The Americans, Season 1

The Loneliness of the Deep-Cover Spy
Talking television.
April 18 2013 2:14 PM

The Americans, Season 1

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Spying is the loneliest job in the world.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/FX

When I heard that The Americans would be set in the early ’80s, I was prepared for the big hair, shoulder pads, and high-waisted jeans of the era. But apart from some epic wigs and a few seizure-inducing sweater patterns, fashion hasn’t been a big part of the show—perhaps because Philip and Elizabeth are such masters of disguise. The soundtrack, on the other hand, has been a nonstop nostalgia ride, and the producers have done a bang-up job of finding musical backdrops for the show’s big set pieces—think “Tusk” in the pilot or “To Love Somebody” in Episode 10.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

This week was no different: A disguised Elizabeth attracts the attention of her target, CIA honcho Richard Patterson, by razzing him about his juke-box selection. With his comfortable shoes, she had him pegged as a Christopher Cross fan. But no, he picked Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys,” and she approves. It’s a canny choice: The climactic final bars provide the perfect accompaniment for their violent showdown in the bathroom, but the lyrics are on-point, too. The song is a plea for connection. The narrator sings, “I wanna bite and kiss you,” but he also begs, “Come a little closer” and “Don’t walk away.”

That desperate desire for communion, companionship, and love was the big theme of the episode. Of course, spy novels have always been interested in the lonely life of the secret agent. The literature is full of characters like Jim Prideaux of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a brilliant, brave man living alone in a ramshackle trailer outside a second-rate boarding school; Jean-François Mercier in Alan Furst’s The Spies of Warsaw, who struggles to win the love of a good woman while simultaneously saving the world from the Nazis; or Graham Greene’s solitary operatives who have a tendency to fail in espionage because they succeed in love. (Incidentally, romance is what brings down the CIA agent protagonist of The Americans creator Joe Weisberg’s second novel, An Ordinary Spy.)

But don’t weep for regular old secret agents, this episode seems to be saying. Deep-cover operatives like Elizabeth and Philip Jennings have it even harder, because while they have a family life, it’s all a big, fat lie.

Of course, the Jenningses have no monopoly on loneliness or false-front relationships: Sandra Beeman comes back from a night on the town with Elizabeth and cries all alone in her empty kitchen. Patterson’s downfall is his womanizing, but specifically that he uses women “for a pit stop.”

And Yoda-like Gen. Zhukov wants Elizabeth to love somebody the way he cared for his dear dog Malysh. He doesn’t want her to repeat his mistake of being too isolated—“I lived for my work, for the party,” he tells her. “Now I miss what I never had.” But he also says, “If you take care of a creature, one day you will realize you love him, and your life would be empty without him,” which seems to suggest that she should learn to love the man she was placed in an arranged marriage with—a match that was made for the sake of work rather than an emotional connection.

Clearly, though, Elizabeth does have feelings—for Zhukov, for Gregory, for her kids, and for Philip. But caring doesn’t keep loneliness at bay. Quite the opposite, in fact, When she visits Philip at the motel, she’s happy to hear that he’s moving out, and though she plays it cool, when she realizes that he’s moving to an apartment rather than back into the family home, it’s the misunderstanding—the missed connection between the two of them—that seems to sadden her most of all.

Which brings us back to the soundtrack. Back in the bar, Patterson tells Elizabeth that Townshend was his second choice; the Pat Benatar track wouldn’t load. By 1981, when the show is set, Benatar had enjoyed several hits that speak to the lonely lives of Elizabeth, Philip, and their ilk: “Heartbreaker,” “Don’t Let It Show,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and, of course, “You Better Run.” But her most a propos song wasn’t released until 1983, which is too bad, because it sums up this episode perfectly: “Love Is a Battlefield.”