What It Means to Be an Adult on ‘The Americans’

The show suggests adulthood isn't so much about age but circumstance.

The current season of The Americans opened on a version of the 1980s we’re used to seeing in movies and on TV, reflected through the eyes of the average American teen —a 1980s high-school cafeteria, synth-heavy pop music blaring. But the character we follow, Tuan (Ivan Mok), is no average American teen: Born in Vietnam, he’s a sleeper agent for the KGB, sent into the school to befriend a new student, Pasha (Zack Gafin), whose parents recently defected from the Soviet Union.

The Americans has always used its sleeper-agent premise to draw parallels between the unique situation facing Cold War KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and the more prosaic, everyday issues facing the average American family. Now that Philip and Elizabeth are a steadier couple than they were in the first few seasons, the show has turned its attention to the younger generation. This season, as they continue to groom their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), The Americans draws a line between the family’s predicament and the challenge facing any family with growing children: When to drop the cheery façade and let your kids in on the dark secrets of adulthood.

The Season 5 premiere’s high-school cafeteria opening forces the viewer to confront the disparity between the life of a relatively well-off American teenager and that of a child born into political tumult — the warm blanket of safety vs. a perpetual sense of danger that breeds distrust. This season seems particularly interested in demonstrating how a person’s worldview is shaped by his upbringing. When Philip and Elizabeth go bowling with the Soviet defector, Alexei (Alexander Sokovikov), he tells them that his father was dragged out of his house in the middle of the night when Alexei was a boy; he and his mother traveled for nine days by train to visit him at the labor camp where he was sent, but when they got there, they were denied entry to see him. Fifteen years later, he died. “That’s the Soviet Union I know,” Alexei says.

But Tuan has no sympathy for Alexei. “One day the U.S. will destroy the USSR,” he vows. “Just like they did Vietnam.” Tuan demonstrates how hardship can harden a person; it doesn’t necessarily make you more empathetic to other people’s struggles to have struggled yourself. That’s the real danger, and the real tragedy of The Americans — the idea of a world in which no one trusts or looks out for anyone else, because we’re all too busy trying to survive ourselves.

On The Americans, adulthood isn’t so much about age but circumstance. A white kid born in the U.S. in the 1960s or ’70s gets to be a child; one born in Vietnam or the Soviet Union may not be so lucky. “These kids have no idea,” Tuan says of his American classmates, and of Pasha, who’s unhappy in his new country. It reminded me of British journalist Laurie Penny’s description of the young men of the alt-right: “Young, terribly young, young in a way that only privileged young men really get to be young in America, where your race, sex, and class determine whether and if you ever get to be a stupid kid, or a kid at all.”

Compared to Alexei and Tuan, Paige has enjoyed the privilege of childhood, which is why her parents are so worried that she won’t be able to handle her relationship with the boy next door, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty) — the son of an FBI agent — without slipping up. But Elizabeth seems to think with a little training, she can. Despite her misgivings about bringing her daughter into the dangerous world of espionage, Elizabeth is clearly happy to see Paige thinking like a spy, happy to have a brusque sex talk while her daughter practices her swing in the garage. Mother and daughter are becoming closer even as Paige is losing her innocence, and Elizabeth is steely enough to see that as an asset, not a detriment. “I’m sick of treating her like a goddamn kid,” she tells Philip in last week’s episode. Then, she teaches her daughter a trick, a small gesture she can use to help keep her wits about her when she feels tempted to confess — a way to remind herself who she is and where her allegiances lie.

In a great scene from the season premiere, Elizabeth takes Paige out to the garage and slaps her around, explaining, “You can’t be afraid to get hit and you can’t be afraid to hit, ever.” She teaches her how to make a proper fist. As their sessions continue, Elizabeth is clearly pleased with Paige’s newfound toughness; she’s her mother’s daughter, a progression the show hinted at back in the third season, when Paige started wearing her hair like her mother’s. It’s hard not to be touched by the growing sense of intimacy between Paige and her parents, and yet it’s hard to celebrate it. Philip and Elizabeth are teaching their daughter how to be an adult in a corrupt world, but in the process, they’re bypassing their chance to teach her how to make the world less corrupt in the first place.