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The Americans: Spy vs Rape

As I no longer have American Horror Story to satisfy my need for gritty camp on a late Wednesday night, I decided to watch the premiere of FX’s new original, The Americans, a drama-thriller set in the 1980s about two Soviet spies disguised as regular American suburbanites. Or, actually, I recorded it and watching Friday night because FX has way too many commercials to sit through an hour and half episode of something I’ve never watched before.

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The pilot was decent, providing an intriguing portrait of the two main characters, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), who have been living as husband and wife for nearly twenty years. There was also some great action scenes and a fabulous soundtrack.

I just wish it hadn’t been centered around rape.

(Spoilers, and descriptions of sexual assault under the cut)

The episode opens with a mission gone awry. Elizabeth, Phillip and another agent are sent to take in a spy turned informant for the US Government, called Nikolai. They manage to grab him after a chase, but miss the drop point and are stuck with him in the trunk of the family sedan. Elizabeth seems more broken up about it than Phillip, who shrugs at the disappearing boat and says, “Why’s everyone in this business so punctual?”

This is a pretty fair indicator as to how the Jennings approach their work. Phillip is laid back, and even begins considering turning the two of them him in exchange for safety for their family when an FBI agent moves in across the street, while Elizabeth is far more steadfast in her faith in her country. It also turns out that she’s got another reason to be way more stressed out about the guy being held prisoner in the garage. Twenty years ago, when she was a trainee and he her superior, he raped her. As if being a traitor isn’t good enough of a reason her to hate him.

Phillip doesn’t find out until the climax of the episode, when he attempts to release Nikolai and turn them in. When Elizabeth stops him and begins beating on Nikolai with everything she’s got (a rather satisfying scene, I do admit), he finally confesses, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. They let us have our way with the cadets. A perk.”

He didn’t mean to hurt her. He forced her down on a mat with her arm pinned behind her back (which induces immobilizing pain) and forcefully penetrated her. That’s about as unambiguous as you get. However, the revelation seems to calm Elizabeth somewhat and for whatever reason loses interest in killing, telling Phillip to do whatever he wants with him. He proceeds to kill him.

It was certainly interesting way of portraying Elizabeth and Phillip’s relationship and what they went through as cadets (or what she went through, we haven’t seen any of Phillip’s training yet). However it turned what should’ve been some good old fashioned spy-vs-spy espionage into a rape revenge fantasy. One that was enacted by a man, not the woman who was hurt, might I add. It was utilized as a means of showing Elizabeth how much her fake husband loves her even when he doesn’t have to, and even when she clearly doesn’t feel the same way. That, along with an intel-gathering mission at the very beginning of the episode where Elizabeth sleeps with a CIA agent, gives the impression that Elizabeth is being set up as the ungrateful hard ass, while Phillip is much more sympathetic and relatable to the mainstream audience.

It’s only the first episode, and The Americans certainly seems like an exciting show with great acting and great characters. But I would really have preferred that the show’s writers did not set up the tone this way. I mean, is there nowhere I can get away from this damn plot device? It seems that no one believes a woman can engage in dangerous situations around men without being raped or threatened by rape. And Elizabeth’s experience was not the only reference to sexual assault, in fact. The Jennings thirteen-year-old daughter, Paige, gets a rude introduction into womanhood when a much older man ogles and harasses her at the store, when she dared to go out in a spaghetti-strap tank top and short skirt. Phillip comes to the rescue once again, though not until later in the episode when he can utilize his proficiency for wigs, and when his daughter can’t see. Pretty much our last images of her in the episode of her trying to shrink behind her father in fear.

There is more than one why to define and deepen a female character, and there is more than one way for a father and a husband to show that he loves his family. It sucks that a new and hopefully innovative show has to trot out such tired clichés on its very first run.

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