How ‘The Americans’ Portrayal of Teenagers Puts Other Dramas to Shame

     May 25, 2016


Family is so important to Elizabeth and Philip’s cover story on The Americans and they are far from immune to the challenges that come with parenting teenagers. Ah teenagers, the scourge of dramas like this, particularly when they get pushed into the forefront of the story just to create obstacles for the protagonists. This is no cougar trap or hit and run predicament, yet The Americans has done what is often deemed impossible and incorporated a teen story that not only makes sense to the plot, but has also pushed the boundaries in new and emotionally devastating ways. Philip and Elizabeth must live with the consequences of their spy life in the life they created as a cover.

For Jack Bauer on 24, daughter Kim Bauer was at the heart of many plot twists that ranged from the ridiculous (cougar traps, kidnapped) to the extreme (somehow getting a job at CTU) that had a habit of inducing a whole lot of eye rolls. On Homeland I was a big fan of Dana Brody and how she influenced her father’s actions, well until she became Kim Bauer 2.0 with the Season 2 hit-and-run storyline. It was yet another reason why Brody should probably have been killed at the end of Season 1 as the writers initially intended.


Image via FX

It isn’t just in the spy genre that teen characters create chaos, as Masters of Sex viewers discovered last season when a time jump led to Virginia Masters’ daughter Tessa entering this same problem age territory. There have been a lot of missteps on Masters of Sex, recently and though there was potential for a nuanced teen story, instead, Tessa went down the sabotage route and was a nuisance in terms of the overall plot. The Affair is another show which features a super bratty teen that suffers from being underwritten, and yet I can’t help but admire Whitney’s “the worst” status, particularly after her father accidentally leered over her in a drug-fueled hot tub party scene.

One thing all of these characters have in common beyond how much they infuriate an audience is they are all girls and teen boys tend to get a short shrift on the TV drama front. It isn’t just teen boys, either, as Mad Men‘s Bobby Drapers one through five can attest (although this was maybe more down to striking gold with Kiernan Shipka and not having the same casting success with Bobby). Homeland‘s Chris Brody simply waved a lot and got excited about big TVs, and Kim Bauer was an only child. On The Affair, son Martin Solloway got a whole lot of stomach cramps which resulted in surgery, and he also faked his own suicide as a prank, but his screeching never quite hit Whitney levels. The other kids don’t register at all.

Paige Jennings, though, has always had a meaningful arc. She has also had the suspicion that something isn’t quite right with her parents long before she found out the truth; at the end of Season 1 she ventured down to the laundry room to see what secrets it held, only to find folded clothes. At the start of the second season, she learned about the importance of knocking on a bedroom door before entering. (Therapy for this moment alone is required). During this period she also travelled to seek out the aunt Elizabeth had been “looking after” only to find an answer of a different kind. This is when Paige was introduced to church youth group, and a hole in her life was temporarily filled.


Image via FX

Surprise trips to secluded cabins in the middle of the night did little to temper Paige’s curiosity, and the same was true for Philip’s nights away from the family home — the excuse of travel agent business was flimsy at best. Even before she found out the truth Paige had been exhibiting snooping skills that would make her perfect for the Second Generation spy program that was the cause of so many arguments last season. Now she is fully aware of her parents’ lineage, and those spy traits are coming into focus as they subtly coach her on how to handle her assets (Pastor Tim and Alice) and manipulate them into keeping the secret she shouldn’t have spilled in the first place. Paige has chosen family over country in a much more explicit way than her parents have, but this also mirrors Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother; just with a little less respect and a lot more answering back.

Paige is becoming quite the junior spy, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t any pushback, as she is still a ball of raging hormones. And while her rebellion was about trusting God and not something like doing drugs, she is still very much in a confrontational period of her life. Sass and snark is part of this, and growing up in 1980s America is far different from post-war USSR, as Philip so eloquently pointed out in the opening of last week’s “Munchkins.” It wasn’t about what you liked, but about hard work and protecting your family. There is no handbook or raising adolescents, and emotions can be just a volatile as bio-weapons. Philip and Elizabeth just got to make sure they can contain and temper the situation before it spins even further out of control.

Good casting also helps when it comes to expanding a narrative like this, and The Americans hit the jackpot with Holly Taylor. Each season we have seen her grow into this role and as an actress. Wide-eyed tears and sulky teen face are not the only weapons in her reaction arsenal, as she also performs the subtle shifts between real and faked emotion with aplomb. The chemistry between the whole family unit is excellent, and Keidrich Sellati’s Henry Jennings exhibits a personality way beyond his generally forgotten teen boy counterparts.


