There is a remarkable moment in journalist and activist Masha Gessen’s 2012 biography of Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.
It appears right after she details the horrors that Putin’s parents survived during World War II, before his birth: disfiguring war wounds for Putin’s father; a first son who died in a group home; the staggering, communal, multi-year trauma of famine and shelling that was the siege of Leningrad; and, after the war, life in the city’s stark, looming apartment buildings, places stripped of all furnishings save for small, cast-iron wood-burning stoves.
Out of all this, Gessen calls Putin’s family a “miracle.”
Though dulled in our American context by sportscasters and Prosperity Gospel shills, “miracle” is a word without synonym. So, as desolate as Putin’s family situation may have been to us, the graces add up in context. An intact marriage, a home and a new baby—the Putins were, in the context of post-war Soviet life, a “miracle.”
I’ve been returning to the idea of familial miracles—the ones that happen, the ones that are withheld—as I watch this season of The Americans. We’re halfway through a season that feels ever more focused on the serrated edges between parenting and handling, and the inevitable slide in the Jennings’ world from the former into the latter.
Since the end of Season Two, the way that Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) have taught, treated and loved their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), has occupied the show’s center. The KGB wants Paige to become the crown jewel of a new wave of agents. Paige wants to be a teenager. Her parents want her to be some impossible admixture of both. After her earnest religious awakening in the second season, she saw Philip literally rip a Bible to shreds on their kitchen counter. A few episodes later, she gets them to try church. After she sees Elizabeth effortlessly ward off a random assailant on the street in Season Four, stabbing one mugger to death in front of her, Paige becomes her mother’s student in self-defense. Then, in last week’s episode, “The Committee on Human Rights,” she uses her Judo 101 to push away naïve, confused Matthew Beeman (Danny Flaherty) as she dumps him.
The series’ commitment to the give-and-take, teach-and-listen rhythms of parenting has transformed its domestic life into something more compelling than its spycraft. It has also made the stakes of the Jennings’ familial great game feel simultaneously approachable and unique. Well-meaning parents who misread teenage grief, as the Jennings do after Paige’s breakup, are as common as table salt. By contrast, it’s rarer to have our parents steer our dreams for a more just world into espionage.
Other TV shows have displayed the end results of parenting, but few have shown the actions that undergird the role. Tony Soprano’s simple desire for Meadow to become a doctor—a dream more about Tony’s own inner life than Meadow’s—became a refrain fit for a rosary. But seldom does Tony actually do anything with his daughter beyond praise and taunt. Don Draper fills his daughter, Sally, and her home life with evasions, promises and pitches. And when we see Sally at peak teen at boarding school, she’s all bluffs and tales and social leverage. Justified and Scandal present parents as present-tense adversaries, “what if?” fun-house mirrors of the protagonist (which, in some way, is a kind of truth about parents and children).
The Americans instead uses a range of narrative tools to supply memorable whys and delicate hows for the Jennings’ parental style. Thoughtful, sparingly used flashbacks to Elizabeth’s and Philip’s childhoods make clear the roots of Philip’s doubt and sadness and Elizabeth’s dutiful fury. We see Philip’s silent response to Paige’s fear that now, exposed to the family business and history, she’s “meant to be alone.” A dark, indestructible heirloom passes from father to daughter. We’ve seen Elizabeth forced to sacrifice surrogate children for the KGB for years: Lucia in Season Two, and, her swift, maternal mercy kill of Lassa-infected Hans in this season’s premiere. So, when she takes Paige under her wing as an explicit protégé, we feel an earned intensity beneath her self-defense training and you-will-do-this directives.
Yet The Americans, again and again, refuses the easy tag that Elizabeth and Philip allow their parenting to slip completely into handling. Season Three’s clandestine reunion in Berlin, where Elizabeth shares one last hour with her dying mother and Paige meets her grandmother for the first and last time, had one of the show’s most emotionally resonant images. A silent tableau of three generations of women, linking hands in silent prayer, each occupying her own spot along different lines of identity and life cycle: atheist/believer, Russian/American, dying/ascendant, daughter/mother.
