Elizabeth Jennings: Television’s Greatest Hero

Credit: FX

It’s been a couple months since The Americans aired its final episode on FX, and after having the chance to really sit with this show and read just about every related piece posted online, I still find myself stuck on the words of co-showrunner Joel Fields in Vanity Fair about the antihero status of the show’s leads:

“An antihero is somebody who’s doing something out of selfish motivations or sociopathology. But these are people—we may not agree with their beliefs or with the cause to which they’ve devoted themselves, but they’ve sacrificed an enormous amount to be soldiers in this struggle for what they believe is right.”

I mulled over this quote specifically in regard to Elizabeth Jennings, who I believe was on the receiving end of most of this “antihero” labeling. On the days leading up to the finale, I had come to the same conclusion as Fields—Elizabeth is just a great hero. Contrary to those characters in television who fit the “antihero” archetype like Walter White and Tony Soprano, Elizabeth is driven by a cause that is bigger than herself. As Philip stated in the penultimate episode, “She cares about the whole world.” She is the hero of her own story, for her own side. As a viewer, seeing her ideals as staunchly wrong only perpetuates a very one-sided way of thinking instead being open to the grey areas the show so beautifully paints.

The Americans never asks the audience to view Elizabeth as perfect, and I’m not here to equate her heroism with that notion. I know she’s done objectively terrible things. What the show does ask is that we try to understand her and empathize with her motivations on a human level. Elizabeth is a soldier, which isn’t any more fundamentally different than the ones I’ve seen praised daily here in the United States.

If The Americans instead revolved around the concept of CIA agents in Russia, wouldn’t we root for Elizabeth to stay faithful to the cause at hand, to do what she had to do to protect our American way of life? Wouldn’t we criticize Philip heavily for questioning all of this? As I said, Elizabeth does awful things, but so do American soldiers. So do American intelligence officers. To think otherwise is naïve and irresponsible. I think there’s something intrinsically human about clinging to a sense of patriotism so much so that it blinds a person from their wrongs.

I never found it tough to root for Elizabeth, and I never felt that in rooting for her, I had to deem her likeable in my eyes. The concept of “likability” has long cast a shadow over women much more than it ever has for men. I’ve never come across anyone debating the likeability of the seemingly never-ending list of male antiheroes, or just male characters in general. When I see someone write off Elizabeth as simply evil or terrible, I can only think of what a hindrance that does to their understanding of the show and these characters they’re spending so much time watching.

Throughout the run of The Americans, Elizabeth’s morality, although shaky, has been displayed in various situations that make it difficult to simply reduce her to just a heartless, sociopathic individual. In Season 2, Elizabeth connects with Lucia, a Sandinista freedom fighter, and acts as a mentor towards her. She sees a reflection of herself in the young woman, but when Lucia can no longer put the work above her personal agenda of trying to kill former Navy SEAL Andrew Larrick, Elizabeth does nothing to stop her death.

On paper this seems like an awful, unforgivable thing for Elizabeth to let happen, but knowing this character, I can understand her decision. She focuses on the reality of the situation, which is that Larrick is more important to the cause at hand. “She didn’t understand what it is that we do,” Elizabeth later tells Philip through her tears. “If she didn’t understand what comes first, then she didn’t understand anything.” In her mind, her choice was the correct one, but it’s clear that her frustration and the emotional toll of what had happened was weighing on her.

In Season 4, we see Elizabeth develop an actual friendship with a Mary Kay consultant named Young Hee during a mission, which makes the inevitable deception all the more devastating. After staging a fake seduction of Young Hee’s husband, Don, the reality of the situation becomes too much for Elizabeth and she wants out, only to be ordered to proceed by the Centre. The coup ends with the suicide of her alias “Patty” and a tearful message from Young Hee on her answering machine. “I need to talk to you,” Young Hee pleads. “Where did you go?” It’s here where we see the chinks in Elizabeth’s armor become more exposed.

The final season of The Americans finds Elizabeth at her most physically and emotionally exhausted as she continues as a soldier for Mother Russia while Philip focuses his time on the travel agency. Season 5 explored the effect of Philip’s slow breakdown on the Jenningses’ marriage, which ultimately highlighted the strength of it. This season shows how time and the stress of Elizabeth’s solo work has widened the rift between the couple even though their love for each other clearly still runs deep.

It’s obvious throughout the season that no one plays extreme exhaustion quite like Keri Russell does, but I also noticed that she thrives when showing inklings of Elizabeth’s hopefulness, which doesn’t negate her realistic nature. At her worst, or when I find myself as a viewer only seeing how unsalvageable a situation is, she continues to look at the bigger picture. She believes what she’s doing will lead to something better for someone else, someday.

It’s no coincidence that Elizabeth’s downfall with her handler Claudia and the Centre is ultimately a result of her steadfast belief in the goodness of her work. Elizabeth learns that the mission assigned her by a Soviet general in Mexico City wasn’t fully explained to her. All this time she’s seen Gorbachev’s negotiator Fyodor Nesterenko as a traitor, when in reality he is a sincere representative in the plan to reduce Soviet and U.S. nuclear weapons. She refuses to kill him, she even thwarts the KGB’s efforts to do so and attempts to send a message informing the Party of everything.

“If you knew me, you’d know never to lie to me,” Elizabeth says when she confronts Claudia after what has happened. It may first seem like a ridiculous thing to say coming from a woman who’s life is built on lies, but it’s crushing to see her realize her place as a pawn in the Centre’s game. It ties back to the moment in the season one episode “Covert War” when she first comes to the realization that she was being deceived by Claudia. Although, that previous incident didn’t cause her to waver at all in her work. Elizabeth has proven time and time again that she will do anything for the good of her country. Her status as a hero in my eyes is illuminated during her conversations with Claudia in “The Summit” and the penultimate episode because she chooses her core values over a cause that she now believes is betraying the country it has claimed to serve.

Elizabeth’s love for her children is another hotly contested aspect of her character that I believe has a connection with her heroism. I’ve noticed that a lazy way in which some viewers of the show restrict her is to write her off as a bad mother or intentionally cold towards them, but again, that isn’t what I’m interested in debating. Just as she believes that her work is for the greater good, she believes she is always doing right by Paige and Henry, even if that involves lies and omissions. Her intentions with them are never displayed as malicious and almost always come from her need to protect them, as any mother would with her children.

Those intentions are most evident in her relationship with Paige, especially in the final season where we see her entrenched in the spy game with her mother. There’s so much tragedy behind Elizabeth’s hope to limit Paige’s exposure to the dirty work she does and have her instead get a job at the State Department. That tragedy only becomes heavier when we see those lies and omissions come crashing down around Elizabeth as Paige confronts her about sleeping with Jackson, the student intern for Senator Sam Nunn. “If you lie to me now, after everything, I will never forgive you,” Paige says to her mother, and even though it’s too late, Elizabeth can’t stop herself from doing just that initially. The strong bond that has grown between them, and the illusion of spying and her own self that Elizabeth had created for her daughter, collapses in just one scene.

As the show comes to a close, Elizabeth returns to Russia with her husband but without her children. She even had to watch in heartbreaking shock as Paige faded to nothing on a train platform. It’s the worst possible outcome because the punishment is lifelong. In the final moments, we see Elizabeth standing next to Philip, looking out at Moscow. “They’ll remember us,” he tells her, but the devastation still looms large. She is back behind the Iron Curtain, and her children are on the other side of it. They’ll continue their lives without her. Our greatest hero has also become our most tragic one.

Special thanks Yomira for discussing this topic at length with me and allowing me to yell all of my thoughts at her.

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