On the twelfth of March, I was debating whether or not to return to the United States while living overseas in Great Britain. I sat on my small bed within my closet-sized room where my wardrobe, desk, and bedframe had to be arranged just-so, in order for drawers to slide out, the wardrobe cabinet to swing out, and the door to the room to open and shut all at the same time. Within this space, I had already felt trapped. Peering into the face of my phone, I watched Boris Johnson deliver both a grim and uninformative speech: “We will lose loved ones before their time.” COVID-19 was no longer able to be ignored, and it sought to up the ante of anxiety.
With my push notifications declaring that Trump would impose travel bans, my confusion melted into a dread. Knowing I needed to efficiently book a plane ticket, send in my notice to my employer, and pack up what little I owned, I chose to do none of that. I opened my laptop, searched through my Amazon Prime video saved shows, and clicked on FX’s The Americans.
I descended into The Americans for escapism. I thought it was a flinty spy show. But as I finished the pilot, something glinted beneath the ‘80s camp and espionage. From Keri Russell’s character, Elizabeth Jennings, being introduced in
duplicate—one part reflected in a mirror, the other working her source—The Americans already hinted that it worked best in a state of in between, lurking in dualities. As I abdicated my responsibilities further, watching one, then two more episodes, it became clear: the characters of Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings straddled multiple realities. Their marriage hinged from real to fake, their national identities swinging from American to Russian, their grasp of self sliding from within their control to scattered among their various aliases. All the real narrative tension simmered from internal, invisible conflict. The threat looms.
To watch The Americans is to witness a masterclass in blistering dread. So while my life skidded out from under me, my residence status hovering like a question mark, I didn’t find what I wanted in The Americans through departure from this world; I found kinship. The show emits the same simmering foreboding that current living conditions replicate. Every small decision to leave your apartment, speak to your neighbor, or water your plants feels critical and fateful. While the series embeds real historical events to build out the plot, the writers predominantly explore the Jennings’ domestic and interpersonal lives as the true cause for worry. What happens if your martial fight catches the attention of your next door neighbor, who happens to be an FBI agent? How do you handle your child blabbing about your spy status to her preacher? Who can you trust?
This slipperiness, where your private life is bound up in the outcomes of major world events and vice versa, engenders even more unease. As I trekked my way through British public transit and Heathrow back to the States, I thought about the invisible droplets suspended in the air and coating cold surfaces. Like the Jennings, navigating the world seemed like a game of avoiding many obvious threats rather than ducking the occasional misfortune. And by participating within the system, I, too, also spread risk through the smallest decisions to breathe in one spot, or accidentally bump into a stranger in security. The concept of ethical neutrality died on site.
The Americans argues that relationships solely invite the greatest meaning into our lives, while providing the very ammunition to unravel us. Elizabeth’s ironclad leftist ideology, Stan’s workaholic attitudes, Phillip’s American assimilation, Paige’s faith, Claudia’s nationalist loyalty: none of this sustains a life. The deep friendship forged between Phillip and Stan allows the Jennings to drive away without arrest, while Father Andrei, the very priest who officiated their undisguised marriage and made it real, sold them out to the authorities in the finale. The pain comes from the inescapability of knowing, like Johnson’s earlier words, that “We will lose loved ones before their time.”
I started The Americans in my shoebox-sized room and finished it huddled in my sister’s converted closet-cum-guest room. Both rooms added to the claustrophobic experience of watching my morally dubious favorites chase the ends of their rope, all of us searching for what we could control in times that felt like they had robbed us. I miss the stillness of watching that show in the dark, the shared emotions of the characters as I boomeranging back and forth through the screen.
With last needle drop echoing Tchaikovsky’s “None but the Lonely Heart”, I sat filtering through every heartbreak of Elizabeth and Stan’s paralleled with my own; the friends I left behind without a goodbye, the harshness of a job that offered no sympathies for loyalty, the type of person who gets off the train unannounced, betrayal from our governments. The Jennings being left alone was a punishment. The Jennings being left alone together was their saving grace. When I shut my laptop after the final credits rolled, I held onto the gift of a series that gave me something to hold onto in transition, and then isolation. Shared loneliness may not be so lonely after all.
Katherine Smith is a writer at Paste Magazine and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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