This season has tightened the vice grip that “handling” has over parenting, and allowed for moments of humane, parent-child grace (surrogate and familial both) to surge into the show like steam from under a volcano. Nowhere do we see this more than in the muddled, ghostly chains of paternity among Philip, his long-lost son, Mischa (Alex Ozerov), and the Jenningss’ handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella), a surrogate father to Philip and Elizabeth.
The chain of three episodes in the middle of the season, “Lotus 1-2-3; “Crossbreed,” and “The Committee on Human Rights,” feels, with six episodes left, like the emotional core of the season, and maybe even the series as a whole.
In the first, Philip’s long lost son, survivor of both the Soviet-Afghan war and of a Soviet mental institution (places used to detain political dissidents and “criminals” as much they were used to house the mentally ill) arrives in New York, determined to find his father. After meeting with the Jennings’ other handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale), a meeting in which she and Gabriel sound like exasperated parents themselves (Claudia: “He [Philip]’s always been shaky”), Gabriel thwarts Mischa and counsels him to return to Russia. It’s excruciating to watch Mischa register the news. You see him receive the words—Gabriel insists they speak in English—and translate them in his mind before the agony sets in. Langella’s Gabriel wears this loss too. He meets Mischa’s gaze, but the lines on his face carry something like shame.
An episode later, in “Crossbreed,” Gabriel’s made the abrupt decision to retire. The Jennings’ are shocked and, in a moment simultaneously humane and calculated, they proceed, on a whim, to introduce Paige to Gabriel. That meeting begins in the last scene of “Crossbreed” and carries over into the opening five minutes of “The Committee on Human Rights.” Gabriel tells his surrogate granddaughter, Paige, that her parents are heroes. He tells her that she is strong and brave. The threads of how we see our own families—what we’re told and tell ourselves about them, and who want to be within them—are impossible to parse. And yet Gabriel wants Paige to become a KGB agent, too. He wants to put her sense of the greater good to political use. All while her parents, his surrogate children, listen and watch.
But, I’d argue, that conversation isn’t even the most potent in this troika of episodes. In “Crossbreed; before the meeting with Paige, Philip meets with Gabriel alone. After Gabriel announces his retirement, Philip asks for the truth about his own father. Gabriel answers.
Philip’s father was not a noble Soviet logger; he was a penal camp guard, a low-level apparatchik whose life in a world of violence and absurdity was a dumbed-down, entry-level version of his son’s own career. “Some guards were cruel, some were kind. I didn’t know your father… who knows what your father did. He had his job. A lot of things happened.”
And then Gabriel concludes: “He was nobody. We were all nobodies.”
The look that washes over Philip’s face is The Americans at its highest. Rhys’ expression is lyrical in its merging of shock and acceptance. Philip is thinking about his own youth—the stark violence and poverty we’ve seen in flashback, knots of bread as tough as cobblestones, warmed by those wood burning stoves—about the phantom son he doesn’t know how close he came to meeting, and about the two children he knows: a daughter whose life he has changed utterly, and a son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who feels so ignored by his parents that he regards them as strangers.
We have only clues about our parents. We can only do what we think is our best for our children. We never know the whole picture—whatever that is—and glimpses of the truth, the unvarnished truth, never offer the easy aspirin of resolution.
The most moving truths of The Americans exist in these silences of family life. We are nobodies to the world around us. We likely are nobodies to everyone, save for our parents and our children, biological or otherwise. That they are the ones who see us, who have a chance to know us, and whom we have a chance to live with, might be the only miracle that we can receive.
The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
Evan McGarvey is a poet and writer. He is the co-author of 2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle (Voyageur, 2013). His work has appeared in The New Republic, VICE Sports, and Pitchfork.