Best of TV Costuming 2014: The Marriage Disguise on The Americans

4 Dec

Welcome to TV Ate My Wardrobe’s “Best of 2014” costuming series and rather than doing a straightforward countdown we’re going to do a variety of posts that look at which costumes and shows have made a huge impact this year. From items that we want in our own wardrobe to pieces that got everyone talking, we want to look at this year’s TV through the prism of costume.

The Americans returned at the start of the year building on the strengths of its first season and serving up a tighter narrative delivering on both the nerve shredding tension of the spy world and as a story about marriage. The wigs and multiple disguises continue to thrill (I wrote about the best covers of season 2 earlier this year) and instead of focusing on the spy attire as I did last year, I want to take a look at the mask they wear daily and the blurring of who they were/are. This marriage is no longer one of cover convenience and the complex emotional web is evolving as they get deeper in this thing called love. They are performing the roles of wife/mother and husband/father as part of their job, but they are also very much Philip and Elizabeth Jennings at this point even if between making dinner they steal government secrets. I will be discussing season 2 in some detail so there will be spoilers.

The Americans plaid and spotsLike most regular non-spies Elizabeth and Philip have clothes they wear for work and a more relaxed selection for at home. In the office Philip isn’t afraid to pattern clash – yes I am in love with the plaid/polka dot mix – and Elizabeth tends to stick with silk neck tie blouses, long gold chains and variety of smart pants and skirts. Nothing too fancy or showy, but what you might expect small business owners to wear. They want to blend in rather than call any attention to themselves but when you look like Keri Russell and have all that magnificent hair it is difficult to not stand out. Elizabeth is a cool mom, but not a cool mom in her style; she is on trend (particularly with her boots collection) but there is no element of try.

At home sweaters of the turtle/roll neck variety are very popular and come in both his and hers. Cue knitwear parade:

The Americans 2.01 The Americans 2.06 washing up the americans 2.09 spotlight The Americans 2.13 ElizabethCan a spy have it all? Balancing work and family can be hard in any profession and throwing espionage into the mix increases the difficulty and threat levels. Danger came in a whole new form with an unknown assassin who killed their spy co-workers along with their daughter in a motel room. Okay that turned out to be more of a domestic issue, a reveal that didn’t come until the finale and up to that point Philip and Elizabeth couldn’t be sure they weren’t on a hit list somewhere. Normally they have just themselves to worry about, but Paige and Henry became potential targets this season and The Americans expanded its focus this year looking at the wider family dynamic.

The marriage is at the heart of the show and as Philip and Elizabeth embraced the idea of real love – sometimes in a manner that no child should see their parents engage in, which is why you ALWAYS knock – the whole system they have been working in became more precarious. Feelings equal higher stakes and with each mission something seemed to go against them at every stage so Philip’s kill number increased dramatically and spy woes impacted their behavior around the kids.

This applies particularly to Philip and it all came to an explosive head in “Martial Eagle” with yet another operation gone bad and a very awkwardly timed trip to church with Paige. Paige has gone and given away all of the money she has been saving for a Europe trip and fun dad Philip turns into a terrifying Bible ripping version of himself as he berates Paige for “respecting Jesus” and not her parents. It is as if someone has flipped a switch and Philip briefly loses the ability to compartmentalize. We are used to seeing a scary but calm Philip in the field, not in this unbridled way in his own kitchen and I want to stress how incredible Matthew Rhys’ performance is across the entire season. The same can be said for Keri Russell who shows Elizabeth’s more vulnerable side this year along with her usually steely determination. Basically I want all the awards for this show.

Look at how hard it is for the pair who lie for a living to look happy when they meet the pastor at Paige’s church; Elizabeth is at least attempting to smile, whereas Philip is beyond being able to fake the grin and bear it approach. They at least put on their Sunday best for the occasion and look the part as they always manage to do.

