The XX Factor

The Americans Is All About About Spies, Nukes—And the Mall

Paige Jennings (played by Holly Taylor) really wants to go to Claire’s Boutique.

Craig Blankenhorn

The Americans, FX’s new Cold War drama about Soviet spies living under cover in suburban Washington, D.C., is a tough anti-hero show starring Kerri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, a couple in a marriage arranged by the KGB who spend their days running a travel agency, and their nights seducing sources, kidnapping defectors, and blackmailing Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s maid. But for all its blonde wigs and fist fights, The Americans (which was created by Joe Weisberg, the brother of the Slate Group’s editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg) is also a surprisingly perceptive show about 1980s American girl culture.

While Elizabeth dismisses America’s consumer culture as a sign of self-indulgence, Phillip is seduced by the consistently available electricity and department-store cowboy boots. But one thing they can agree on is that they’re not particularly fond of the influence capitalism has had on their 13-year-old daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor).

In The Americans’ pilot, Phillip takes Paige shopping for new sandals, only to be unsettled when she’s hit on by a much older shopper who’s already lured in one young girlfriend with the power of his credit card. And in the second episode, Paige comes down to breakfast in a new accessory, an exposed red bra strap. When Elizabeth demands to know where she got it, Paige is indignant. “The mall. It’s just a bra. I’m 13,” she tells her mother. “Things are different than when you grew up. People are, like, freer.” Because she is completely unaware that her mother is a highly-trained KGB operative who was raised in the Soviet Union rather than a suburban housewife with a small business, Paige has no idea how true that really is. She can’t possibly understand that her mother is terrified by the prospect that the daughter she hoped would grow up to be something other than a “regular American” is abandoning not just childhood, but Elizabeth’s own socialist values, lured by patent-leather blue sandals and bright red bras.

In that episode, Elizabeth ultimately admits to herself that she can’t stop Paige from growing up, but she does find a way to keep her away from the altar of 80’s capitalism—the mall. “You know how I said you could pierce your ears when you were 15,” Elizabeth says to Paige. “Do you want to do it now? I mean, you could go to the mall and you could do it with your friends. Or I could do it right now.” Red-blooded patriotic American moms and Soviet imposters may have different motivations, but they all want to keep their daughters from becoming mall rats.