Will this be the week that Paige Jennings gives up on her faith on The Americans? I keep waiting for it to happen. The daughter of workaholic travel agents—secretly workaholic Soviet spies, but she doesn’t know that—began going to church last season and gave her life to Christ by being baptized at the start of this season. Her conversion has inspired suspicions, even inspired conspiracy theories among fans of the ’80s-era thriller. Is Paige just trying to tweak her more-Godless-than-she-knows parents with a most ironic form of teenage rebellion? Is she experimenting with identities, seeing what fits and sticks, as many adolescents tend to do? Or what if she’s a phony like her parents, her faith a front for the fact that she, too, has gone Commie, turned by her socially conscious minister who himself is also actually a Marxist? “Socially conscious.” Socialist. Get it?!
Last week’s episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” gave us one fleeting scene with Paige, who’s played crisp and cool by Holly Taylor, like an unflappable poker player. It was like the show was telling us that, no, they hadn’t forgotten about her (and her brother) following a few MIA weeks. We saw her in her room, shooing her vid-game playing brother to bed (parenting for her parents, who were off bugging a ‘bot and killing an old lady), then flipping through a Bible heavily bookmarked with Post-it notes. The brief beat suggested someone sincere and serious about her faith, but what to make of previews for this week’s episode, teasing a big speech to her parents? As someone who admires Paige’s representation of faith, I worry it might go something like this: Mom, Dad, I’ve been doing some more reading, and I gotta tell you: This stuff’s nuts! What the hell was I thinking?!
It would make sense for Paige to fall away from faith sooner or later: This season seems to be shaping up to be all about “losing my religion” in one way or another, with characters stripped of illusions and flailing for something legit, or for a different illusion, or for an old one. Whatever wish-fulfillment Philip (Matthew Rhys) was getting out of his sham marriage to Martha (Alison Wright) is gone. It’s now all business and performance, just like his marriage to Elizabeth (Keri Russell) at its worst. Snapping at Gabriel (Frank Langella) as he did at the end of the episode reminded us of how little “the cause” means to him anymore; only his family gives him meaning now. Meanwhile, true believer Elizabeth might be on a collision course with her own crisis of faith following her tragic encounter with Betty (Lois Smith, surely bound for a guest Emmy nom), a woman who had to be killed because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. “You think doing this will make the world a better place?” Betty asked. When Elizabeth answered in the affirmative, Betty replied: “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.” That sick sound you hear is an idea getting under Elizabeth’s skin, burrowing deep into her conscience.
In telling stories about identity crisis that result when our philosophies, worldviews, and mail ‘bot operating systems fail us or go buggy, The Americans treads the same territory as many other great post-modern dramas, from The Sopranos to Mad Men. Many of them have, at best, a skeptical regard for religion, and Christianity in particular, as it’s been modeled, practiced, for many, suffered in certain forms for decades. Ryan Murphy’s diverse collection of outsider entertainments—Glee, American Horror Story—routinely indicts religion as an oppressive, toxic force. The likes of Lost and Rectify have vented timeless, timely complaints with Christianity: The demands of obedience, the aloofness of God, the problem of evil, the doctrine of judgment, the rejection of science, the hypocrisy of its adherents. Deconstructing Christianity has been part of the larger cultural project represented by new-century television that satirizes and critiques archaic embodiments or institutions of cultural power and retrograde belief systems, though many come with the caveat that nihilism is intolerable. We need to believe in something—preferably, something valuable, not costly, to our times. And better, something that is true.
Paige’s faith is fascinating for the way it’s portrayed and for the way it’s not being portrayed. Let’s start with the latter. She is not an avatar of fundamentalist, evangelical, and politically conservative Christianity, which impressed itself upon the culture in indelible ways during the ’80s. This was the decade when Jerry Falwell and Donald Wildmon became moralistic cultural scolds and Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed became Republican power players. This was the decade when televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Baker supplanted grass roots crusaders like Billy Graham as the public face of Christianity, first because of their deft use of media, then for their notorious scandals and falls. This was the decade when the so-called “prosperity gospel”—Jesus wants me to be rich! Believing in Jesus can make me rich!—trumped the Social Gospel that 20 years earlier informed the Civil Rights Movement.
