'The Americans' and religion: A 'binding' theory
“The Binding of Isaac” is one of the more disturbing stories in the Bible. Found in Genesis chapter 22, it tells the tale of a gut-wrenching loyalty test: God commands Abraham to make a sacrifice out of his child. Bind him. Knife him. Kill him.
Terrible—but Abraham obeys. He takes Isaac into the wilderness, a trek in which the boy is made to play pack mule, his back loaded with wood. He is carrying Abraham’s baggage, literally and symbolically. At the appointed place, Abraham builds an altar from Isaac’s lumber, then ties the kid to it, then raises the blade… and that’s when an ‘Angel of the Lord’ suddenly shouts: “Kidding!”
The whole exercise had been a scan for compromise and vulnerability—a bug sweep, to borrow a bit of business from last night’s episode of The Americans. Abraham passed the test by proving he was willing to put God before everything else—his children, his identity as a father—and could be trusted to agent a grand mission. The angel instructs Abraham to sacrifice a ram in place of his spared son, the boy’s place, then promises him that God will transform Abraham into a more glorious father figure, the spiritual paterfamilias of a new nation: “Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on Earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Abraham goes, “Sweet!” Isaac goes, “DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?!” And everyone lived happily ever after, once Abraham served his jail time, and Isaac finished 16,000 sessions of trauma therapy. (This detail not available in all Biblical translations. Consult your local minister for which translation might be right for you.)
The Americans has been telling a “Binding of Isaac” story—a few of them, actually—over the course of a stunning third season that has been fixated on religion while also digging deeper than ever into fertile themes like allegiance, sacrifice, and identity. ’80s era travel agents by day, Soviet subversives by night Philip (Matthew Ryhs) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell)—once a fake happy couple; now a genuinely troubled one—have been ordered by their masters at The Centre to bind their born-again Christian daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to the cause of Communism. They’re commanded to reveal their true identities, turn her into a second generation operative, and, through her, continue taking possession of the most important city in the U.S.S.R.’s coldest nemesis. (That would be the U.S.)
Representing The Centre this season—and coaching Team Jennings through this assignment (and others)—is a father figure with a most angelic name: Gabriel (Frank Langella). Cool dude, this Gabriel. Plays chess, deals dope, listens and advises like a priest or marriage and family counselor. Elizabeth and Philip trust him. We suspect they shouldn’t. But if he’s playing a game, what is it?
The edict to turn Paige initially drove a wedge between Philip and Elizabeth. Fighting dredged up unresolved issues regarding their own binding back in the day, and their discontent threatens to subvert their subverting work. They seemed spiraling toward relational and individual collapse until the most recent episode, when Elizabeth and Philip reversed course and moved toward each other. She apologized for mistakes; he confessed a big secret. They made love—and, the next morning, went out and did some hard-core spy work.
The theory-mongering, plot-predicting part of me would like to propose that this just might be the whole goal of The Centre’s interest in Paige… or alleged interest. Do they really want her as an agent? Are they exploiting a condition in the family to strengthen the psyches of two key agents and bind them more closely to each other and the cause? Or could it be both?
From the start, Philip and Elizabeth were troubled by the mandate to remake Paige into “little versions of themselves,” to paraphrase some recent language—him more so than her. They have responded to the challenge in different, opposing ways. Elizabeth—Motherland loyal; still Nadezhda at heart—has resolved to obey after some dithering. She follows the Abrahamic example of her own mother: When Elizabeth gave her life to the K.G.B., around the same age Paige gave her life to Christ, her mother whole-heartedly supported her, even though it meant she would never see her daughter again. The way she renounced her parental attachment was beautiful and chilling. “She didn’t even blink,” recalls Elizabeth with cool pride. And she spends free moments in her secret basement spy closet, listening to her mother’s voice on cassette tapes. We wonder if her mother’s surrender wounded Elizabeth more than she dares to admit, whether the pain aches like the rotting tooth she spent the season’s early episodes trying to ignore.
Elizabeth began developing Paige like she would her usual assets, bonding by finding common cause. During a long walk through an impoverished, decimated section of the inner city—a setting chosen to indict American capitalism—Elizabeth shared some sanded-off bits of her backstory and argued that she had a lot in common with Paige, that she shared her social idealism if not the belief system that informs it. (Paige’s SJW form of Christianity—a conspicuously selective bit of representation—is loaded with significance, given the era.)
Paige was surprised by her mother’s testimony; she perceives her parents to be like many ’80s adults, i.e. shallow, selfish, screwed-up, cynical, escapist. Damn yuppies! But in truth, Philip and Elizabeth’s life is but a performance of those values, assayed by actors critical of them. (One of the mischievous twists in The Americans I like the best is that a born again Christian is the representative of liberal progressivism.)
Still, Paige is bothered by a nagging question: What happened? In last night’s episode, she put that question to her father, who happens to be the weaker half of this KGB power couple—the one most in danger of falling or maybe running away. “What made you stop believing in change, that things can’t get better?” she asked.* His conflicted response: He grew older, he grew wiser, his priorities shifted, and endeavors like raising children became more important. As always, Philip allowed more truth to bleed through his lies and guises than he should; it’s the only way he can make it real anymore.
*(Perhaps Paige was looking for an answer to her question in the book she was reading, Great Issues In American History: From Reconstruction to the Present Day by Richard Hofstadter—whose long career saw him shift from Communism, and a hard critique of capitalism and class warfare, toward the center, as he became more interested in social psychology and critical of extremist forms of activism. The reference further frames the intramural political argument represented by the Left-leaning Jennings family re: how to get the world they want, with Mom and Dad repping by-any-means-necessary revolution and Paige repping reform and redemption. At least, for now.)