Image via FX

In the last episode, we also saw Paige reacting in a very normal teen way to an extreme situation; when it was inferred that a move to Russia might be on the cards, Paige pitched a very bratty fit. While it can’t be denied that she is the reason why their secret is out, I also understand why she responded in this manner. What teen would be super chill about uprooting their entire life? Even moving to another state away would probably be met with this kind of response.

Unlike Martha who took the move to an alien country with quiet dignity and poise, Paige is having none of it because it sounds so utterly ridiculous. Martha’s motivation is love and self sacrifice, whereas Paige is coming at it from an entirely different (and yes you might call selfish) point of view. Martha and the Jennings kids are in the same boat in one respect as they are all innocent in being brought into this world, but Paige has some pushback here because blood is thicker than water. While Philip knew he would have to kill Martha if she ran again, protecting their children is ultimately their number one priority.

On the surface, Paige’s brother Henry falls into the boy child on a drama pattern and yet I think there is something much more interesting at play here. Like Paige, he has exhibited skills his parents would be proud of from an early age. Case in point in the Season 1 episode “Trust Me” when Paige and Henry had a ‘stranger danger’ moment and Henry smashed a bottle over the creepy dude’s head so they could flee — much like his father’s actions when he was around Henry’s age in the flashback we saw at the start of this season. In that case the bottle was a rock and the other kid was killed, but the thematic parallels are still present.


Image via FX

There is also the time he spied on his neighbors to pinpoint the ideal time to break into their house so he could play computer games. Most of the time Henry is pretty oblivious to tensions in his home; the morning after the big spy reveal all he was focused on was perfecting a SNL impression, and there has been a whole ream of excuses so far this season ranging from listening to his Walkman, to being out, to playing on the computer as to why he is none the wiser. Or, there was him throwing a tennis ball against the garage door, much to Elizabeth’s annoyance. But not only did this amp up the tension of this scene, but it also acted as a reminder that Henry is only a wall away from finding out the truth. The banging is the soundtrack of the doom which hangs over everything; bombs of both personal and global devastation levels are ready to detonate at any given moment.

And when/if he does, what then? For starters, he has built up a relationship with Stan, and Stan as an FBI Agent is their natural enemy. Whereas Paige has faith, Henry is somewhat adrift. Since the return of Matthew, it is only natural that Henry has spent less one on one time with Stan, but he has at least found a friend at lot nearer his own age. Matthew is another ultimate 80s latchkey kid with a parent who has a job he can’t really talk about. Their relationship has been strained up until now, and part of this is down to Stan’s closed off nature; now though he is spilling work secrets, and that could become a problem if Paige begins to relay what he is saying back to her mom and dad. Let those instincts kick in, Paige.

Back in Season 1, Paige had a crush on Matthew, but now she has too much on her mind to let these typical teen feelings come pouring out. When the three abandoned kids hung out a few weeks ago and beer was being drunk there was no debauchery; just watching TV. It’s a very different set up to The Leftovers, in which Danny Flaherty also played a teen, and the hangout scenarios post-Departure included a lot more extreme behavior of the excessive drink, drugs and sex kind. Basically, it was your typical depiction of cliché teen rebellion on cable coupled with a big dollop of ennui.


Image via FX

Even the character that does lean toward the racier end of the teen experience spectrum has done so in this quiet, sad way that mirrors her disconnected family life. Kimmy returned last week, and she’s still smoking all of Philip’s excellent pot, but thankfully she is lusting after him a lot less than she was before. The parallels between Kimmy and Paige are still strong, and Paige could easily have become a Kimmy if the friend she made on the bus was into partying and not youth group.

In the upcoming episode “Dinner for Seven,” the title alone suggests we are in for some fun with dinner at the Jennings house as the guests are Pastor Tim, Alice and Stan; this is full of so many fraught possibilities — especially when so many people know everything and others are oblivious. I am also pretty certain that Henry will provide some accidental awkward commentary as he did when asking about Stan about his crush at the time and Stan’s ex-wife Sandra Beeman (also one of my fave Elizabeth reaction shots).

Teens on TV have a habit of pushing buttons, but if you’re going to have a precocious adolescent character it helps to have the storyline to back it up rather than simply creating an obstacle. On The Americans they have done just this and as I discussed in article on Elizabeth and motherhood, marriage is the heart of this show, while family is the soul. Everything that is happening with Paige and Henry serves story and character ,and it isn’t just a convenient way to add another level of drama for Philip and Elizabeth; the kids are both the obstacle and the consequence intrinsically linked at the very foundation of the premise.

The Americans airs Wednesday nights on FX.


Image via FX