The americans 2.09 Philip and ElizabethStacks and stacks of deceit are part of their world with cover on top of cover reaching breaking point and while they might be expert spies the emotional toil isn’t something Philip and Elizabeth excel in. Sex is one way they come back together and in the episode that follows “Martial Eagle” Elizabeth offers comfort to Philip in the form of food and an embrace. This leads to a very intimate exchange (thankfully Paige or Henry didn’t need a drink in the middle of the night) and this shared desire in a moment of despair reveals how in tune they can be in this new stage of their relationship. Earlier in the season this is not always the case and when Elizabeth wants to sleep with the wild animal that is Philip’s Clark persona (which is such a weird sentence to write) it ends up being an incredibly distressing experience which highlights how emotionally stunted they can be as a couple.

The Americans 2.05 E and PThe “Honey, how was your day at work?” conversation exists in an entirely different stratosphere on The Americans and in what is probably my favorite scene of the season Philip returns from a particularly difficult operation to a dozing Elizabeth on the sofa. Elizabeth has been running interference with Philip’s fake real wife Martha and their conversation covers all of these aspects. The noise Philip makes when he lies down is one of pure exhaustion and they get this brief moment before the kids’ alarm clocks go off and the day has begun again. In this spell between work chat and the world of their kids waking up they talk about their Russian past.

Discussing anything of who they were pre Elizabeth/Philip is forbidden and it is something they have mostly adhered to with a few notable exceptions such as Elizabeth revealing her real name in the pilot as a signal that their relationship could become more than a facade or when she asked him to ‘come home’ in Russian in the season finale. This is just a small moment discussing icicles that has been prompted by the Mossad agent niggling him about identity and where home really is. Sexual intimacy is one thing, however this scene from “The Deal” points to a much deeper connection as they cover everything from work, home and their past in a close embrace. Layers on layers on layers and it is surprising they don’t emotionally spiral at rapid intervals no matter how much training they have undertaken.

The Americans 2.13 picnicThe grand lie they have been living could all come crashing down with news that the KGB is interested in training Paige to be a spy who will have the ability as a US born citizen to really infiltrate the system. The threat comes from within and has the potential to fracture what has become a very stable relationship as Philip is on the ‘no fucking way’ end of the spectrum whereas Elizabeth sits at ‘maybe it won’t be so bad.’ It has been increasingly difficult to keep their personal and professional lives separate prior to this even though their personal life is a construction of the professional; now the lines are blurring even further and the family/espionage divide is on a collision course. Loyalty to the flag or loyalty to family?

Last year The Americans was a Top 10 show for me and after season 2 it is easily Top 3, if not the No. 1 (The Good WifeTransparent and Hannibal jostle it out for that spot) as it took the framework from the first season and upped the ante on every level. From a costume point of view this is a very fun show to watch with disguises aplenty, but the detail of their everyday attire should also be commended as Jenny Gering and her team don’t go crazy 80s; enhancing the real world quality of the production. Costume helps inform who these characters are and because we get so many versions of Philip and Elizabeth items such as comfy looking sweaters or Philip’s attempt to look like a cool dad act in conflict with the dark violence we know they are both capable of. There is no one point where their personal life ends and their work begins and no matter how hard they try to keep them separate this notion is an illusion wrapped up waiting to be exposed. Going from fake love to this real connection is just going to make the big Paige decision even harder. Roll on January 28 and season 3.


14 Responses to “Best of TV Costuming 2014: The Marriage Disguise on The Americans”

  1. Anya Rush December 9, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on Resplendent Miasma and commented:
    This is another similar and smart post. The Americans is one of my favorite TV shows and the marriage between Elizabeth and Phillip is in my opinion the best part of this truly wondrous show. So I absolutely loved this exploration into their marriage with respect to their attires. I highly recommend this show to everyone. I believe there is at least one little something (wigs, action, spying, suspense, family, sex, etc) in this show everyone will take to. For me it’s the complex and compelling marriage. Enjoy reading!


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