Violence and Identity in The Americans

Warnings for violence, including sexual violence.

Spoilers throughout.

FX's spy drama The Americans has finished its sixth and final season, concluding the stories of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), two KGB "illegal" spies posing as an American couple in Washington, D.C. at the height of the Cold War. The show follows Elizabeth and Philip as they raise their children, run a front business, and gather intelligence, all while living across the street from FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). Though the focus is espionage, The Americans layers its disguises and spycraft over intense personal drama, using the elements of deception and identity to examine human fragility, need, and intimacy. This focus has also meant the show has included sequences of violence, including sexual violence. While the series allows viewers to empathize with Elizabeth and Philip, they commit horrific acts, up to and including murder, in order to maintain their cover and further their cause. But they are also framed as part of a system of violence, one that they perpetuate, but through which they are also exploited.

As covert agents, Elizabeth and Philip's work primarily involves collecting information, often through forming relationships with various sources. The use of sex in acquiring intelligence reflects real world incidents of agents engaging in sexual relationships to obtain information and extort targets. The characters use various disguises and false identities when pursuing their sources. For example, Philip takes on the identity of Clark Westerfeld, an Internal Affairs agent with the FBI, to seduce and eventually even "marry" a secretary in FBI counterintelligence named Martha. But given that Philip and Elizabeth lie about the identities, and form these relationships to collect unwitting assets for the KGB, this raises issues of consent. At the same time, Elizabeth and Philip's own relationship is a product of their KGB service. They did not choose to be together, but were assigned to each other and tasked with acting as a married couple. Though they had outwardly behaved as a married couple for years prior to when the show starts, their romantic relationship does not really begin until the end of the first episode, and much of the series is concerned with what it means for Elizabeth and Philip to form an actual relationship within the shell of their "pretend" one.

From the start, The Americans also deals with sexual violence. In the pilot, Elizabeth and Philip kidnap a Soviet military defector, who is revealed in flashbacks to have raped Elizabeth during her KGB training. Upon learning this, Philip, who had been planning to defect himself, instead kills the defector, a turning point in Elizabeth and Philip's previously distant relationship. On the surface, it is not a deft handling of sexual violence. It appears to fall into the unfortunate "rape as backstory" trope, defining our female protagonist through a prism of sexual violence while her husband kills her attacker.

But as the show continues, and as the characters further develop, the handling of sexual violence becomes more complex, as does our understanding of the events of the pilot. In a later season one episode, "COMINT," Elizabeth seduces an FBI contractor. While they have sex, the man begins to hit her. Elizabeth cries out in fear to make him stop, but a few seconds later, with her back turned to him, we see her roll her eyes. Her fear was feigned to end the encounter without blowing her cover. Later, when Philip sees bruises on Elizabeth's back, he becomes angry and threatens to attack the man, but Elizabeth angrily dissuades him. She views the incident as a part of her job, telling Philip, "If I'd wanted to deal with him, you don't think he'd be dealt with?"

In the same episode, the show's primary FBI character Stan Beeman is working with Nina, a Soviet agent stationed in the Rezidentura (the base of intelligence operations in the Soviet embassy), whom the FBI has extorted into acting as a double agent. Early in the episode, he tells Nina that she needs to deliver more valuable intelligence, heavily implying that he is protecting her from FBI higher ups who could expose her. In order to get the information demanded of her, Nina has sex with the head of the Rezidentura. When Stan later asks Nina how she obtained her new intel, she tells him, "I sucked [the Rezident's] cock, just like you told me to."

Stan reacts in horror, insisting that he hadn't meant that. But while likely genuine, it's a reaction that betrays his privilege. Pressuring her to obtain the intel by any means necessary was something a woman in Nina's position would likely hear as "use sex to get what we need." Stan himself had worked undercover in the past, and it is implied to have been traumatic for him. Yet even then, he is caught off-guard by what for a woman agent is a reality of her life, that she is going to face sexual pressure and exploitation from those around her.

"COMINT" is also a rare instance in television of an episode being credited to both a woman director (Holly Dale) and writer (Melissa James Gibson). This happens again in the season two episode "Behind the Red Door," credited to director Charlotte Sieling and writer Gibson. The second season had previously revisited Elizabeth's attack from the pilot, in a storyline in which Elizabeth forms a relationship with a naval recruit. In order to gain the recruit's sympathy, she tells him that she was raped, falsifying the circumstances but using details of her own true experience. This allows the show to explore how Elizabeth handles her past and her attack. It's not a driving motivation, as is often the case with the "rape as backstory" trope, but it is a part of her identity. Incorporating the true details into the deception of her work allows her some catharsis in being able to share what happened to her, but also lets her to use it toward her own ends.

