Why I love Henry from The Americans
The title of The Americans haunts me. Every time I watch an episode, there is one very big stupid question on my mind: Just who, precisely, are “the Americans”?
The answer shifts, scene to scene.
The FX spy drama, which returns tonight for its final season, focuses on Soviet spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys). When they talk about “the Americans,” they mean the United States government. Elizabeth makes the phrase sound particularly scornful. She mutters about “the Americans” the way supervillains used to grumble about those “accursed heroes.”
Is she thinking about specific people, like next-door neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich) and his fellow FBI agents? Or is she dismissing a national state of mind?
Over the years, Philip and Elizabeth have gotten close to so many Americans, always under false pretenses, six seasons of phony friendships and pre-digital catfishery. It’s a big ensemble of desperate humans: industrious housewives and health-food bachelors, bored teens and sad teens, bored adults and husbands who should know better. Are these “the Americans,” a rotating titular role? Here’s a country where everyone is a little lonely, sort of kind, and kind of a sucker.
But the title also refers to Elizabeth and Philip. This is ironic, because they’re not American, and doubly ironic, because they are. At the beginning of Wednesday’s season 6 premiere, the Jenningses have lived in the United States for over two decades. They have a nice house, nice car, nice kids, a mom-and-pop business. They are here under false pretenses, but that just makes them undocumented workers. They’re working hard to destabilize the American government, but so is the 45th President.
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You can carry this logic across the supporting cast. The Americans spent much of the first four seasons at the Rezidentura. We got to the embassy through Nina (Annet Mahendru), who became a double, then triple, agent. But when Nina was imprisoned, the show stuck around with Rezident Arkady (Lev Gorn) and Nina’s ex-lover Oleg (Costa Ronin).
These characters are Soviet citizens. But you got the sense that they were being changed by their experiences abroad—catching America like a virus. It didn’t always work out well. “I am not who I was,” Nina said back home. Her time in America changed her, but didn’t help her. She was executed, betrayed by both countries she betrayed.
Almost everyone on The Americans is a little American, is what I’m saying. They’ve been in the country long enough to understand it, so they can either love specific things about it or hate it in a possessive way. Early in season 6, Philip reminds his wife that she hasn’t been home in twenty years: The country she knows best is the country she hates most. You could conclude that the title of the show is all-encompassing. They are all Americans, because America itself is still a rather vague idea, encompassing multitudes. Or, if the show ends unhappily, perhaps the point is that nobody is an American, that the national identity is an illusion, another wig from the wig closet.
But all of these conclusions are wrong. Only one character on The Americans is truly American. He is Henry Jennings, my favorite character.
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I know this sounds trollish, contrarian, or stupid. Keidrich Sellati has played Henry since episode 1, but the littlest Jennings has always had the least to do on the show. I barely remember anything Henry did in the early years. He spent the fourth season—the show’s best stretch of episodes—playing videogames in the corner. Here’s a typical exchange from any point of The Americans‘ run:
One Character: “Is Henry here?”
Another Character: “No.”
He’s had subplots, sure. Henry formed a sweet friendship with Stan, because Stan had to talk to someone. Then it turned out Henry was really smart. But was this setting up a final demotion of screentime? Would he be banished to prep school to make more room for people who actually matter?
But anyone can matter. And if a TV series is good enough for long enough, even the least essential characters generate some gravity. Familiarity breeds fascination, or at least a more expansive contempt. Pete Hornberger was the most pointless character on 30 Rock, but given enough time and general adjacent hilarity, it seemed his arc was was about pointlessness. Harry Crane was the only character on Mad Men to become less dimensional every season. But his ascending importance as an accounts man matched his moral descent made him a memorable grotesque: You saw how he was willing himself towards inhumanity, one LA business trip at a time.
(The most obvious example of what I’m talking about here is Gunther from Friends, a character I think about more nowadays than any of the main characters from Friends. If we take his journey even halfway seriously, the beloved sitcom is a slow-motion tragedy about a barista who patiently loved and eventually lost, Love in the Time of Cholera for the yuppie coffeehouse era.)
Henry is still on The Americans this season. And in the first few episodes, he is still very distant from anything you’d call “the plot.” I’m not sure that anything he does in this last year will really matter for the show. Big sister Paige (the great Holly Taylor) is a more obvious inheritor of her parent’s confusing legacy. She knows who Elizabeth and Philip are. Or rather, she knows who her parents want to be. They’ve explained their work by emphasizing brotherhood-of-man heroism, skipping over the parts about seduction and murder. Paige wants to be a good person, so her journey appeals to anyone who wants to deconstruct what a TV show is saying about morality.
