Ed. note: This essay contains spoilers for all seasons of The Americans.
In the television we call “prestige,” white privilege is often a dramatic engine that allows a king- or queenpin to hide in plain sight while moonlighting in the underworld. The covert mission of The Americans ’ Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) is assisted by their whiteness just as Breaking Bad ’s Walter White and Weeds ’ Nancy Botwin were aided by theirs , but to very different ends. The Jennings have been extensively trained in the codes of American white respectability—its language, wardrobe, social mores, and core ambitions— and they overtly leverage strategic value from their cover as a heteronormative, nuclear, upper-middle-class white family in the suburbs.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys
Ethically, Elizabeth and Philip are—in the slippery, fading chiaroscuro of their “real” lives as Nadezhda and Mischa—socialists, nonmonogamists, atheists, and immigrants. The Jennings operation presents a liminal ethnocultural white-ethnic space, more akin to The Sopranos than the Whites, that is both a reproduction of and a challenge to the moral and social codes of American white privilege. Their allies and associates are not grifters and dealers, but other KGB intelligence operatives coded as radical within a Reaganite political rubric, among them Gregory, a Black civil rights activist, Lucia, a Nicaraguan Sandinista, and Tuan, a Vietnamese war orphan.
Very much in keeping with the antihero tradition, most of the characters who cross paths with Elizabeth and Philip are doomed by so doing; overall, The Americans’ characters of color appear rarely, briefly, subordinately, and often end up dead. It’s a problem that the show is willing to utilize these characters of color for climactic emotional payoffs while neglecting to give them long story arcs. In what ways does The Americans make casting choices that realistically reflect who would be likely to populate the worlds of the 1980s KGB and FBI, and in what ways does the writing and casting fall back on the lazy white narrative supremacy that runs rampant in prestige TV and entertainment en masse? Is the show wielding whiteness and its attendant privilege as a weapon, or making a comment on how whiteness can be weaponized?
A ll of The Americans ’ characters of color—with the exception of main cast member Brandon J. Dirden as Agent Dennis Aderholt (seasons three through five, thirty-three episodes)—are depicted in supporting roles. Almost every Black or Latino character meets a violent end—as with Gregory, Agent Chris Amador, and secret KGB wife Joyce Ramirez in season one, Sandinista Lucia in season two, and Northrop employee Lisa in season four—or endures prolonged cruelty, as with housekeeper to US Secretary of Defense Viola and her son Grayson in season one. The Asian characters on the show fare slightly better: Korean American bioweapons expert Don Seong and his wife Young Hee are honeypotted and betrayed by Elizabeth in season four, but Vietnamese KGB recruit Tuan remains alive as of the end of season five.
These supporting characters of color often lack last names. They primarily serve two purposes: to reveal what Elizabeth and Philip are capable of and where their priorities lie, and to elicit emotion from the audience around the moral ambivalence of Elizabeth and Philip’s work by suffering, often mortally. They become foils, always asking questions our protagonists can answer or illuminating by proxy one of their own covert struggles. Sometimes they also emerge as politicized avatars for different corners of Cold War history (socialist uprisings in Nicaragua and Vietnam, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the US civil rights movement) more than fully developed characters possessed of their own psychological, emotional, or biographical dimensionality.
Keri Russell and Derek Luke
Despite their brief appearances, several characters of color catalyze memorable movements of The Americans . Sui generis among them is season one’s Gregory Thomas (Derek Luke, appearing in three episodes), who we learn is Elizabeth’s first KGB recruit and longtime lover. Gregory irradiates a more intimate, emotional side of Elizabeth, and he exposes her ambivalence about Philip and the Center with unique efficacy. He is Elizabeth’s romantic path-not-taken, “passionate about the cause and passionate about me.” While Luke is a charismatic, subtle actor whose superb chemistry with Russell gives Gregory’s glancing character development an impressive amount of life, the paucity of that development at a writing level is typical of the show’s treatment of characters of color.
In service to the plot, Gregory’s purposes are: 1) to adore Elizabeth, thus stoking propulsive conflict between she and Philip, 2) to follow Elizabeth’s instructions to capture Joyce Ramirez, a secret KGB wife in Philadelphia, 3) to be hunted by the FBI for his (false) involvement in the murder of Agent Chris Amador, 4) to be framed by the KGB for the same in order to protect Elizabeth and Philip, and 5) to effectively commit suicide rather than accept a KGB exfiltration to Moscow. Unlike other intelligence targets or recruits like Martha or Nina, we learn nothing about Gregory’s family or upbringing, what he does for a living besides espionage, or what feelings or events, exactly, made him susceptible to recruitment. In one of his three episodes, he’s given all of eight lines of dialogue, beginning with “When the lady calls, I oblige,” and ending with “I’ll be your eyes.” Four of his remaining six lines are questions.
Gregory underscores how The Americans occasionally manages to cheat the DuVernay Test , at best—for instance, while there’s a quick scene in which Gregory tells Joyce Ramirez, “We got your message, come with us,” the exchange serves as little more than a pathway to more screen time for Elizabeth and Philip instead of exposing anything substantive about Gregory, Joyce, or how they relate to each other. Given this lack of exploration, Gregory’s death as gut-wrenchingly emotional climax becomes even more problematic: The show sends him into a barrage of police bullets over Roberta Flack’s cover of “To Love Somebody” after his romantic-expository function has been served, just so we can empathize with Elizabeth’s white woman’s tears.
