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Best of TV 2017: ‘The Americans’ and the Meaning of Marriage  

20 Dec

Welcome to TV Ate My Wardrobe’s Best of 2017 Coverage. As with previous years I am looking at the last 12 months through the lens of costume design. The below essay is a little different to the usual costume focused essays, this one goes deep on the personal angle. It is also become an annual tradition to deep dive into The Americans at this time of year. One of my favorite episodes of 2017 was “Darkroom” which brought together so many compelling elements. Out of all the headwear, I never quite expected this Philip and Elizabeth to wear crowns, but they did and it was delightful.Two months before my wedding day, my dad died. It wasn’t out of the blue, but it was a shock nonetheless. He’d been in hospital for a couple of months and despite the cheery assertions that he would still walk me down the aisle by my mother, I think I already knew this wouldn’t be the case. When he was first admitted and it didn’t seem like there was too much cause for concern the calls and texts were constant, at all times of the day and night. He was bored. But I was busy; writing during the day and an evening job. Plus wedding prep.

I was impatient and quick to get him off the phone because I didn’t want to hear his overly detailed descriptions of the way his body was betraying him or that his neighbor was really loud—my dad wasn’t wrong as I could hear his roommate over the phone. When we were at the local register office giving notice—equivalent to a marriage license—prior to the wedding, I had to step out to take a call from him. Standing on a loud street with cars whizzing by made it near-impossible to hear him, when I told him what we were doing he got teary. It was in this moment that it became clear he wasn’t getting better. And the lure of giving his youngest daughter away wasn’t a motivator, but an emotional burden. Continuing to pretend that he would make it was probably something my mother needed, she cheerfully told me he would be there. The lies our parents tell to reassure. The promises they make that are outside of their control.

Giving notice in the UK involves answering a few questions about your betrothed—name, occupation, parents occupation, date of birth—all things that shouldn’t trip you up. All the details that will appear on your legal binding marriage certificate. On The Americans, Philip and Elizabeth are married. They have the paperwork. But up until the season five episode “Darkroom” this union is based on a lie. There was no wedding ceremony, their real names aren’t Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. Only revealing their real names to each other after almost twenty years together because their instructions upon meeting was to discount anything and everything from their previous lives. They are Russian spies on a deep cover long-term operation infiltrating various governmental organizations on behalf of the motherland. A previously unaired flashback shows them getting this paperwork sans ceremony. You don’t need the pomp and flair if it is a work arrangement and not the real deal.

Lines between truth and fiction blur at every turn on The Americans and ultimately this fake marriage is the very foundation of this show. The penultimate season went deep on the introspective side as the consequences of the spy business continue to take their emotional toll. It wasn’t as revered critically and it suffered from the preamble to the big final season, as Breaking Bad did before it. And yet there are moments I haven’t stopped thinking about since it aired; Elizabeth passing down self-defense lessons to her daughter, a showdown with someone who had committed war crimes under the most complicated circumstance and the ultimate marriage/work compromise. Big explosive moments haven’t included a gunfight for some time, but the sense of dread lingers. The body count continues to rise and it is hard to imagine a happy ending for many of these characters when the series ends in 2018.But there was a brief glimmer of joy and a moment that so unexpected it took my breath away. Weddings come in all shapes and sizes; I’ve been to one with only seven guests, another with over two hundred—mine was down the middle of these two extremes. In season one Philip married Martha, the secretary he had seduced under the guise of an Internal Affairs agent called Clark. Vows were exchanged in front of their nearest and dearest, but Clark Westerfeld doesn’t really exist. And not in the same way Philip Jennings doesn’t really exist. Martha meant every word, unaware that this ceremony was a means to an end. One person present was Elizabeth, and at this point they had recently separated after a lie so devastating pushed them apart. While dressed as Clark’s sister Jenny, she asked Philip if these marital words would have kept them together. A point that becomes moot soon after when she asks him to come home in the season one finale. And using their mother-tongue. One of the handful of times Elizabeth or Philip revert to their first language.