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She has absorbed fascinatingly strange messages about what “goodness” means. She was inspired by Christianity, but her favorite pastor was a super chill anti-bomb activist who loaned her a book by Marx. And she still threw her cross necklace in the trash, seeking a more extreme form of world-changing activism. Whatever happens to Paige in this final season, her journey will signify what the Americans writers want to say about Elizabeth and Philip: As parents, as agents of change (or lack thereof), as people who paradoxically represent and deplore the American Dream.
If she dies, The Americans retroactively becomes a tragedy, the end of the Soviet Union unexpectedly spiraling microcosmically down into the collapse of the American suburban family. If she lives to continue her parent’s work through the present day, The Americans becomes a dark comedy of history repeated, suggesting that the Cold War really won’t ever end. If she lives and just becomes another average citizen, The Americans becomes a Camus novel about how nothing Elizabeth and Philip did ever mattered in the slightest. If she kills her parents, The Americans becomes a death metal album cover.
Paige’s journey clearly represents what The Americans is purposefully about. But what happens to Henry will be just as fascinating, because he represents everything The Americans is only accidentally about.
“All he ever does is play computer games and talk on the telephone!” is how Philip describes Henry midway through season 5. This is true from what we’ve seen, and when his dad phrases it like that, it makes Henry sound like a silly, inessential person.
But Philip’s statement was meant to reveal how little he really understood his son. Actually, last season suggested Henry could actually be the most well-adjusted person on The Americans—great at school, driven to succeed, caring enough about the world to push himself but not enough to depress himself. That Henry is also the blankest character on the show could just be proof that ignorance is bliss. And Sellati is very good at being blank, which I mean as an honest compliment: Henry seems like a good kid, but I could believe that he is a bully or that he has been bullied, would buy him as a nerd or a jock. He plays hockey and likes math, which could make him a renaissance man or a brogrammer.
You have to consider that Elizabeth and Philip have tried so much harder with Paige. They argued with each other about the best way to raise their daughter. They have been open and honest with her about so many things, in a way that seems quite endearing from the perspective of modern hands-on parenting advocates.
And the net result of all that was that Paige spent a year or so in a perpetual anxiety attack, sleeping in her closet, post-traumatized. Meanwhile, the son they barely noticed is a scholar. They had nothing to do with their most obvious parental success, and now their son is great at everything they never wanted their children to care about.
At one point, Henry was trying to convince his father to send him to that fancy prep school. He had good grades, and this school could put him in with the right people. “Don’t we wanna capitalize on that?” Henry asked. For agents of a Marxist-Socialist state, here was the true tragedy. (It sounds like an old propaganda horror film: My Son, The Capitalist!)
The fact that Philip kinda-maybe likes America only adds insult to this injury: His son has absorbed the part of his personality he tried hardest to obscure. But from any average American, Stan Beeman-ish perspective, Henry looks like a rock-solid teen, focused on the future, dedicated to schoolwork. Last season suggested Henry’s desired school was maybe too expensive for a travel agents’ income. Another insult to his injured parents: Living with a lifetime of deceit and murder is hard, but paying for your kid’s private school is damned impossible.
I guess I should bring up the fan theory that Henry is a secret operative, observing his family for unseen KGB handlers. Or maybe he’s working for the CIA, or he time traveled from the same beta-sibling dystopia as James Wolk’s Bobby Draper. Like most fan theories, this is hilarious to talk about and dumb to actually think about.
I think Henry’s actual role in this final season will be brief, but memorable. If he has to make some kind of big moral choice—about his family and his adopted paternal figure Stan, say—it will be a reversal of expectations, a nameless member of the chorus stumbling into the last act of a five-act Shakespearean tragedy. Whatever he does will matter, because his actions will represent the actions of any semi-regular person who finds themselves in a matter of international importance.
And if he does nothing except play hockey? That also matters: Henry will symbolize everyone who goes through life unaware of the forces defining the world. On a show filled with people who serve the United States or struggle against it, Henry is the one person who has maybe never thought about what it means to be an American. He just is one: His national identity is a passive identity, like it usually is for too many people.
This makes him a resoundingly neutral character. He is not a bad person, but he has no obvious social conscience. This is because he’s a kid, you could say.
But if “playing computer games” and “talking on the telephone” makes Henry seem socially malformed or adolescent in the early ’80s, it also just makes him an early adopter of humanity in the ’10s. You imagine Henry patiently teaching Dad how to send an email. You imagine Henry getting Paige an iPhone 5G for Christmas, knowing she’ll give him a big speech about the surveillance state.
Hell, Henry could become the surveillance state, or one of its private-sector beneficiaries. The late ’80s was a great time to be a teenaged math genius. Henry’s the right age to lose millions in the first startup boom, and make millions in the next one. Maybe he invested in Facebook. Maybe he founded Cambridge Analytica. Or maybe he’s complaining about Cambridge Analytica on the Facebook page he can’t bring himself to delete. I have met Americans‘ American, and Henry is us.