As with Gregory, The Americans stakes our emotional involvement in the most visible character of color of season two—Lucia (Aimee Carerro), a young, gorgeous Nicaraguan Sandinista—through Elizabeth’s inconveniently deep stake in her. Lucia is not Elizabeth’s recruit, but she is her protegé, of a kind—her little sister in the global socialist sorority, a girl who reminds Elizabeth of her own younger self. Lucia’s plot utility is to gain intelligence through a Congressional aide she’s seduced, and to infiltrate a Nicaraguan Contra training camp in the US with Elizabeth, Philip, and Andrew Larrick, a KGB-recruited American naval officer. Her emotional function is to be painfully idealistic, to say things like “We’re going to unmask the oppressors,” and thus give Elizabeth the opportunity to wryly recall her own onetime idealism: “I’ve been ready to die my whole life for [that dream], Lucia.” Elizabeth shares cigarettes with Lucia—something we’ve previously only see her do with Gregory, connoting a youthful habit she only revisits when she’s feeling some kind of way—and coaches her in the calculated arts of honeypotting and risk elimination, which is to say, fucking people and then killing them.
In her four episodes, Lucia is given a smidge more dimensionality than Gregory was. We learn that her father was a journalist disappeared by the Somoza regime, and that she has an agenda independent of Elizabeth’s: She wants to assassinate Larrick, who she says “is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of my countrymen.” It’s this agenda that frustrates the mission and ultimately spells Lucia’s demise; when Lucia hunts Larrick, she forces Elizabeth to choose between Larrick’s intelligence value and Lucia’s, and Elizabeth chooses Larrick, allowing him to kill Lucia. It’s moving to watch Lucia recite the names of her slain countrymen to Larrick before he strangles her, but as with Gregory, the main narrative objective of Lucia’s death seems to be so Elizabeth can feel excruciated by it.
Ruthie Ann Miles and Keri Russell
While Elizabeth’s grief over Gregory and Lucia is heightened by their rare knowledge of her true identity and moral orientation, the herzschmerz of her relationship with season four’s Young Hee Seong (Ruthie Ann Miles, appearing in five episodes) is that she’ll never be able to be so truthful with her. Young Hee, a Korean American Mary Kay sales associate and mother, isn’t a recruit, but a portal: Elizabeth pursues a friendship with Young Hee in order to gain leverage with Young Hee’s husband, Don, who has strategically crucial security clearance at the bioweapons company where he works. Again, Elizabeth’s mission to exploit Don through Young Hee is difficult for her, because she genuinely likes the warm, bright Young Hee; again, the show utilizes one of its most developed characters of color to portray Elizabeth’s periodic moments of moral ambivalence about her work.
In her charismatic embodiment by Miles, the naturally confident, funny Young Hee is an expert at disarming cultural tension. After describing to a group of Mary Kay acolytes how department store makeup professionals used to give her skin a green hue, she wisecracks, “I tell all my friends they don’t have to look like Martians. We are all Americans now.” Young Hee’s cultural duality provides a critical counterpoint to the Jennings’s covert immigrant experience. She echoes traces of the immigrant experience, particularly around parenthood, that we’ve heard Elizabeth vocalize elsewhere: the spectre of a strict, sometimes violent, “old-fashioned” parent, and a fear that she’s being too soft on her American children. As Inkoo Kang at MTV notes , Elizabeth and Young Hee hold in common a “ highly discomfiting . . . aspect of many immigrant lives, in which domestic comforts coexist uneasily with discontent about American foreign policy.” Moreover, Kang writes, “Young Hee is the very vision of that cognitive dissonance smoothed out. Even as a newcomer, she’s happy and carefree in America, surrounded by the things Elizabeth has denied herself: a large, loving family and a cultural hybridization that reconciles America’s offerings with its limited political progress.”
Ivan Mok and Matthew Rhys
By the time we reach season five’s Tuan (Ivan Mok), a young Vietnamese refugee recruited by the USSR’s allies in Vietnam, the formula has grown so tired it hardly bears repeating: Tuan appears to facilitate a mission (an investigation of a Soviet defector and agricultural expert, Morozov, routed through his wife Evgheniya and son Pasha), and to expose how conflicted Philip and Elizabeth feel about exploiting vulnerable young operatives for their intelligence value. Tuan is militant in his devotion to the cause, but also so chronically lonely that he invites Philip and Elizabeth’s suspicion by contacting his former foster brother, who he says is dying of cancer. We learn little else about him. When Elizabeth tells Tuan in the season five finale that “You’re not gonna make it . . . You will fail,” she means that deep-cover work is impossible without a partner, but it’s difficult not to read her statement as a self-fulfilling prophecy for characters of color on the series.
It may well be true that in fictional Cold War espionage, as in white supremacist America, whiteness dramatically increases your chances of passing muster and staying alive; privilege and prejudiced notions of suburban respectability, as much as their training, make it possible for Philip and Elizabeth to execute and survive their missions, safely returning home to their enormous home outside D.C. while others suffer and die for the cause. If The Americans had given us a substantial counterexample to the Jennings’s experience—say, a pair of operatives of color who lasted more than a few episodes, who couldn’t pass so easily in the American bourgeoisie, who were permitted the same kind of development and depth and lengthy story arcs afforded to white characters on the show—it might be easier to believe that the series is making an argument about white people’s complicity in racist, capitalist imperialism. But given the fates and the serial underdevelopment of The Americans ’ characters of color, the choice to center mainly white characters’ experiences in the series feels less like an intentional statement about the inherent violence and erasure of white supremacy, and more like a disappointingly normative example of the overwhelming whiteness of prestige television. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings might be subversives, but so far, their story has failed to challenge the most dangerous American paradigm of all.