Warning: This post contains spoilers for Episode 1, Season 6 of The Americans.
You know a show is truly great when it can open with a four-minute musical montage with no dialogue whatsoever and still leave you with so many feelings that you need a moment to process. That's exactly what happened on last's night's season premiere of The Americans, which gave us a glimpse at Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings' (Keri Russell) life three years after we left off with them in Season 5. Almost every scene of this opening set to Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" would be worth writing about, but the one that gave me pause is a shot of Elizabeth in the shower, wearily scrubbing off yet another sexual encounter in the name of the Motherland. Her expression in that moment, and immediately after, as she lights a cigarette staring out at the darkened Washington Monument is a clear sign that whatever pre-conceived notions of glamour we may have had about spy craft are nothing more than an illusion. This woman is bone-tired, and more than a little disgusted.
The Americans has always had a complicated relationship with sex. Our very first introduction to Elizabeth back in the pilot was as a honey trap in a blonde wig and bustier leather dress, sipping on martinis before luring an unsuspecting U.S. government official into bed. For her and her spy partner husband Phillip, sex is a job. It was never quite shown as a fun perk, but it was part of the routine.
And indeed, over five seasons, the show has broken with the usual trope in showing both Elizabeth and Phillip using sex to get what they need, a task that's gotten more and more difficult for them as their own romantic relationship has deepened over time. In fact, unlike most depictions of marriage on TV, the sexiest sex on The Americans has always been between them as a couple, rather than spiced up by the thrill of the extra-marital affair.
Still, even though Phillip has had to bear his own share of the work-sex burdens (actually marrying one of your sources and keeping up that double life for over two years has got to count for something, I guess), it's always been made clear that that part of the job is harder for women, not due to any kind of delicate sensibilities, but simply because of the added risk of violence. Elizabeth's induction into the KGB, for example, came with the high price of sexual assault at the hand of a superior officer, a trauma that she still hasn't fully dealt with. And now that he's quit the life and she hasn't, that equilibrium in their work-sex life has been disrupted. Now, she's the only one using her body in the service of the Soviet Union, while Phillip gets to give pep talks at the travel agency. Their relationship has clearly suffered as a result, which means that Elizabeth isn't even getting the support at home that she used to rely on after such a mission.
Those stakes are raised even higher by the new addition of their daughter Paige, now a full-fledged spy trainee, who will undoubtedly have to face similar challenges. (A tense conversation between mother and daughter in this season's second episode, provided for review, hints that such a moment might not be far off.) Elizabeth's reluctance to have her daughter follow in those precarious footsteps is evident when, rather than let Paige meet the Navy officer who surprised her waiting for her next shift (but could potentially provide information), she kills him.
The conversation about the problematic nature of the. honey trap trope recently resurfaced in the wake of Red Sparrow, which explicitly cast Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy trained to use her body and her wiles to extract information. There's an undeniable parallel between that movie, set in modern-day Russia, and The Americans, which takes place thirty years in the past. Both strive to debunk the James Bond spy narrative by showing its darker, crueler, and emotionally and physically damaging underbelly. The difference is that, as a television show, The Americans has the luxury of time. We've gotten to know Phillip and Elizabeth. We've seen what they've gone through together, and their own personal journeys. We've seen them evolve. So, where Red Sparrow had to stage not one, but two brutal rape scenarios to get the point across that being a female spy is hard, The Americans has let us come to that same realization slowly, just as its characters have.
Elizabeth may not have admitted it to herself yet, but this job is taking its toll. And finally, the myth of the carefree sexy spy can be dismembered and stuffed in a suitcase, where it belongs.
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