Monday, May 20, 2024

Reflecting on Elizabeth Jennings

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After 6 wonderful seasons, The Americans recently concluded with a powerful finale that served as a fitting end to the series while also leaving plenty to digest and debate. As one of the two main characters, of course this applies to Elizabeth Jennings. To call her a complicated character is an understatement. And yet, you can also trace everything she does back to easily understood motivations that are not the least bit complicated. I know this sounds like a contradiction. Maybe it is.

That’s exactly the point I want to make here in my look back on Elizabeth. This contradiction between the simplicity of her motivations and the complicated affect those motivations have both on her own life and the lives of those around her makes for one of the best characters in television history.

The Origins of a Superspy

This applies back to the very earliest looks The Americans provides into Elizabeth’s life. She is the daughter of a soldier who died in World War 2, known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and referred to as such by characters in the show. This distinction in the naming of the war is a key aspect of Elizabeth’s character because of how society shaped her. She grew up with an intense desire to serve and affect positive change in the world. This desire was only compounded by her father being a deserter. She also grew up in a society that placed heavy emphasis on the value and importance of service, a theme constantly repeated throughout The Americans by Soviet characters.

Elizabeth found her way when approached by the KGB. She found her way to serve her country and do right by the world. Between her and Philip, no question exists regarding the more loyal and fervent of the two. Elizabeth is a true believer of the highest order. Where Philip serves out of loyalty and love for his family, Elizabeth serves out of faith in the higher principles of her country.

Nothing matters more in understanding her character or explaining her actions. Everything she says, everything she does, all she endures, it all traces back to her belief in the KGB’s mission.

It also stunted her emotional development at a very young age. Actually, you can go back to her story about taking care of her mother for 10 months while also attending school at 14-years old. Elizabeth has never been allowed any healthy vulnerability.  By the time she was 16, the KGB recruited her. Her normal pubescent development was rushed forward at an unnatural rate or ignored entirely.

Once she was in the KGB, as we also saw with Philip, Elizabeth lost much of her compassion and empathy purely out of necessity. She also lost much of her sense of self. She was ordered to do so. You can’t spend your life transforming yourself to manipulate potential targets if you have a strong sense of self.

Elizabeth also endured physical and mental traumas she was never really allowed to process. We see her rape by her commanding officer in the first season, and we later see through Philip how Directorate S officers must have sex with men and women of all ages and looks in order to learn how to distance themselves mentally. She also learned how to both cause harm and ignore it, to the point of contradiction. The final season of The Americans provides a glimpse into a training incident where Elizabeth walked past a dying police officer in belief she was supposed to. Afterwards her training office reprimanded her.

This all created a woman of immense personal beliefs in herself yet little sense of who she truly was, and someone who never had the type of experiences natural to most people. Her first “relationship” was her fake marriage to Philip. Her first actual boyfriend was an asset she recruited, meaning there was never full truth or honesty behind it. The only time Elizabeth truly felt like herself is on missions, when she fundamentally can’t be herself.

The Great Contradiction

Perhaps others disagree with me, but early-season Elizabeth Jennings always feels oddly childlike to me. Her and Philip’s budding relationship always feels so uncertain and insecure. It often feels like teenagers in their first serious relationship. When you factor in their pasts, this feeling makes sense. Philip did have one girlfriend before leaving for America, but both were KGB and split when Philip left for America at 17. Elizabeth, as previously covered, didn’t even have that. Neither has the emotional maturity to understand what the hell they are doing. That’s without even factoring in how their work complicates their lives.

And yet, this is the same Elizabeth Jennings who kills at the drop of a hat and ruins lives of assets with a shockingly low amount of sorrow or reflection.

Perhaps the childlike feel was purposeful, since her seemingly coldness gradually dissipates as she and Philip grow and mature alongside their relationship (well, until the final season but we’re getting there). Elizabeth still often feels like a huge contradiction. One moment she’s tentatively admitting budding feelings for Philip, the next she sleeps with or murders a target. My own feelings about Elizabeth often change from scene to scene, vacillating wildly between love and hate.

That’s not to say Elizabeth lacks remorse for her actions. Rather, her problem is an inability to process her guilt. The KGB trained healthy emotional stability out of her. Both she and Philip are told numerous times how they have to suppress their humanity in order to do their job, and Elizabeth is much more successful at it. Her actions clearly affect her. The deaths she witnesses hurt her. She suffers through it silently, whenever possible, and comes across as a cold person, but there’s no question she feels for it and finds outlets for her anger and sorrow elsewhere.

