"The Americans" and "The Joy Luck Club"

November 3, 2019

Elizabeth and Philip Jennings could have remained childless, if the show’s creators wanted. The Americans could have been a show about Russian spies in their thirties who constantly defy the KGB on whether or not to have children, for example. As is, they could have moved away from Stan Beeman and Pastor Tim. Paige didn’t have to learn about her parents’ secret lives. Paige and Henry could have been killed at some point.

Instead, every moment of the show revolved around the Jennings children, which is why, as I plowed through all 75 episodes over the past couple months, I kept coming back to The Joy Luck Club.

So much running time in The Americans is devoted to Elizabeth and Philip’s (or, if you prefer: Nadezhda and Mikhail’s) relationship with each other and how their professional and patriotic selves inform their most intimate interactions. Their marriage works best when their missions go well, and when they diverge in that work their relationship goes topsy turvy.

Yet most of those threads end up feeling mundane and toothless. Perhaps it’s because I’m about the age Elizabeth and Philip are at the start of the series, and I have a young child of my own, but their fights and disagreements and makeup sex and real marriage aren’t interesting without the fates of their two children hanging over everything. Remove Paige and Henry from the equation, and a couple with no family and only one real friend between them could have all sorts of personal turmoil but whether they stay together wouldn’t really matter; they could go off and be miserable separately with hardly anyone else missing a beat.

Thankfully, Paige and Henry are in the show, raising the stakes for Elizabeth and Philip. Whenever they talk to each other, on the surface it may be about their work, but underneath it’s about their relationship to each other, and underneath that layer lies the hard truth that who Elizabeth and Philip are and what they do could devastate their children and destroy their lives. The elder Jenningses may be ruthless killers who rarely question their KGB bosses, but they’re parents first and foremost. The central question in The Americans is not “What will happen to Elizabeth and Philip if they get caught?” It’s “What will happen to Paige and Henry if Elizabeth and Philip get caught?”

They manage to shield Henry from everything to the very end, but poor Paige is targeted by the Soviets to be an upgraded spy — a U.S.-born-and-raised KGB agent — so she’s brought into the intelligence game while still in high school. In the early seasons, that means Elizabeth and Philip choose to hide everything about their histories and double lives from their children, and in later seasons they constantly negotiate with Paige how much she needs, deserves, and ought to know.

That’s also, more or less, the driving dynamic in The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s classic novel that was adapted into a solid movie I’ve seen 20-plus times (I was an unusual teenager). Four immigrant Chinese women and their American daughters describe and explain their histories and what’s going on in their lives through the prism of the mother-daughter relationship, everything bulging with a Lady Bird-like energy — if not in text then in subtext — that threatens to fracture their families. They don’t understand each other, but they strive to see who the other is because there’s no other choice; the daughters realize they can’t escape their mothers, while the mothers know their daughters will have to reckon with their heritage while building their own lives, yet they keep trying to influence that reckoning, as their mothers did before. Perhaps it’s futile. Perhaps not. Sounds a lot like The Americans, to me.

As I get older, I keep thinking about what my parents and other relatives know that I don't. That leads to thinking about what I know that my daughter won’t. And, tangentially, what she will know that I won’t. Is there such a thing as knowing too much about one’s parents or one’s children?

There are a range of parent figures in The Americans and most of them lack a mutually enriching relationship with their charges. Gabriel is more outwardly compassionate toward Elizabeth and Philip, but ultimately he’s there to handle them, same as Claudia, who makes no bones about their professional relationship. Oleg Burov moves home and discovers his mother’s big secret and that his father isn’t just another bloodless functionary, but their jobs and Yevgeny’s death prevent them from meaningfully connecting. Stan and Matthew are resentful and distant. Pastor Tim and Paige are close, but the Jenningses’ secret eventually infects the relationship on Paige’s end. Perhaps the best parent-child relationship in the entire show is Stan and Henry’s. It’s born of genuine interest and affection, but they don’t go deeper than a friendship that both would likely acknowledge arose out of profound loneliness.

In the final episode of The Americans, Stan catches Elizabeth, Philip, and Paige as they’re about to make their getaway. He has them. He should have called for backup, but he’s got a gun on them, and it’s all over. But he lets them go.

Emily Nussbaum is right that Stan had them as long as he was able to see them as Soviet spies. Once he questioned if Philip was actually his friend, Stan allowed himself to see the Jenningses as his neighbors, people he could simply let escape. And while working the conversation around to the point that would allow Stan to think they’re working toward the same goal in this instance certainly matters, Stan’s voice only breaks when he asks about Henry, who he cares about most. When all three Jenningses insist that Henry knew nothing and is totally innocent, and Stan accepts it, that’s the moment when they put Stan in check. As long as they didn’t screw up the conversation’s end game, they could rest assured they’d drive out of the garage safely.

From there, it’s tying up loose ends on the way to the United Soviet Socialist Republic, but Elizabeth and Philip didn’t have Paige fully on-board, literally.

The train scene in the finale is the series’ true climax. It comes after Stan’s story has been wrapped up. Yes, we get to see Elizabeth and Philip enter the U.S.S.R., meet Arkady, and have a short conversation about how much their children will miss them and how they might move forward now that they’re back in a home country that might not feel like home anymore. But there’s hardly any tension. It was all released when Elizabeth saw Paige standing on the train platform, still in the United States, her home.

Perhaps Paige chooses to stay because that way she can keep an eye on Henry, but Stan is there, and she knows as soon as she contacts Henry she’s toast. She stays because it’s the only way she’ll ever get away from her parents and live her own life. It doesn’t hurt that Elizabeth can feel 98 percent Russian and Philip can feel 70 percent Russian, but they can’t get Paige to feel more than 5 percent Russian, even after years of indoctrination and training. That’s never going to leave her, but at least this way she has a chance at self-determination.

The Joy Luck Club argues that parents have this drive to simultaneously set their children free on their own independent journey while also ensuring they leave an essential bit of themselves in their children that the children recognize and honor. Futile or not, you try. Elizabeth Jennings would agree, and probably Philip, too.

Though in the moment of watching Paige on the platform from her train seat Elizabeth has a look of abject horror on her face, by the time they get to Europe, she’s moved on and is focused on what’s next with Philip by her side. Very quickly Elizabeth realizes they’ll get used to this new phase, and, in the very final scene, she prompts Philip to acknowledge that Paige and Henry will be okay, that they’ve done their job raising them.

When he says it feels strange, and she uses the final line of the show to assure him, in Russian, that they’ll get used to it, I think they’re referring to life without their children. It’s an appropriate final exchange because, after all, without Paige and Henry Jennings, there is no Americans.