust our neighbors.
Sure, the Bible tells us to treat them kindly and all. And television agrees—but only to keep them from murdering us in our sleep. After all, if you lived back in the 1980s on a block owned by FX, they just might be deep-cover Russian spies.
Meet the Jennings family of The Americans. Philip and Elizabeth run a travel agency. (They still had such things back then.) Daughter Paige is just your average college student. Son Henry loves playing hockey. These all-Americans look like they crawled right out of a Hallmark Channel special (if Hallmark had had a cable channel during the Cold War.)
But Mom and Dad are Russians, sent by the Soviet Union to spy on all things U.S. They groom sources. They take pictures. They either have sex with or kill anyone who might know anything—sometimes both. Then they ship whatever they can back to the Motherland.
But as the show’s sixth and final season begins in the heady, Glasnost-tinged days of 1987, something else is brewing. The Soviet Union is changing. Lines are being drawn not just between the U.S.S.R. and the good old U.S.A., but inside Mother Russia herself—hard-liners on one side, reformers on the other. Is it possible that Philip and Elizabeth can’t even trust … each other?
Yes, the Jennings are spies, but James Bond is not the template for The Americans. It’s their family, not their drinks, that is shaken. Even as they surveil for the Soviet Union, they’re just trying to live their lives, too—raise their kids in the best way they know how. When Philip and Elizabeth stay awake with worry, it’s more often because of their children, not their super-secret occupations. (Paige herself is now firmly enmeshed in the real family business by season six, too.)
And they have another worry: What if they’re caught? What becomes of their kids? Philip, in particular, seems conflicted over his duties as Soviet agent and his responsibilities as a husband and father—temporarily setting aside the spy business, even, and becoming a full-time travel agent. Elizabeth, who’s more committed to the cause, never falters in her duty to the Motherland. But she’s a mother herself, too. And a wife. What happens when one duty collides with another?
“We always conceived of The Americans as a show about a marriage, more than espionage, that shows how, even under the craziest circumstances, the marriage still looks and feels like any other marriage,” Joseph Weisberg, the show’s creator (and a former CIA employee) told Time. “I think Matthew Rhys [as Philip] is this incredible embodiment of a suburban dad and a tough KGB officer at the same time. Keri Russell [as Elizabeth] can be such a loving mom who can turn, on a dime, into this killer.”
Indeed she can. And does. She and Philip can also quickly and easily scrap their wedding vows to use sex as a weapon of war against someone else with valuable information to share. Thus, both Philip and Elizabeth sleep around a lot—with some of the scenes shown in extreme, embarrassing, titillating detail. From flashes of nudity to explicit sexual movements, FX makes full use of the show’s TV-MA rating.
The violence, too, is routinely extreme—more harrowing, perhaps, than perspicuous. These are spies, remember, who must do their work in secret. Rarely do we see showy spouts of blood. But the callous brutality with which they go about their work and dispose of the aftermath—well, let’s just say that even Dexter might wince. Language is often harsh, with characters prone to saying the s-word or abusing Jesus’ name.
There’s one more detail to deal with here: the enemy. It may seem quaint now, but this being a period piece, it’s relevant to remember that in the 1980s many in the Soviet Union wanted to bring down the United States and all it stood for. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings would’ve been significant tools in their arsenal.
“One paradigm I have is that the audience sympathizes with Philip and Elizabeth, follows them along as they are on some dangerous and scary mission and wants them to succeed,” Weisberg said. “And then the audience suddenly gasps, ‘Oh my god, I was just rooting for them while they were carrying out this terrible thing that was devastating the U.S. government!’ There’s this moment of shock because they’ve been rooting against our own interest. Then before you know it, Philip and Elizabeth are back at home with their nice kids, and the audience is on their side again. Through that experience, there’s a breakdown of the barriers between us and them. Finding yourself rooting for the enemy is a fundamental part of the experience. What is the enemy? What does it even mean to be the enemy?”
It’s actually a pretty profound question. And the answers to it make a huge difference in how one sees the world. But do we need such a salacious show to do the asking?
If there’s one thing television teaches us, it’s to never, ever trust your neighbors. But The Americans tells us that trusting our televisions can be just as dangerous.
In the series finale, Philip and Elizabeth must make their way to Russia without being caught by the FBI. The only question is whether their children, Paige and Henry, will be able to join them.