Despite her own deficiencies, she clearly has a strong capacity for emotional understanding and assistance for others. This certainly shows with her targets. You can’t make a life of manipulating others into espionage without reading a person’s feelings and exploiting them. It also shows with her husband and children, despite the many issues she has with them.

Make no mistake; Elizabeth loves her family. She is a good mother and wife. She recognizes Philip’s many mood swings and how to assuage them. Sometimes this borders on a similar manipulation similar to her spy work, especially when she obviously uses sex to bring Philip to her side, but Elizabeth has a deep understanding of her husband. She recognizes when missions send him spiraling and how to pull him out of it. Multiple times throughout the series, she rejects killing someone it would obviously be much safer to kill because she knows it may be too far for Philip to handle. In the end, she accepts the added burden of his work so Philip can retire from their work. Most often, it is Philip who suffers the moral crisis and Elizabeth who makes concessions in the name of familial and professional unity.

She tries to do the same for her children, though with limited success. There’s no doubting the bond between Elizabeth and Paige. They share a great many similarities; most noticeably the same driven desire to be a force of good for the world. Elizabeth takes a great interest in her daughter from the beginning and by the third season is even going to church with her in hopes of creating a closer relationship. By the final season, Paige and Elizabeth are closer to each other than anyone else in their lives.

Her relationship with Henry is not so close. There are moments, especially in the final couple seasons, where it feels like Elizabeth has no relationship with Henry. That doesn’t mean Elizabeth doesn’t know her son. When the moment finally comes to run in the series finale, Elizabeth is able to recognize how leaving Henry in America is the right move.

And yet, the same manipulation you see with Elizabeth and Philip also occurs with her children. Well, mostly Paige. As Paige’s churchgoing experiences brought her into political causes Elizabeth agreed with, Elizabeth saw an opportunity to influence her towards Soviet sympathies. Yes, she found an opportunity to grow closer to her daughter. I will never deny that. You also can’t deny how Elizabeth manipulated Paige’s perception of the world and her mother’s work. Even by series end, Paige didn’t know the full truth.

This all traces back to Elizabeth’s loyalty to the cause. So much of The Americans focuses on Elizabeth and Philip balancing their work with their family. Philip represents one side; he’s loyal to his family above all else and considers the work a responsibility necessary to protect himself and them. Elizabeth represents the other. She values and trusts the cause to the point she brings Paige into the spy game despite everything that happened with Jared, as well as Philip’s vehement objections.

The result is a moral complexity making for one of the most confounding characters you’ll ever see. Do you root for Elizabeth Jennings or against her? Well, it’s kind of both. Which is why Elizabeth Jennings is not only one of the best characters in TV history, but one of the most unique.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Nadezhda

This is the great triumph of the job The Americans did with Elizabeth Jennings. They created a character who was just allowed to exist as is and let the audience judge for themselves. I still find it stunning, to the point I’m not sure I can properly explain it. Elizabeth is who she is, for both better and worse. The narrative never judges her.

Think about how many characters (women especially) are forced into a narrative function at some point. How often do characters get to just be people? I talked in my review of the finale about the magic of The Americans’s ability to make me feel so interested in simply watching its characters live their lives. A complete story arc was told that still felt like simply another sequence of events in these characters lives, part of the fuller story we unfortunately don’t get the privilege of seeing. As such I rarely felt like any of the main characters were used as plot devices to make any particular point.

Most impressively, they completely avoided taking sides between Philip and Elizabeth. In a show about marriage featuring multiple crises born of differing opinions between the two. How in the world did they do that?

Elizabeth doesn’t avoid the kind of harsh judgment you see for characters like Skyler White or Carmela Soprano by being infallible. I hope every word up to this point made clear how easy it is to root against her. She also doesn’t fall into becoming the villain of the show through her awful actions, making it easy to see Philip as the voice of reason. Goodness knows Philip is no consistent voice of reason on The Americans. Elizabeth is just Elizabeth. Sometimes she’s a good woman fighting for good causes before going home to cook dinner for her children. Sometimes she does despicable things that make you think you’ll never like her again.

The only thing you know for sure is that you’ll probably swing back the other way in an episode or two.

