The Americans: Saluting TV’s Finest Female Anti-Hero

The Americans' Elizabeth Jennings may be hard to like as a person, but as a TV character, she's very easy to admire...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Warning: contains plot details for The Americans 1-6

Tony Soprano. Don Draper. Walter White. Omar Little. Nucky Thompson. Jamie Lannister. That guy from that thing you watch. Stop me when I’ve made my point. That being, TV loves an anti-hero.

And why wouldn’t it? There’s very little similar to that relationship we have with a character we know will one day face a reckoning. One that we may or may not welcome, depending on when it happens.

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Which means writers can do a lot with an anti-hero. They can start off with a dying guy who just wants to help his family out and make him cross a series of lines until all sympathy is a distant memory. Or, they can start off with some bloke banging his sister and throwing a kid out of a window, and a few seasons down the line make him the heart of soul of it. Or, if they do everything right, they can create an outlaw operating in a city of outlaws, who continues to hold the audience in the palm of his hand long after he lies dead on a convenience store floor, his body looted for souvenirs.

They’re a varied bunch, is what I’m saying. Except, wait a minute, they’re not. Aside from the fact that they are predominately white – a representation question for another article, obviously – they do all have one similarity. They’re predominately men.

Write a list of female anti-heroes and you’ll find the task a lot harder. Or, your know, easier, if you’re one of those people whose hand now cramps up after writing more than eight words. Yep, there’s Edie Falco’s painkiller addicted Nurse Jackie, Veep‘s self-obsessed wonder Selina Meyer, and Nancy Botwin, pot-dealing mom from Weeds, but they are as much about the comedy as the drama. And there’s Glenn Close’s ruthless lawyer Patty in Damages. Yeah, she’s complicated, but did she beat her boss to a pulp and shout “Tell whoever approved this that your face is a present from me to them!” I don’t think so. (Although, you know, she might’ve, I didn’t watch it all.)

But you know who did? Elizabeth Jennings, possibly the finest female anti-hero to grace our TV screens yet. And I say yet with hope, obviously. Because, of course, it’s terrific that The Americans has delivered a three-dimensional, glossy haired and velvety voiced female anti-hero who can fold a corpse into a suitcase. But we want more. (Of the women, naturally. Those splintering bones I could well live without).

While the show’s creators are always keen to point out that, outside of all the spying and the sexy times, The Americans is actually a series about marriage, as we find ourselves at the tail end of the final season, it’s increasingly clear that Keri Russell’s Elizabeth is at the centre of it all. And in a series about a dedication to Mother Russia, how couldn’t she be?

Now, this should go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t: this is no slight on Philip Jennings or the man who embodies him, Matthew Rhys. From his opening gambit of stabbing a statutory rapist in the balls with a massive fork to his season six high point of putting his daughter in a choke hold (for her own good), Philip has been one of the easier TV anti-heroes to get behind. Largely because, due to a nifty subversion of gender roles, Elizabeth is way, way worse than him. And standing right next to him.

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“This stuff just comes easier to you,” Philip tells her back in that brutal third season. And while it hurts her to hear, and is possibly untrue, it’s not hard to understand how he’s reached that conclusion. She’s the driver, in more ways than one, the gung-ho one, the true disciple, even now, still slashing her way through the USSR’s final hours. Philip is the voice of reason, the one who’s open to new ideas, the nurturer.

Elizabeth tests our loyalty. Liking her is a far tougher proposition.

And talking of tough, Mrs. Jennings clearly had it bad – far worse than, say, Nucky Thompson – and his dismal childhood is actively touted as an excuse for his appalling behavior. She also is tough, surviving a bullet to the side, a run in with Glanders (precisely as disgusting as it sounds), and some frankly nauseating DIY dental survey by Philip.

She’s also received the kind of indoctrination that Tony Soprano can but dream of using to justify his actions. And unlike him, she doesn’t indulge in the spoils of her victory. She’s not forgotten where she came from. She doesn’t indulge in the food, the drink or the drugs, like the mob boss, or a certain Madison Avenue advertising exec. In fact, her disdain for excess, for consumerism, for mawkish sentimentality are some of the most relatable things about her. (You tell them, Elizabeth, kids are spoiled shits nowadays.)

In a lot of ways, she’s a Russian Omar, in that she both does and doesn’t have power. And squares it with herself by making it all about the code.

None of which makes her exactly likeable, but it’s quite easy to pity her still, even after all the murder and mayhem. Particularly since it comes at a pretty high cost to her: she’s lost her mentor, her mentee, her first love, her closest friend.

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And it’s difficult, now we’re at the sharp end, to remember that as recently as season four, Elizabeth still had it in her to be something other than a killing machine. Now she’s a strung-out, chain-smoking whirlwind, it’s hard to remember a time that she asked not to ruin Young Hee’s family. Or the time she was so freaked out that Philip showed Martha the real Philip, that she – Elizabeth Jennings – went to an EST seminar.

I’d been thinking before this season aired, that I might be all out of sympathy for Elizabeth. That the clever but tragic subversion of a man deliberately being made to dig his own grave, the death of Hans, might be the last time I felt anything approaching warmth towards Elizabeth. Who’d been given so many chances to leave, to change, and turned them all down. But yet here we are in season six, watching her being slowly re-bonded to the motherland by the exact propaganda expected to win over her daughter. And suddenly she’s human again. And vulnerable. And worth caring about. And that’s quite some achievement.

So long, Elizabeth Jennings. You may go down in a blaze of bullets. You may well deserve it. But it wasn’t for nothing. You’ve changed a TV trope for the better. Спасибо