In one of the most original Spy-Dame personas that I have seen in either film, book, or TV, the incredibly nuanced performance by Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, a Russian sleeper-agent on FX’s 1980s themed “The Americans”, is remarkable for the fact that, one, Elizabeth is a rare example of a fully-realized female character, and two, for the fact that the character wrestles with the seemingly mundane and quintessential female problem of trying to have it all – but with a twist.
Elizabeth (actually “Nadezhda”), raised in post-war, Communist Russia by a single mother, is a young KGB agent assigned to pose as part of a suburban couple in America with another KGB agent, husband “Phillip”. Elizabeth and Phillip only know each other by their American names as a method of protection in case they are ever caught. They arrive in America in the late 1970s and the series follows them years later as the live as an established married couple, produce two children, and reside in the suburbs while running a travel agency in Washington DC. The perfect cover as the couple navigate their secret life as deep-cover spies.
And Elizabeth is one tough customer: a master of disguise, a talented wireless radio operator, a skilled tradesman in espionage, pretty good at hand-to-hand combat, and a consistent strategic thinker – and all while also dealing with the appropriate amount of stress of being a mother. But here is where Elizabeth diverges from the norm: however harried Elizabeth may be as a mom, it is not to comedic effect. Elizabeth struggles with the balance of work-home life because first and foremost, Elizabeth is a dedicated Soviet, a loyal servant to the cause. While her husband Phillip often suggests early they either defect or disappear permanently in America as the country is not all that bad and their kids are as American as they come, Elizabeth will not here of it. She is The Job and The Job is not over. If her children are “too American” it is simply because Elizabeth is “not finished with them yet”.
Elizabeth plays the maligned disciplinarian in the eyes of her children while her husband is the “fun parent”, a fairly typical story construct on any level, but there’s an interesting duality in this spy thriller. While she does love her children and has, if not love, but strong affection for Phillip, they are still part of The Job in her mind and that influences much of her actions, as her family life is part of her cover, part of her job. For example, we learn early on that Elizabeth was assaulted by a senior training officer in Russia, and while this is a certain catalyst for events in the pilot episode, it is not something that defines Elizabeth as a character because the only thing that does define her is her commitment to The Soviet Cause. So a predator in the Soviet ranks is almost something she took in stride, as part of the job, until she decides it is not.
So how does a Dame have it all? How does Elizabeth manage marriage, children, and home while trying to champion Mother Russia and maintain a secret identity? Most often through cold reserve, tenacity, big-picture thinking, and the ability to give a good beat-down when warranted.
The bigger question that will face Elizabeth in the series is the constant test of her ideology and whether it will uphold as Elizabeth realizes that her Russian counterparts are not quite the patriots she has held them out to be, and then, what will her actions be?