The Americans, Season 1

Elizabeth Needs a New Job
Talking television.
April 25 2013 2:56 PM

The Americans, Season 1

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All work and no play makes Elizabeth a bitter spy.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings
Life's all work, and work's a chore.

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/FX

When I spoke with Joe Weisberg, creator of The Americans (and brother of Jacob Weisberg, editor in chief of the Slate Group), just before the show launched, I asked why this would be different from all the other spy shows on television. “A lot of what you see of spies in TV and movies has to do with blowing things up,” he told me. “In the real world, there’s a lot more recruiting and handling and running agents.” It would be a realistic workplace spy drama, in other words.

June Thomas June Thomas

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

This week’s episode put the working conditions of secret agents front and center, and it was kind of depressing.

Elizabeth has hated her supervisor ever since Grannie arranged for the Jenningses to be torture-tested back in Episode 6. Of course, it’s hard to respect your boss after she causes your partner to be beaten and half-drowned and then plays twisted psychological games with you, but Elizabeth’s first reaction upon learning that Grannie had set the whole thing up was to ask if Zhukov had approved the exercise. In other words, her response was that of a disgruntled underling: bitch about middle management instead of questioning the company’s overall strategy. (True, Elizabeth did then beat Grannie’s face to a pulp, which most employees wouldn’t get away with. The KGB’s HR guidelines are flexible that way.)

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This week, Elizabeth was at it again, questioning Grannie’s orders and demanding confirmation from Moscow Center. In some ways, it’s the typical, perhaps even inevitable, response of someone who works in a branch office—when things don’t feel right, it’s easiest to assume that the person one rung up the org chart is freelancing. But it’s also a sign that Elizabeth is stuck in a job she’s coming to hate.

Elizabeth can’t move up—or down—the career ladder. Even when, like now, she’s on the outs with all her co-workers, she can’t apply for another position. The only way out of this job is death. (At some point, it seems likely—she swore the same oath Nina took at the beginning of the show. As Arkady told Nina, “It’s a bond that can never be broken.”) Complaining is her only outlet, and she takes it, especially about Grannie ordering other people to take risks while she sits safely on the sidelines.

Throughout the season, Elizabeth has complained about how passive and soft Americans are. Last week her voice was dripping with contempt when she told Gen. Zhukov, in a flashback, that American children do no chores but instead just play all day while adults watch them. Zhukov told her that play is serious, an important part of learning to read the world, but Elizabeth still doesn’t seem able to relax. Spies have the worst work-life balance in the world; they’re always on duty, but Grannie at least finds relaxation with Ms. Pac-Man, and Philip has fun tossing grapes around with Paige. There’s no joy in Elizabeth’s life.

Stan is just as trapped. He can’t relax at home, can’t talk to his wife and son. He’s happiest at the office or with Nina, a relationship that is sometimes fun but is ultimately all about work: He’s her boss, in a way, but she’s often on top.

It’s the perfect setup for the finale: When things are truly stuck, it takes a hard knock to dislodge them. Judging from the scenes from next week shown at the end of this episode, someone’s work-life balance is about to get seriously upended.