KGB operatives must choose between relaying secret information and protecting their own lives. They also discuss murdering people and those who have fallen in war. A man is thrown in jail, leaving his wife and new baby destitute. A family is threated at gunpoint and they’re forced to leave their son behind. People drink hard liquor and smoke, and a woman lies in bed, in lingerie, with a shirtless man. Jesus’ name is misused once and the f-word is heard three times. Other profanities include “s—” and “p—y.”
It’s 1987, and Mikhail Gorbachev is leading sweeping changes throughout the Soviet Union. Not every Russian is so keen on Glasnost, though, and there’s a power struggle within the country’s power structure. One conservative Russian leader meets with Elizabeth and tells her to keep an eye on one of Gorbachev’s lackeys attending a U.S.-U.S.S.R. weapons summit. If that lackey seems ready to hand over a program called “Dead Hand” to the Americans, Elizabeth’s supposed to report it; the man promises Gorbachev will be “gone in 24 hours.” He gives Elizabeth an apparent suicide tablet hidden in a necklace, reinforcing the fact that she can’t be caught. Meanwhile, another Russian operative, one apparently loyal to Gorbachev, contacts Philip and asks that he keep an eye on his wife. “And if you have to,” the contact says, “stop her.”
Meanwhile, daughter Paige is slowly being introduced into the world of espionage. But while she’s waiting and spying, she’s approached by a naval security guard who checks her (fake) ID and keeps it—in exchange for a date. Paige tells her mother all about it. And while Elizabeth tells Paige that it’s no big deal, she later goes out, finds the guard and stabs him in the neck, allowing the guy to bleed out on the sidewalk while she plucks Paige’s ID from the man’s pocket.
Viewers see Elizabeth take a shower, glimpsing her body from the side. (Nothing critical is shown). She also stares at one of her sexual marks—an older man lying apparently naked on a hotel bed. (We see quite a bit of the man’s body, but creative camera angles obscure full nudity.)
There’s a reference to sneaking boys into a Soviet worker dormitory. Philip line dances at a country-western saloon. Wine is served at a dinner party. Elizabeth smokes a lot in the episode, and Philip says she reeks of it. Characters say “a–,” “d–n,” “h—” and “crap” once each. God’s name is also misused.
Elizabeth and Phillip grow more concerned with daughter Paige’s relationship with Matthew. If she grows too attached to him, they fear, she could let their big family secret slip without even realizing it. Meanwhile, FBI agent Stan Beeman tries to stop the CIA from re-contacting a Russian, now back home, who helped Stan in the past. “He trusted me,” he tells his boss. “I can’t just stand by while you destroy him. … I just don’t know what kind of organization we are if we punish him for [helping].”
Elizabeth is particularly concerned that Paige may have sex with her beau, and her worries may be well founded. We see Paige and Matthew make out during a homework session. The camera spies some groping in both directions (including his hands under her shirt and a glimpse of her bra). But Elizabeth says she doesn’t care whether Paige and Matthew have sex, and she teaches her daughter a technique to hopefully prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Someone else makes a crass reference to a bit of male anatomy.
We see Elizabeth’s bare back and bum and the side of her breast while she showers. Stan starts a relationship with a woman from his gym (where we see women in form-fitting exercise outfits), and the two embrace, Stan kissing her cheek quickly.
Elizabeth and Phillip deal with the aftermath of shooting and burying a fellow agent they didn’t want to kill. Paige repeatedly punches a taped-up throw pillow. They and others plot, scheme and lie, and officials from the U.S. government scheme as well. Stan and Phillip sip a beer. Characters say the s-word four times and “g-dd–n” twice.
Philip and Elizabeth are desperately trying to smuggle a terrible biological poison out of the country—one that they’ve been forced to store in their home. But another crisis just as serious arises: After they tell Paige a bit about their real jobs for the Soviet Union, Elizabeth learns (via wiretap) that Paige proceeded to tell Pastor Tim, her youth leader, “everything.” And Elizabeth knows they’ll have to rub the guy out.
“You want to kill the one person in the world she trusts?” Philip asks.
Philip strangles a man on an airport shuttle. Elizabeth dreams that Paige finds the corpse of Pastor Tim, who then comes to life and tries to rape the girl. Philip recalls when he killed a bully at age 10—how he “hit this one kid in the head [with a rock] over and over and over, until, you know.”