I think the reason The Americans managed this (besides Keri Russell’s incredible acting) is because of how consistent she was. Again, she is who she is. Sometimes that puts her on your good or bad side. The traits you admire about her end also inspire her most monstrous actions. In the end, she’s a true believer, and while you may hate some of the things she does, you never feel like she has bad intentions. You also never forget the background leading her to the KGB and the actions she takes for them. It’s a delicate balancing act managed to near perfection.

For example, you can look at Elizabeth’s relationships with others to see how the traits you admire about her also make you despise her at times. She often attracts people like her, and is attracted to them in turn. In season 2, a young Nicaraguan woman named Lucia ends up as a source of information to influence ongoing Soviet-American conflict in Nicaragua. Elizabeth immediately recognizes something of herself in Lucia. In their interactions you see the passion she feels for her work and admire Elizabeth’s beliefs.

Then she lets a far less sympathetic man kill Lucia because his work was more important than hers. Just like that, you hate her again. And yet, what else would she do? Lucia insisted on killing this man. There was no reasoning with her. Elizabeth would never be a person to let someone else’s personal vendettas ruin her mission. On the other hand, Lucia’s anger is one any person can understand. This man was one of the key figures responsible for destabilizing her home country.

Within this storyline, you can see all the ways Elizabeth deserves both love and scorn. You see it with her mentorship with Hans, who served very much as a proto-Paige that Elizabeth recruited and trained. Then Elizabeth shot him down because of an infectious disease. Anyone else could have done it, but Elizabeth did not hesitate to do so herself.

Time and again, she reveals a strong ability to make real connections with those around her. She was extremely close to Gregory and felt genuine love for him. I mentioned her immediate fondness and connection with Lucia. She established a motherly role over Hans. Both Lisa in season 3 and Young-Hee in season 4 became genuine friends of hers. She also betrays and/or kills them all. How do you reconcile this? I never stopped struggling to.

The same can be said of her loyalty towards her mission. What always strikes me about this loyalty is how it is not really to the Soviet Union. Rather, it’s towards the ideals she projects onto the Soviet Union. You wonder how she can possibly support, let alone carry out the worst crimes committed throughout The Americans. At a certain point you realize the depths of her belief in her ideals. There of course exist the implications of how young the KGB got to her. You realize eventually how fully they managed to convince her of America’s evil and the necessity of acting against them.

When Elizabeth tells an innocent old woman that her death will make the world a better place, there’s no rationalization for an evil act detected in her words. Only genuine belief. And when that belief is finally broken, it is not her ideals that come into question. Only the Soviet Union. Even in the end, Elizabeth’s break is not from her ideals but her country. Yet that doesn’t excuse what she does. Not fully.

What really awes me about her character is how she is unapologetically allowed to be so flawed and real. How many characters are allowed such imperfections without the narrative judging them for it or turning the audience against them? How many women? Characters like Sansa Stark never hear the end of far less. Black Sails allows Eleanor Guthrie considerable room for her flaws, but fans still looked at her as “the bitch” of the show. They also talked that way about Max, who had some flaws but was one of the least problematic characters on the show. And to be fair, the narrative does judge her in the final season regarding the split between her and Anne.

Elizabeth faces no such judgments. Sometimes she will be the bad guy in a split between her and Philip, but the show always makes sure to relay her view. The Americans never makes any judgment that she was just a bad person or irredeemable in anyway. Yes, you may agree with Philip about disliking Elizabeth’s attempts to train Paige, but within the same episode you’ll see her convince their handler to make Philip’s son with another woman come home from the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

She gets to be a real, genuine person of consistent beliefs, for better or worse. I’m not the least bit used to that. Even with shows I like more than The Americans, I don’t get characters like this. It applies to others as well, for sure. Philip, Paige, Stan, and most others have plenty of questions about their morality. None of them quite compare to Elizabeth. She very well might be the most conflicting character I’ve ever seen or read.

Perhaps this is why The Americans never really caught on with audiences. I don’t mean this is any elitist, judgmental way, but most people simply don’t want to invest themselves in such morally complicated television shows. They have commitments that make investing such time hard or impossible. Maybe they have hard lives themselves and don’t want to bother with a show questioning things their everyday lives already make them question. With so much great TV out there, maybe this one just fell unfortunately under the radar.

For those of us who caught on, though, Elizabeth Jennings was the true treat of The Americans. She perfectly embodies why this show was so good and what it did best.

Images courtesy of FX

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