Sex on TV can be a cheap way to get attention, whether it’s in advertising or entertainment, shorthand for “look at this!” And a pilot is where, above all else, a show needs to grab attention. It’s the rare cable drama of the past ten years that doesn’t feature at least one sex scene in its premiere episode. The pilot of The Americans, which premiered on FX several weeks ago, features not one, but three of them.
It’s easy to view the ubiquitous romp in the sheets (or airport supply closet, or… wherever) with cynicism. In this case, however, the sex serves the story brilliantly, and I’ll get to why.
The Americans tells the story of a pair of Russian spies who, in 1981, have been living undercover as a married American couple in suburban Washington D.C. for 20 years. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) have two kids and all the trappings of a stable family life. (On a side note, the set dresser for this must have a blast. The brass headboard. The pink walls. Oh, the 80s.)
It’s been widely observed that the show is not about espionage, per se, but about the main characters’ marriage. True enough. To take that viewpoint one step further, the show is about suppressing one’s true self. Keeping who you are under wraps, day after day, whether it’s a lifestyle choice you mask from co-workers or something as dramatic as being a spy, takes its toll. (In a much later episode, FBI agent Stan (Noah Emmerich) states, “You can’t be married and not have secrets.”)
We see this element in Phillip, certainly, but his enemy Stan also knows something of living a lie, having just come off an assignment working undercover with the KKK. The question is, when you live a lie long enough, do you start to believe it yourself? A sequence in a shopping mall reveals that Philip enjoys at least two distinctly American activities: boot scooting and embarrassing one’s teenage offspring. That stuff isn’t faked. Neither, it seems, is his love for Elizabeth.
But the identity issue is explored more in Elizabeth than in anyone else. There are two different points at which Elizabeth looks at her reflection — we’re left to guess at what she’s thinking.
By episode’s end we’ve seen Elizabeth having sex three times, in three ways. In the first, the opening scene, she’s the one with the power, disguising her real identity and manipulating a target. The next, a flashback, shows us Elizabeth being over-powered by an authority figure, a trauma that’s come back to haunt her today. Finally, we find her initiating sex with Phillip — an act done with mutual desire, equal power, and something like love. It’s an act of celebration in fact, as they’ve just finished a mission.
It all adds up to a complex, fascinating character. Elizabeth isn’t “good” in any traditional sense; she represents the enemy of America, she likes to her family, and she’s a woman in charge of her sexuality. But she’s clearly our hero, the one we’re going to root for in this bizarre world.
I’m glossing over a lot of stuff in the pilot, because there’s just too much going on. If you haven’t watched yet, you’ve still got a few weeks to check it out before season finale.