In the "Behind the Red Door," Elizabeth has spoken to Martha, the FBI secretary whom Philip has married under the guise of "Clark." Pretending to be Clark's sister, Elizabeth learns from Martha that Clark is sexually aggressive in a way Elizabeth has never experienced with Philip. Curious about this different persona, she attempts to convince Philip to have sex with her the way he does as "Clark" with Martha. Philip is reluctant to do so, and the issue culminates in a scene in which Philip puts on his Clark disguise when he and Elizabeth are in bed together. When Elizabeth complains that the experience isn't really "Clark," Philip becomes frustrated, and yanks her up against him, into sexual act the audience has seen him use with Martha, which Martha had enjoyed. But Elizabeth is caught off-guard and driven to tears, and Philip runs to the bathroom, ashamed.

The scene is unsettling, especially as the audience knows what Philip doesn't, which is that the act has similarities to Elizabeth's rape. But it also allows for a rare exploration of sexual intimacy, and the respective differences Elizabeth and Philip have in their work and their relationship. Elizabeth is shown weaving her own true experiences into the deceptions she creates when working with her sources. Philip, on the other hand, compartmentalizes the different identities he trades in – he is not "Clark." Their different approaches make both Elizabeth's curiosity and Philip's frustration understandable. And a sexual activity that was desired in one circumstance is upsetting and even violent in another. Neither Elizabeth nor Philip meant to hurt one another, not Elizabeth by coaxing Philip into a sexual situation he was reluctant to be in, nor Philip in performing an act she found upsetting. But the sequence illustrates the various complex factors involved in sexual intimacy.

While the first two seasons focus mostly on Elizabeth in issues concerning sexual violence and exploitation, this focus shifts to Philip in the show's third season. In this season, one of the sources Philip is working is Kimmy, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the head of the CIA's Afghan group. Philip builds a relationship with Kimmy in order to plant a listening device in her father's office. As the plot continues, it begins to teeter on the question of whether their relationship will turn sexual. But though Kimmy makes sexual advances toward Philip, she is never portrayed as anything other than a curious and vulnerable teenage girl, and Philip as an adult who understands that engaging in such a relationship would be a horrific act, among many others he has committed. And unlike Elizabeth, Philip often wavers in his commitment to their cause throughout the series. Philip does not sleep with Kimmy, the relationship instead becoming more paternal. But the storyline also explores Philip's training, including flashbacks to him being instructed to have sex with multiple partners to train him to seduce potential targets. The sequence illustrates that as Philip and Elizabeth use sex in their work, they have also been sexually exploited.

The Kimmy storyline is further complicated by the fact that Elizabeth and Philip have a teenage daughter, Paige, whom their handlers want to recruit into KGB service. Elizabeth and Philip reveal their true identities to Paige in the show's third season, and the slowly unfolding issue Paige's potential recruitment demonstrates the violence Elizabeth's and Philip's lives becoming cross-generational. Elizabeth tells Paige about growing up in Smolensk in the aftermath of World War II. She has a nightmare about her rapist assaulting Paige, and when she and Paige are cornered by potential muggers in a dark parking lot, Elizabeth attacks them both, killing one of them. While Paige is initially frightened by this display of violence, she later asks her mother to teach her to fight, leading them to grow closer than they had been before. Both Kimmy and Paige, simply by being the children of intelligence agents, are drawn into the work themselves.

While over the course of the series, The Americans has been thoughtful in how it depicts sexual violence involving its main characters, it has also sometimes come up short when it comes to more minor characters. As discussed above, Elizabeth and Philip work numerous sources over the course of the series, and in season four, Elizabeth becomes friends with a woman named Young Hee Seong. It's a rare instance where Elizabeth finds herself becoming attached to her source, and feeling conflicted about her mission. The show emphasizes this by including many scenes of Elizabeth getting to know Young Hee's family. Eventually, Elizabeth attempts to seduce Young Hee's husband, Don, and when she fails, she drugs him and puts him in bed to make it appear as though they did sleep together. This is later used to trick Don into giving KGB agents access to clearance codes for the bioweapons facility where he works.

The damage done to these characters is only depicted through its effect on Elizabeth. Though what she did to Don was also a form of sexual assault, this is never revisited. While it's true that the series is going to focus on its leads rather than minor characters, it's also the case that the main cast of The Americans is predominantly white. Some characters of color have taken prominent roles during the show, but they have still largely been side characters, and many are killed off or otherwise disappeared from the narrative in order to serve the white characters' stories. Particularly in a show where the leads are close to villain protagonists, there are unfortunate implications in portraying white characters as sympathetic with a limited view of how their violent actions affect others.

Overall, The Americans is a complex series that uses the drama of spycraft and deception to examine human relationships and cycles of violence. The lead characters both perpetuate violence and are themselves victims of it, believe that they are serving their country while struggling with its failings and shortcomings. The show doesn't back down from the leads' ruthlessness, nor from their humanity, which can make for tense and difficult viewing. But while the series sometimes has missteps, its depiction of sexual violence largely avoids sensationalism or shallow drama. Instead, it examines the ways in which such experiences build into identity and intimacy, similar to the way it uses the backdrop of the Cold War to explore the shifting, conflicted identities of its protagonists. 

6 years ago by Veronica Corsaro