Alienated from his inner Mischa, loyal only to Elizabeth and his family and his private sense of meaning, Philip has been petulantly Jonah-esque—resentful and resistant to reveal his true colors to Paige. It’s not just because he no longer believes in Communism with all mind, heart and soul; it’s because fighting for Communism has turned his true colors muddy, bloody, and gray. He doesn’t want Paige to degrade herself, becoming a tool; he wants his daughter to have the freedom to choose the spy life, a freedom he never had.
This season, Philip has been trying to support Paige’s embrace of Christianity, even though religion remains antithetical to his belief system—and even as her minister, Pastor Tim*, displaces him as her father figure. Paige’s faith may or may not be a phase of adolescent rebellion. But allowing her to play it out is the rebellion Philip was never allowed. (I dread the possibility that Pastor Tim is going to break bad—a very ’80s sex or financial scandal, a la Jimmy Swaggart or Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker—and by extension discourage Paige from her faith. I dread this, because Paige represents an unusual and inspiring kind of Christian.)
Elizabeth and Philip have secondary storylines that are influencing and reinforcing their Paige positions. Elizabeth is discipling a young spy, Hans, a go-getter much like herself. Her parental mentorship stands in contrast to her own exploitive, abusive education in espionage—specifically, when the brute Timoshev raped her during a training exercise. She’s shut down Hans’ sexual/romantic interest in her, enforcing boundaries where Timoshev violated them. She drills him on how to carefully, skillfully practice tradecraft. Her success so far emboldens her to believe that she can mold her daughter without damaging her.
Yet Elizabeth’s desire to manage Paige’s grooming suggests a flaw in her otherwise strong spy game, a weakness God was searching for in Abraham when he tested him with that Isaac business: Her “parent” issues—the longing for her mother; her want to keep her daughter close—might be getting in the way of fulfilling her KGB destiny.
Meanwhile, Philip has his own Paige corollary side project: Kimberly, the unhappy, neglected daughter of a CIA honcho with a thing for older men. Philip has adopted a new persona to bait her, a beer industry lobbyist (mission: lowering the drinking age) with a weakness for wayward teens. The persona—a fork-tongued evangelist of addictive poison, a prog-rocky long-haired stoner who bonded with Kimberly by making a fake ID for her—is some seriously pissy, passive-aggressive performance art. All at once, “Jim is a nasty parody of Pastor Tim, the flowy-haired preacher who pumped Paige’s head full of spirits and facilitated her “born again” identity; a sly slap at the corrupt spy-makers who made Philip, and an expression of his self-loathing for being forced to bind and sacrifice Paige—and Kimberly—to his awful masters.
Recent episodes have produced great drama—and much queasiness—by having Philip dance a tricky-icky dance: how to bond with Kimberly without having sex with her (which she wants) or rejecting her. He crafted a compelling lie by drawing from truth: He told Kimberly that he had just given his life to Jesus, out of guilt for being a bad, absent dad to a son now grown. In doing so, Philip got to vent his private agony regarding the child he never knew and has already lost the cause, the son he had with ex-lover/ex-spy/ defector Irina—who is now a paratrooper fighting the CIA-backed mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan.
But this quasi-authentic confession only made “Jim” more endearing to Kimberly, Philip was giving her something she longed to see in her own distant dad. She enthusiastically joined “Jim” in prayer… and wouldn’t you know, Philip actually felt something stir in his heart while doing so. Once again, the artful performance of intimacy in The Americans produces something real and true.
The irony for atheist Philip, the hollowed-out whore, is that Christianity offers much of what he needs—forgiveness and grace; disciplines for sanctification; a philosophy of atonement—and represents everything he wants: to be born again. If only he could swallow the bitter pill of the kooky, irrational God stuff.
Where Elizabeth can’t bear to acknowledge her “baggage” (one of the season’s buzzwords), Philip can’t ignore his if he tried. It weighs heavier on him with every new wig. Yet playing “Jim” has also connected Philip to his anger over his innocence-killing binding: We recently got a flashback to his training, when Mischa was made to sleep with countless men and women—all the better to be a chameleon gigolo, setting himself up for the identity crisis now rocking him. (Oh, the horror stories about formative years he and Don Draper could swap. When oh when will Philip’s Hershey Bar apocalypse come?)
The anecdote—which felt like that of an abuse survivor bravely remembering trauma he/she would rather forget—reminds us that once, Philip and Elizabeth were Isaacs, too.
“The Binding of Isaac” was a test, run by God on Abraham to test him for weakness that would prevent him from being a worthy agent for greater work. Could “the binding of Paige” be a test for Elizabeth and Philip, too? Maybe the game Gabriel’s running on them is very much akin to that Michael Douglas movie The Game, in which the hero was made to confront and heal nostalgia—a word Mad Men once defined as “pain from an old wound.” This sort of nostalgia could be preventing the couple from progressing, getting in the way of whatever grand plans The Centre might have for Team Jennings. Perhaps Gabrial is trying to do for Philip and Elizabeth what Stan Beeman’s E.S.T. is trying to do for him: purge their baggage; get them to get over their shit.
I have no idea how this idea plays out dramatically. It might require the realization of a popular fan theory: that Pastor Tim is KGB himself, and that he’s already wedded Paige to Marx. Which means, then, The Centre’s interest in seeing Elizabeth and Philip do the work of binding Paige is all about them, not her. The idea might also involve what Pastor Tim would call “a substitutionary offering”—basically, Kimberly for Paige. The Centre tells Philip and Elizabeth that it will give up their claim on their child if they can turn a CIA honcho’s daughter into a KGB tool instead. Kimberly could be the ram that spares Elizabeth and Philip from making the sacrifice they don’t want to make.