Morality is only moral when it is voluntary.
The Soviet sympathizer Lincoln Steffens wrote that a long time ago. Now, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are learning that lesson the hard way, and it’s made for a captivating season of The Americans. You could argue that every episode was building toward that thrilling moment this season when the Jennings finally told Paige that they’re spies, attempting to rope their daughter into the family business as a “second generation illegal” whose U.S. citizenship could help them infiltrate American intelligence agencies. Though, judging by the season finale, they will soon discover that forcing your own moral agenda on your kids doesn’t work.
The fact that Paige divulged her parents’ secret to Pastor Tim doesn’t necessarily mean the Jennings are doomed. I still think he might be a KGB operative in disguise. This is what makes The Americans so gripping: It allows you to experience the crazy paranoia that Elizabeth and Philip feel, always second-guessing the motives of every new person you meet. For me, it doesn’t make sense that Claudia and Gabriel would allow Philip and Elizabeth to take the massive risk of revealing who they really are to Paige if the higher-ups hadn’t already safeguarded that secret from leaking. And Pastor Tim’s cover is perfect. Who would suspect a Jesus-loving pastor of being a godless Communist? What better way to recruit teenagers for “the cause” than by staging anti-American protests in the name of peace?
Whether or not he’s in on the plan, the idea of Paige turning against her parents is the perfect twist for the show. The Americans has always wrestled with the ways that parents enforce their values on their kids. Now it’s zeroing in on the ways that kids shape their parents’ values, too.
There’s an old saying that, in order to act morally, one must act as if the whole world is watching. But Elizabeth and Philip’s whole purpose is to act morally while they’re hiding from the world. That might be why they’re able to justify some particularly ghastly acts during this very grim season: breaking a human body down into suitcase-sized parts, standing by while a man was set on fire, and killing a feeble old woman. “Do you think doing this to me will make the world a better place?” the old woman asked Elizabeth before she died. “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.”
When you have kids, though, you’re constantly being observed, as Paige’s late-night laundry-room-snooping sessions have taught us. Suddenly, you’re not just doing what you think is right in your own mind. You’re trying to live by the example you’re setting for someone else. That requires a certain self-consciousness that can make you rethink your values. It’s been eye-opening to watch Philip go through that process this season because, as viewers, we’re asking the same questions he’s asking himself. Why is he protecting his daughter’s innocence when he’s willing to seduce a teenage girl and kill a man who still plays with superhero toys? How can he maintain that he’s “saving lives” when that means killing innocent people? How can he justify turning Paige into a spy when he’s conflicted about being one himself? No wonder he tells Yousaf, “I feel like shit all the time.”
There’s no such hand-wringing on Elizabeth’s part. She simply keeps doing what’s always been done, because that was what her mother did before her. Paige’s questions about the KGB don’t weigh on her morally, but they’re probably dulling her instincts. When mother and daughter travel around West Germany, waiting for the chance to meet with Elizabeth’s dying mother, Paige second-guesses Elizabeth’s feeling that they’re being followed. “You have to be careful all the time?” she asks her mom. “If I’m working, yeah,” Elizabeth replies. “Are you working now?” Paige asks. Elizabeth stops, considering the question. “It’s a habit,” she says. Whether or not she realizes it, Elizabeth believes in that same pop-psychology lesson that EST teaches Philip: These feelings in your gut are more important than all the shit in your head. Her gut is what tells her she’s still doing the right thing, even when the mission goes wrong. And that means she shares something with her Christian daughter. Both of them rely on faith to survive.
Of course, faith is also what some people rely on when action fails them. It’s the reason why Martha, who can’t bring herself to leave “Clark,” continues to believe that he loves her. Faith is all that Agent Beeman has left, now that he and Oleg have both turned against their countries for the love of a woman who probably wants to put a bullet in both of their heads. Faith is what makes Anton keep writing letters to his son, even though they might never reach him. And it’s what keeps me watching The Americans, hoping for some impossible truce where no one has to die, even though history tells me that’s not how this story ends.
Morality is only moral when it’s voluntary. That’s a good lesson for viewers, too. The whole idea of a great American morality drama doesn’t work if the show pre-decides who’s good and who’s evil. The Americans lets you judge yourself, revealing the humanity in murderers and the easy corruption of people who think they’re on justice’s side. “Everybody lies,” Elizabeth tells Paige. “It’s part of life.”
Even though Philip is contemplating radical transparency by the end of the hour, I can’t believe the lying will stop any time soon. Tonight, Philip and Elizabeth watched President Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech, which marked the closest the U.S. and Russia ever came to an all-out nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That speech probably sounds like empty propaganda to Philip and Elizabeth, but it might not to Paige, who can’t possibly defend the KGB at a time like this. If her call to Pastor Tim was meant to hurt or expose her parents, it will most likely end up hurting him, if he doesn’t turn out to be a secret operative. And that will only prove we have more in common with the Russians than we think. We all believe we’re making the world a better place for our kids. But in the end, we’re all bad guys to someone.