What "The Americans" gets right and wrong about families, deceit and violence.

I have been making my way through FX's "The Americans."  (Spoilers ahead!)  It is about a seemingly normal couple, the Jennings, who are, in fact, Soviet agents living in a Washington suburb and raising two children.  The politics of the show are complicated; the Soviet agents at the centre of the show, Philip and Elizabeth, are very sympathetically portrayed but the very idea that Russian-born Soviet agents were able to successfully pose as native born Americans seems more like post-millennial sci-fi paranoia à la Battlestar Gallactica than cold-war Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy realism.  That aside, the appeal of the show is the marriage at its heart.  How can two people who are expert deceivers and trained to see deceit everywhere, trust one another?  Because they absolutely need to trust one another.  They are alone in enemy territory.  They are one another's only source of safety.

Transient

This is the dilemma at the heart of every relationship; No one can betray me like my lover and my lover is the only one who can heal betrayal.  The show manages this with great psychological realism.  Its creator is a former CIA agent. 

I have a serious quibble with the Jennings children though, Paige and Henry.  I am about nine episodes in so this may change but the kids seem ridiculously well-balanced.  This isn't meant to be an action-comedy like "Spy Kids" where the parents bring the diaper bag instead of the bomb disposal bag but the show can't shake the very American convention that to be likable, the spies need to be good, loving parents, with essentially lovable, if slightly troubled kids.  Paige and Henry hitchhike when the parents don't come to get them (because they have been abducted) and Henry smashes a beer bottle over the creepy driver's head to get away and the sibs pledge to keep it a secret.  They get mad and sullen when the parents separate.  This is the early 80s and by the standards of the time all this is pretty small potatoes as troubled kids go. 

Meanwhile Elizabeth and Philip are patient and present for their kids when they hurt over the separation and sneak into their rooms and give them loving looks at night.  These are the same people who stab, blow-up and shoot enemies of the motherland while living a double life as tour agents, people who have given up their pasts and country for an ideology they can never publicly avow.

I haven't worked with someone who lived a double life (any more than we all do).  But I have worked with families that have kept big, dark secrets.  I have worked with families where one or both parents are violent.  There can be protective factors that mitigate the impact of these things but their children are always impacted.  Granted, the Jennings kids' don't see what their parents get up to at night.  But it is very hard to shut off violence and deceit, to keep it hived off, prevent it from leaking out.  And the show recognizes that, plays with it... except when it comes to the kids. 

When Elizabeth and Philip tell the kids that they are separating, one of the kids asks, "Will you stop loving us?"  It would have been far more interesting (and chilling) to show how profoundly Elizabeth has been marred by years of constant deceit if we were offered the possibility of doubting her sincerity rather than seeing a model of connected parenting.  It would be far more interesting if, instead of staring off into space in class, Henry reacted to his parents' separation (and years of hidden violence) by becoming violent himself.  How would Philip and Elizabeth see their son -- and each other -- if Henry was beating the crap out of other kids every week?

 

It is interesting: The show's creator, Joe Weisberg, said in an interview that spy-parents usually have "the talk" with their kids at some point and let them know that they have been living a lie.  I suspect that if their parents are doing anything one-tenth as convoluted and violent as what the Jennings get up to, the kids already know.  "The talk" probably doesn't involve much listening by the parents or they would have learned that.  Like so much that has to do with children, we don't like to face the reality of the impact of lies and violence on them, so much so that a gritty show, all about the subtle, polyvalent impact of deceit and violence on human relationships, can't dare to get it right.