One of the smartest decisions The Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields made after this request from Elizabeth was to refrain from using breaking up as a Philip and Elizabeth plot point. Television often makes the mistake of thinking friction can only come in shades of relationship disintegration and getting back together. Conflict still swirls around them in the extremes; their daughter is targeted to become a next-gen spy and ideological differences still threaten this unit. Both of them sleep with other people as part of the job, little jealousies niggle. In season four Elizabeth wondered if circumstances were different, then would Philip leave with Martha as a means to escape “this whole life.” His emphatic “I love you” was a resounding answer to this rare moment of visible emotional vulnerability from a character that is often mislabeled as ‘cold.’ A promise made only to Elizabeth.

Marriage vows come in many forms; some write their own, others repeat the words said before them. My husband is Catholic, I am not. His uncle is a Bishop, we were married in a cathedral. I am not particularly religious—I was raised very relaxed Church of England—but I knew how important it was to my then-fiancé that we got married in a Catholic ceremony. The Pinterest quote business is full of declarations on marriage and compromise, so while I’m not going to frame one in my kitchen or cross-stitch a pillow with this sentiment, I do endorse this notion. The ceremony that took place on The Americans this season also includes a big religious compromise due to limitations regarding their real identities.

A Russian Orthodox ceremony isn’t what you would expect a Soviet KGB Agent to participate in, but wedding planners, the dream dress and a room filled with their friends and family is not an option. Instead, wearing light disguise—hats/glasses and no wigs—Philip drives Elizabeth to secluded warehouse location. Elizabeth “doesn’t like surprises” because what spy does, this nighttime drive to a sketchy looking building isn’t exactly top of her list of ways to relax after a long day of espionage.

Romantic overtures don’t just fall by the wayside because Elizabeth isn’t a fan of spontaneity  and a half-giddy smile from Philip at this complaint is enough to prove this isn’t work related peril. A lot of the best work on The Americans is done in the silent moments; reading people’s faces is part of their job and wordless exchanges between the pair often say so much more than a page of dialogue ever could. Often it feels like Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have entire conversations without uttering a word, it is a testament to their acting that this never feels labored or like we’re missing the big picture. An oath can be made with a look of the eye. Producing their fake marriage license and asking “You want to make it official?” is The Americans version of holding a boombox over Philip’s head and we don’t need to hear Elizabeth’s response to know it is a yes. It’s not a cathedral, but the basement of this abandoned warehouse looks romantic and intimate because candlelight will do that. There’s no change into a surprise gown; the pleather jacket and jeans will do. There’s no one to walk Elizabeth down the aisle or friends in pews to witness this exchange. Everything they have been and done as adults has been for country and cause—including their children—this is wholly theirs. A secret that no one can steal or use against them. Philip mentions his lack of options, hence the priest, but notes “he’s from home” as an extra selling point. Adding in a whisper, “I know it’s not perfect, with God and everything” but being met with the kind of smile that shows this doesn’t matter.

The rings they have been wearing for two decades are removed and what follows is five minutes of a Russian Orthodox ceremony using their birth names of Mikhail and Nadezhda. Phrases such as “servant of God” and “handmaiden of God” don’t fit with their staunch atheist backgrounds, switch this out for country and it sounds like their vows to the cause they are fighting for. Subtitles reveal the meaning behind the words spoken including the phrase “indestructible union of love,” the notion of free will, not being promised to another. There is no one to object even if someone like Martha would lay claim to Philip’s heart. It only belongs to one person.

Matrimonial ceremonies differ in the words they use, but ultimately they all contain the same platitudes; honor, a promise to this one person. Not all ceremonies include crowns to mark the bond. After years of witnessing these two characters in endless hats and wigs, it is fitting to see elaborate headwear. And after years of witnessing bloody weddings on a show where crowns feature prominently, it is nice to experience one that doesn’t come with a body count or threats of sexual violence.

