This weekend I marathon-watched ‘The Americans.’ The show stars Keri Russell, better known as Felicity, and Matthew Rhys. The two play a couple who—dun, dun, dun—are Russian spies. I know, I know, that shit cray. However, there are no fish fillets to be preyed upon here. The show takes place in 1980s Cold War America. While the show is like a typical espionage show in many ways, there are funny disguises, low tech spy gear (this was before cell phones!) and foiled schemes, it is more like Mad Men or Homeland than Rocky and Bullwinkle.
I read an article a few days ago called ‘Where is the female Tony Soprano?‘ by Akash Nikolas. The article asks why there aren’t any female antiheroes on television (besides in comedic roles) but so many men who are celebrated for being bad guys (Don Draper of Mad Men, Walter White of Breaking Bad, Dexter Morgan of Dexter, to name a few.). It suggests that it’s sexism because we don’t want to view women in anyway besides sweet, servile and sexy.
Nikolas describes Keri Russell’s character as, “In the era of leading antiheroes, there is the co-leading antihero wife, who is allowed to be bad, but only when her male lead is at least as worse. These include Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, The Americans) with her sympathetic rape/background story and suspicions about her husband’s loyalties.”
*NO SPOILERS I PROMISE*
I am going to have to argue against this point. It seems like the writer has only seen the first episode of the show. Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings is one of the first true female antiheroes on television besides Patty Hewes played by Glenn Close on Damages. In fact, I would argue that the show’s females are all antiheroes and that you must watch because of, um, badassness.
Elizabeth Jennings is a dedicated member of the KGB, meaning she will stop at nothing (murder, theft, deception, sex) to destroy America. From the start she is a villain. She hates America, whereas her fellow spy husband loves America, fits in and enjoys the fruits of capitalism.
Elizabeth pledges allegiance to her country but not to authority. She often disregards the orders of her, also female anti-hero KGB boss, nicknamed “Grannie.” If she feels as if the orders are unfair or has a personal stake in the matter she will do whatever she wants. This is important because the show is so well written, you root for these spy missions to be successfully executed despite the fact that in the process of doing so you’re hoping America will fail. When Elizabeth doesn’t follow orders, you’re pissed at her because you’re afraid something will compromise the KGB.
Like many antiheroes, Elizabeth’s choices are hypocritical. I don’t want to give anything away but she does something awful to her husband who later does it right back, while he was able to get over it, she is simply not having it.
In contrast, although her husband is also a spy, his allegiance is often tested. His character is more devoted to his family than the cause, a more likable trait that is often associated with women/mothers, and has been more than willing to quit the spy game to live a normal American life whereas Elizabeth wouldn’t dream of it.
Elizabeth has a temper. She is violent and hot headed in ways that would make Felicity cringe. The hand-to-hand combat is SO GOOD on this show. Elizabeth is strong and merciless toward anyone she perceives as an enemy, which we all know, according to history, are the guys on “our side” of the Cold War. Her husband, however, when accidentally harming someone says something like, “I wouldn’t treat a dog like this.”
For Nikolas to assert that Keri Russell’s character is only allowed to be bad when her husband is worse is simply incorrect. The husband is likable, charming to all around him, adored by his kids and makes decisions that are easier to accept because they are always in favor of his family and even his wife. This isn’t a front either, this is his genuine nature. He is far from an antihero, the only thing that would establish him as such is that he is on the “wrong side” of history. Elizabeth, however, makes decisions that benefit her and what she believes to be best for her country.
Lastly, there isn’t anything redeeming about Elizabeth’s character, the same way there isn’t much to redeem Don Draper who is a cheater, liar and horrible father or Walter White who is a murderer, liar and drug lord. Elizabeth kills, lies and disobeys her way through life without much regard to whom it hurts. Although sometimes she may question her decisions, although many times you will empathize with her thanks to the incredible writers, it doesn’t stop her from being a devoted KGB member whose goal is to destroy America.