When The Americans (disclosure: the show was created by Slate Group editor in chief Jacob Weisberg’s brother Joe) debuted in January, it did so with an exemplary multi-generational ensemble of female characters. Anti-hero dramas have always had their fair share of female characters, but the women on The Americans aren’t there to fill in space around male leads. Their clashes with each other have become one of the most entertaining parts of the freshman drama, which wrapped its first season on Wednesday night.
Kerri Russell plays Elizabeth Jennings, one of two Soviet spies in an arranged marriage living in the Washington, DC suburbs. Elizabeth represents a new archetype in a waning age of male-dominated anti-hero television, a wife who doesn’t play second banana to her so-bad-he’s-irresistible spouse. Where her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) is sentimental and prepared to prioritize family over Soviet missions, Elizabeth is strongly ideological. She’s closed off emotionally, in part due to her experience as a sexual assault survivor. It’s fascinating to watch her triage her upbringing and her duties as an American parent: When Elizabeth’s daughter talks back to her, she’s clearly frustrated by the Yankee flavor of the girl’s disobedience. But she also has her own distinctly American secret, a romance with a Civil Rights activist she recruited to the cause.
Then there’s Paige, one of the most indelibly teenaged female characters on television. The Americans resists the temptation to treat her like Sally Draper, who is useful to Mad Men mostly when she can illustrate some point about her parents. Paige’s shopping habits allow The Americans to explore the impacts of American prosperity and consumerism. And her crush on a neighborhood boy lucidly and sadly points to the exhausting nature of love. “I don’t want to fight for his feelings, Mom,” Paige says. “Either he’s into me or he’s not. And he’s not.”
Margo Martindale, who plays Claudia, the Jennings’ KGB handler, seems to have cornered the market on interesting roles for older women (FX gave her another one in the second season of Justified). Claudia is full of contradictions: She plays Pac-Man to avoid eating actual food, but poaches Elizabeth’s Eggs Florentine at a diner. She’s tough enough to order Phillip and Elizabeth kidnapped and interrogated, but loyal enough to maintain her concern for Elizabeth no matter how frequently the younger woman rejects her. And, in keeping with the way The Americans portrays women as tougher than men, Claudia knows how to hold onto a grudge.
Paige, Elizabeth and Claudia form a terrific makeshift family, with Paige rebelling against her mother, Elizabeth doubting Claudia, and Claudia, the oldest and wisest of the three, waiting out the storms. “I’m surprised they gave you this job when you have no understanding of people at all,” Elizabeth tells Claudia, when the two women meet in the finale. ‘I know you better than you know yourself,” Claudia replies calmly, like a mother to her own angry daughter. “And you don’t know me at all.” Some of the most fun on The Americans is watching these women try to figure each other out.