Music swirls, more smiles are exchanged, they return home and their new rings are placed in a hiding place in the laundry room. An embrace that looks like the kind you could live in happens before the light gets turned out on their secret stash of things of great importance—this is also where Elizabeth stored cassette tapes from her mother. There’s no honeymoon period as they get back to work; first doing some travel agency business at home. It might be a cover job, but it still requires actual work. Followed by showing their daughter Paige, the home darkroom they can set up when photographs of a sensitive nature need developing. Marriage is the foundation of The Americans, family is its heart. The impact of this world on their children is something that has been troubling Philip as he explores his own childhood experiences with the help of est—a pop-psychology program that focused on self actualization—and tries to work through the awful things he has done in service to his country. The awful things his father did in service to his country. If the wedding ceremony was a brief respite from the problems that have been plaguing Philip, then the revelation in Paige’s photographs is another in a series of chipping away at Philip’s ability to do his job effectively. What these pictures reveal are the thoughts of Pastor Tim in his private journal; he wonders if they are monsters, the damage they have done to Paige mentally. As this family unit is bathed in red light and the words flash up on screen, Philip’s worst fears have been verbalized by an outsider.

Sitcoms and soaps often use a wedding as a way to add conflict and as a cliffhanger; someone objects, another couple gets together, an unexpected pregnancy is revealed, wrong names are spoken. A wedding is often a culmination of a multi episode story arc, in a way The Americans has been leading to this moment from the pilot. From fake married to an unbreakable bond.

My wedding took place just over six months prior to this episode, but I have been thinking a lot about the way this social construct is discussed in relation to these characters and their motivations. Whenever Matthew Rhys or Keri Russell are asked about what drew them to this project or what they relish about working on this show the central marriage is always the answer. It is a marriage show that also happens to be about KGB spies. Now, I’m not a spy, nor is my husband (that I know of) and the real triumph of The Americans is how it navigates the relationship waters. We were together for ten years before he proposed, twelve before we were married. As with Philip and Elizabeth, the reason we got married was for us and not because of external pressure.

Again weddings and reasons for getting married or not vary from couple to couple. This exchange between Philip and Elizabeth is an act of defiance, a declaration that this union is more than a tie to their homeland. Earlier in the penultimate season after an innocent man is killed, Elizabeth offers to do these operations alone, but Philip responds with “It’s us.” There’s no way he can picture this scenario despite how much it is tearing him up; they have sworn to do this together. But circumstances change and compromises are made. It is what leads to the season five climax as Philip doesn’t destroy the tape that could set them free, if only he didn’t tell Elizabeth its contents. This action allows her to say she’ll go alone as a spy, to save him from breaking into a million pieces. All while staying true to the country she loves.

Parents can’t always protect their children from harsh realities, sometimes things don’t work out the way you hoped. A promise isn’t always an unbroken pact. It is hard to ignore the many forces working against them and the final season is likely to shatter any illusion that they’ll all make it out unscathed. But in that basement wearing crowns in candlelight, speaking their native tongue an incandescent glow briefly takes them out of the spy world and back to where they came from.

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5 Responses to “Best of TV 2017: ‘The Americans’ and the Meaning of Marriage  ”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Best of 2017 – Out of the Box: Look of the Week (Part 2) | TV Ate My Wardrobe - December 29, 2017

    […] and general chic summer attire. 2017 was no different with Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys switching out ’80s spy garb for stripes, ruffles and straw hats. Best Fancy Tiling Adjacent […]

  2. Best of 2017 – Work in Other Places | TV Ate My Wardrobe - December 30, 2017

    […] all Best of 2017 pieces including my personal essay on The Americans head […]

  3. Americans Final Season Teasers: Spying on the Spy | TV Ate My Wardrobe - February 13, 2018

    […] probably not quite as the teaser makes it seem, but this is not going to go down well with our now officially married spy couple if Philip is indeed reporting on his wife.  Just like riding a bike, Philip still those […]

  4. The Americans 6.01 “Dead Hand” Review: “Everything is Divided Up” | TV Ate My Wardrobe - March 29, 2018

    […] season five this job began to take its toll on both husband and wife (now official); a decision was made to get out, to return home, but there is always something else.  After […]

  5. The Americans 6.03 “Urban Transport Planning” Review: The Way We Were | TV Ate My Wardrobe - April 12, 2018

    […] Father Andrei. The last time we saw this priest was in much happier times for this couple on their big day and he can sense all is not well with this marriage. Like the audience, he has a personal […]

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