‘The Americans': Motherhood, the Motherland, and Elizabeth Jennings

     May 5, 2016

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Marriage might be the heart of The Americans, but family is definitely its soul and the relationship dynamic between mother and daughter from the past informs so much about the present. When Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) were presented with the order to enlist Paige (Holly Taylor) as part of a second generation spy program it was extremely telling that Elizabeth was the one who could see the benefits beyond the horrors of this job. Duty to country is important, but really it is duty to the mother Elizabeth has left behind that informs her decision making when it comes to Paige. Now circumstances have changed and Elizabeth’s belief system isn’t so steadfast, and the shakiness of this soon to be crumbling empire begins from within.

At the end of Season 3 Elizabeth got to see her mother for one last time, and while that meeting was meant in part to give Paige a sense of belonging, what it did instead was alienate and push her further away. A bonding trip turned into Paige’s spiraling and subsequent teary ‘confession’ to Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) about their real identity. It’s a far cry from Elizabeth’s own KGB related betrayal when she told her mother about this “life changing opportunity” when she was 16, even though she was under strict instructions to not tell anyone. Elizabeth recounts this moment to Philip during the ‘should we tell Paige?’ saga in “Baggage” to try and explain why she is all for bringing their daughter into this dangerous life. She wants to do what her mother did: “she didn’t blink. She told me to go and serve my country. When I was called, my mother didn’t hesitate.”


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Image via FX

Denying this request is tantamount to going against her mother, and Elizabeth’s world view doesn’t tend to have much wiggle room when it comes to the politics of obeying an order. Or rather, she used to be like this, but since the death of her mother earlier this season certain aspects that she would have staunchly fought against are now open to discussion and interpretation.

Gabriel (Frank Langella) has a message from home regarding her mother’s dying moments and how she wanted Elizabeth to know that she loved her. A sweet gesture, and yet it is one Elizabeth finds it hard to reconcile with; in part because it sounds too convenient, and also because her mother was far more practical than emotional. We see this in Elizabeth’s antibiotic-induced fever dream in “Chloramphenicol” flashing back to her childhood and the extremely pragmatic response from her diphtheria-suffering mother offering up what she should do if she were to die. It is quite easy to see just where Elizabeth gets her stoicism from.

Earlier in this episode, Elizabeth questions whether Paige knows they love her, and the fallout from their big secret has been far greater than she anticipated. Paige is not Elizabeth and America in the early 80s is not Russia in those post-WWII years; to expect Paige to not freak out about their spy shenanigans was naive, and is indicative of Elizabeth’s single-mindedness that is wrapped up in her ideology.

Things change and an unwavering belief can actually begin to waver. Philip has always been the first to push back against authority figures and the impossible orders they are often tasked with. Yeah he’ll still do it, and he’ll make his position known. Elizabeth tends to be the one who will accept whatever is being sent their way, but even she is starting to bristle and fight back. The one person who kick-started this life is now dead, and even though her contact with her mother has been extremely limited there was always this element of doing this for both mother and motherland. Now her family takes priority, and if falling in love with Philip for real had a huge impact on her performance as a spy, what will happen now that her anchor to home has been ripped away?


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Image via FX

Elizabeth’s relationship with her assets strongly point to her current state of mind and longing for deeper connections with other women. Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles) has a huge family and a strong motherly vibe and she also is quick with the humor — something I’m sure young Nadezhda didn’t experience much of growing up in Smolensk. This big family experience is something the Jennings have also not participated in; it has always just been the four of them – for obvious reasons – and their only ‘aunt’ came into play as a cover for a wounded Elizabeth.

There is a feeling of longing here, and Elizabeth’s cover story as Patty is notable as she mentions an absent mother. The story they tell their assets always has some element of truth. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a literal interpretation, but there is definitely a sense of working through some latent motherhood-related issues during her time with Young Hee.

Showing vulnerability is not something Elizabeth has a habit of offering up and yet she has softened of late. Perhaps it’s in reaction to seeing the emotional torment her daughter and her husband are experiencing as a result of this life, or simply because what we have been watching is her emotional evolution. For every piece of Philip’s soul we see shattering with every horrible decision they have to make, Elizabeth also occasionally allows herself to be seen with the tears that well in her eyes. She is far more than an emotionally-devoid, order-following automaton.


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This was clear when Elizabeth encountered Lois Smith’s Betty in last season’s superb “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” and she tried to justify her actions in a similar way a child would, trying to pass off something bad they had done to a parent. In this conversation Elizabeth struggles with the heinous thing she has to do, and it is rare to see her react to collateral damage in this way. Perhaps because she doesn’t tend to talk to someone before she puts a bullet in them — or drops a car on their head — so finding out about Betty’s family and life hit the raw nerve which has since been opened up by Paige and her mother’s illness. Elizabeth sheds tears over this, and her hardened shell is softened not just for a moment. Keri Russell nails all these subtle shifts in a way that makes it incredibly hard to see why she has not been nominated for an Emmy for this role.

Philip has always been the more accessible one; it is why Elizabeth wanted him to take the kids if all went south at the end of Season 1 when she told him in a heartbreaking exchange “you’re the one they want.” Philip disagrees and sums up his reasons without resorting to flowery words: “Paige and Henry need you. They love you. And I get it. You see us together and you think it seems easy. That’s not it.” Followed by the very emphatic and no explanation needed: “You’re their mother.”

Now more than ever for the Jennings, family means everything, as there are plenty of outsiders who could rip them apart. This threat has in part been caused by Paige’s loose lips, and Elizabeth is quick to remind Paige of what is at stake in a very concise (and pretty scary) fashion. Real feelings have to be put away here and after the time jump that closes out the extraordinary “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” we see Paige has taken this lesson on board. It is an incredibly bleak talent to pass on, but for the Jennings family to remain together this compromise of soul is what is required.


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Image via FX

Gabriel has been a father figure to both Philip and Elizabeth, but he has been tiring of their antics. Enter the woman they used to call Granny and Claudia (Margo Martindale), who is the one to give Gabriel some perspective on his resentment toward his agents and their recent behavior. For all his bitching and moaning, Claudia doesn’t even bring up the fact that Elizabeth pummeled her face in; he’s gotten off easy, as Elizabeth has always been more open to the male authority figures in her life, from Gabriel to Zhukov. Perhaps it’s due to her absent father and wanting to fill in this the role, whereas her mother still bears (or at least did) a strong influence over her.

Sacrifices have been made by all in the name of the cause, and now they are made to ensure the Jennings family is not destroyed from within. Elizabeth used to be blinded by her devotion to country, but Paige being made aware of their truth complicates things. The decision to kill someone who stands in their way is no longer a simple solution. Elizabeth is accountable for her daughter’s pain, and yet Paige is still in pain regardless. If only Paige knew what the weekend at Epcot was originally intended for; then maybe she wouldn’t attempt to be so precious and give her mother a hug instead of a mouthful of sass.

Elizabeth does not begrudge her mother for the path she sent her down back when she was 16, and right now it is hard to imagine that Paige will feel anything but bitterness toward her mother with her new task in hand. Religion provided a sense of belonging for Paige when her family felt alien; now she knows who her parents are and the place she felt most at home has been tainted by this truth. And yet, she is being a good daughter and a good junior spy all in the name of family. Ultimately, the call of the motherland is just as powerful when the stakes are this high.

The Americans airs Wednesday nights on FX


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Image via FX

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