Henry confesses that he has a crush on his teacher, talking about her dress. Stan suspects that his wife and Philip are having an affair.
Characters drink beer. We hear the s-word twice, “b–ch” once. God’s name is misused. Pastor Tim’s study boasts a cross, religious books and a Bible opened to Nehemiah. (We see all that because Philip is snooping.)
Paige is growing increasingly aware of politics, and Elizabeth wonders whether she might take to the family business. Philip, knowing what’s involved with the job, is horrified.
And it seems he’s right to feel that way, because we soon see Elizabeth help dispose of a woman murdered by one of their associates. The woman was killed while having sex and is fully nude. We see her from the rear and side, and we see her body grotesquely folded into a suitcase, arms and legs snapping as it’s compacted. The damage done is evidenced by, among other things, shattered bones pressing against skin.
Stan is nearly shot by a Soviet agent and tells his ex-wife about it. “Truth is,” he says, nearly sobbing, “You are the only person I want to tell.” She says she’s glad he’s all right, but that she’s not coming back to him. Paige and her mom talk about whether Dad is having an affair. (Paige thinks he might be; Mom knows he’s not.)
A woman is shown urinating, then wiping herself. Philip and Elizabeth drink beers at a bar. Characters say “g–d–n” three times and “d–n” once.
In the midst of much plotting and counterplotting, Philip buys a shiny new Camero and brings it home to a displeased Elizabeth. “Don’t you enjoy any of this?” he asks her by way of excuse, pointing to the house, her clothes, their posh American lifestyle. “That’s not why I’m here,” she tells him. “It’s nicer here, yes. It’s easier. It’s not better.”
Lucia, a KGB asset, tries to drug, kidnap and eventually kill Larrick, another (but more important and slimier) asset. They tussle and both get shot with tranquilizer darts. When Elizabeth shows up to settle things, Lucia makes another attempt on Larrick. Larrick strangles her to death in front of Elizabeth, who does nothing. Philip discovers he indirectly caused the death of 160 Soviets. We hear about plots to kill others. Philip, undercover, is seen in bed with another woman. An FBI agent breaks laws to save his Russian girlfriend, who in gratitude kisses him passionately while both sit on a bed. (It’s implied that she’s his lover and, further, not a faithful one.)
We hear one s-word; also four or five uses of “g‑‑d‑‑n” and one “h‑‑‑.” Folks drink liquor. There’s talk of buying beer and of using alcohol to make sex palatable. Henry breaks into a neighbor’s house to play video games.
In order to plant a bug in the U.S. Secretary of State’s private study, Phillip and Elizabeth blackmail the secretary’s housekeeper by poisoning her son. In 72 hours, they tell her, her college-age boy will be dead unless she cooperates.
The housekeeper, however, is deeply loyal to the family she serves, and very religious to boot. This prompts Phillip to say, “People who believe in God always make the worst targets.” And sure enough, the housekeeper refuses to “help.” “I know the devil,” she tells Philip. “I don’t listen to you. I listen to my Lord. He protects me. He guides me.” With that, Phillip grabs a pillow and begins smothering her son right in front of her—keeping it up until she finally relents. Elsewhere, torture is used to get somebody to talk. (Something is stuffed down an informant’s mouth and throat.) Elizabeth intimates that she’d kill herself before getting caught.
Phillip shares a graphic sex scene with a politician’s trophy wife. It involves rear nudity, some roughness and sexual movements. We see the woman elsewhere in her bra and panties. She frequently kisses and poses dirty come-ons to Phillip.
After the pilot focuses on a man crudely propositioning the 14-year-old Paige, it’s notable that part of this episode revolves around her buying a bra and getting her ears pierced. (We see part of her bra strap.) Characters drink wine and beer. They say the s-word four or five times, and also say “a‑‑” and “d‑‑n,” misuse both God’s and Jesus’ names, and apply lots of vulgar terms to various body parts.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).
Jennifer Walters may have accidentally become a Hulk. But she’s a bit different shade of green than her cousin Bruce Banner.
Da Vinci was known for his artistic realism. This show shares very little of that with its own protagonist.
It’s silly, it’s super, it’s Hamster & Gretel.
Mindy Kaling’s newest comedy has a really sweet message at its core, but it’s unnecessarily rife with issues.