Paige’s faith doesn’t evidence and anticipate any of these trends. No “turn or burn!” street preaching, no roaming malls handing out The Four Spiritual Laws. She’s no cultural conservative, no “prosperity gospel” acolyte, and no pop recluse. She doesn’t sing along to CCM power couple Amy Grant and Gary Chapman; she’s all about that Yaz. No C.S. Lewis fairy tales at bedtime for Paige. She turns through Great Issues In American History: From Reconstruction to the Present Day by Richard Hofstadter. She doesn’t drink the Prosperity Gospel Kool-Aid. She’s giving away her savings, donating her money to fund Pastor Tim’s outreach to the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised. That’s when she’s not protesting for nuclear disarmament, agitating for the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, or bemoaning institutional racism. Yeah, she might be a little judgy. There’s that part of her that wants to tell Stan what Pastor Tim thinks of his E.S.T. (I’m guessing the word is “cult”). But every other word out of her mouth isn’t “Jesus,” either. In fact, I rarely hear Paige talk about Jesus. All things considered, Paige’s faith isn’t about afterlife prepping. She’s more concerned about producing good works that can elevate the here and now.
What I appreciate about Paige’s representation of faith is that it reminds us—or maybe informs us—that conservative Christianity wasn’t the only Christian game in town during the ’80s, just as it isn’t today. According to the producers of The Americans, they drew from progressive strands of Protestant, mainline churches of the period to portray Paige’s faith. As such, she rebuts and rebukes the decade’s dominant cultural narrative about Christianity. But she also rebuts and rebukes her non-religious parents, who represent a different cultural narrative of the Reagan era: the lapsed ’60s idealist-turned-disillusioned, materialistic yuppie. She critiques the religious and secular cultures of her time, at the same time.
How does Paige speak to and for contemporary culture? Considering such questions is one of the secondary pleasures I get from The Americans, which has always struck me as a show not just about faux Americans in the ’80s but Americans of the now. Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is a man in flux, forced to confront his flaws and failures, not sure how to change or if he wants to change. Philip and Elizabeth are troubled soldiers questioning the rightness of their cause, increasingly estranged from national and political identity, him more so than her. They could be us. Is Paige? Well, she surely appeals to politically liberal Christians. And she’s definitely the kind of religious person that Hollywood wishes more religious people were like. Less You’re going to hell! zealot, more Love thy neighbor activist. Less arrogance and rectitude, more curiosity and empathy. Paige is one of a few fictional Christians now on television that imply a critique of Christians by presenting a reconstructed version of them. There’s Alicia’s daughter Grace in The Good Wife, and her witness of grace, for others and herself—whether it was offering hope to her mom last season that her slain ex-lover Will might be in heaven, without once asking whether he had accepted Jesus as his savior, or this season, wrestling with doubt while not giving up on faith. Also see: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a zany satire about a young woman newly liberated from a vaguely Christian doomsday cult relishing her liberation, engaging culture, and delighting in her re-education.
Television is telling these stories at a time when some Christians—young ones in particular—are taking a hard look in the mirror or rethinking everything from opposition to female clergy and gay unions to the belief in hell. (You can find plenty of complaints about this turn from conservative Christians, who fret secular culture as an assimilating, corrupting force, much in the same way Philip’s masters fret the influence of American culture on him; or those who think like this Christian, who wish for a resurgent religious right and bemoan the preaching of “cheap grace” that soft peddles the doctrine of sin and the need for confession and atonement.) Christians today are acutely aware that non-Christians want them to change. Or at least, they should. unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity And Why It Matters, a 2007 book written by Christian researchers, surveyed people ages 16 to 29 about their perceptions of Christians. The conclusions: People want to see more vulnerability, transparency, and redemptive engagement with the world, much less judgment, moralism, and fear of the world. Time will tell how many Christians will take this to heart, which expression of their faith will earn their allegiance. Those who lean left can find some inspiration in The Americans. They should catch her now, before those damn Commies turn the page on her.