Magazine article The Christian Century

Fake Marriage, Real Kids

Magazine article The Christian Century

Fake Marriage, Real Kids

Article excerpt

More than a spy show, FX's The Americans is a thought-provoking meditation on marriage, identity and the power of culture. Season one premiered last January and a second season is planned for next winter.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, an ordinary suburban couple who are not what they pretend to be. Their two kids and white picket fence, their jobs as travel agents, their laundry room and the plates of food they offer to welcome new neighbors do not convey their real life at all. Their marriage is a cover for their mission. Philip and Elizabeth are Soviet spies.

The show is set in Reagan-era Washington, D.C., in the shadow of the cold war. The period details--a trendy six-foot sub sandwich at a neighborhood party, a Rubik's Cube, giant eyeglasses that are suddenly back in style--are carefully done. The spy intrigue is fun to watch and reasonably well plotted. What really makes the show intriguing, however, are the challenges created for viewers, because it's hard not to identify with the couple as they pretend to be what we are, everyday Americans.

As the show highlights the contrast between the lunch-making, carpooling mom and the spy with a hidden arsenal, I think of how much parental identity and humanity is hidden from sons and daughters. How might our children, like Elizabeth's, be threatened or disillusioned if they knew who morn and dad really are? And who among the married can't identify with the sense that they might be wed to a stranger?

When we meet Elizabeth and Philip, they have been living as husband and wife for more than a decade, but they do not even know each other's real names. They are forbidden to speak to one another in their mother tongue or know of the other's true past. Neither knows why each committed to the life they are leading.

As they enact a marriage for their kids and their neighbors, their "real" lives as spies sometimes require actions incompatible with their cover. They are meant to have an understanding, for instance, that each will use sex with other people as a tool for their missions, but this arrangement creates inevitable problems for their relationship. A hidden identity is a hard thing to nourish, and an identity embodied in habit and practice is a harder thing to disavow.

The storyline plays with the tensions created when there is a difference between identity and self-presentation, between hidden purpose and what one shows to the world. …

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