In a recent review of the excellent FX cold war era spy thriller, The Americans, an Atlantic writer asked:
“Do any Christians watch this show? I’d be curious to learn whether they think the show has become too offensive toward religion for its own good.”
Yes, Christians do watch this show. I haven’t written much about it here at Filmwell, but have tweeted a few times about how well the show has depicted Christian youth culture in the 80s. And no, the show is not offensive toward religion. Quite the opposite. Here is why:
1. The Americans is a period piece. The show has had excellent set design, plenty of Member’s Only jackets, high-waisted jeans, and feathered hair. Its soundtrack pulls great deep cuts from the era. And its politics are ornate recreations of cold war tensions playing out in DC-area spy vs. spy skirmishes. Part of this recreation of the era involves watching the American children of Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings navigate their own childhoods, made complicated by ignorance of their parent’s true identities.
Recently, their oldest daughter Paige has latched onto a local church youth group. The show casts this as her adolescent search for something more meaningful than the capitalist excesses of the East Coast 1980s. The church she has found is bent toward civil rights and frequently protests Reagen-era nuclear policy, which sets the stage for an ongoing conflict between Paige’s new-found religion and her parent’s crypto-communism.
Watching this conflict unfold has been fascinating for a few reason. First, it pits Paige’s politically liberal Christianity against her parents’ ideology. Both are expressions of passion, an attempt to fix what is broken in the world. Both see sharply through the myths of the Reagen era. The show has struck an interesting theological nerve here. Second, Paige’s experience is historical accurate. The 80s saw the rise of the Christian right, inspired in part by works like Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto (which was an intentional response to The Communist Manifesto). It also saw a lot of political activity toward the left, with specific protest against nuclear proliferation.
2. The show is a family drama. This conflict between Paige and her parents has been depicted as a conflict between a teenage girl trying to find her own way and parents that disagree with her. It is kind of like the Family Ties dynamic between Alex and his parents, but with spies, wigs, and all that. It is still not clear where this is all headed.
Right now, her parents disagree about Paige’s choice to get baptized – which her pastor well-describes as an “act of protest.” (Seriously, whoever wrote his baptism script did a good job.) Her mother is trying to capture this spirit of protest as an inroad to recruiting Paige for the great communist struggle. Her father seems to disagree so far, encouraging her to chart her own meaningful way through late adolescence. It is going to be interesting to see where Paige’s character arc goes, but so far the show excels in depicting Paige’s growing faith as an actual component of the overall drama rather than a simple plot point.
3. The show explores the similarities between religion and ideological fervor. This season has become a bit complicated, and this point requires more back story that I can present briefly. Elizabeth and Phil Jennings often have to enter into relationships with other people in order to plant listening devices, gain access to classified information, and do other spy stuff. Phil has essentially had a second marriage going on for the life of the show. But this season he has also been tasked with dating the teenaged daughter of a CIA official, which has required him to deal with the obvious ethical quandaries at play.
In order to end the relationship, he borrows a bit from Paige and claims that he has recently found Jesus and needs to get his life straight. Later, Elizabeth laughs at his ploy – indirectly mocking the growing faith of her daughter.
But even later in the episode, Phil prays a Christian prayer out loud with someone as part of his cover. It is an odd moment for a lot of reasons, but Phil agrees with his prayer partner that what just happened was special and unexpected. We can’t quite tell whether this is Phil speaking from the heart or just his cover identity going through the motions. Either way, Phil is starting to get confused in this season. His ideological loyalties seem to be shifting, and his daughter and her baptism is no small part of this development in the show.
These are just a few brief comments in response to the question posed offhand at The Atlantic. It has simply been fascinating to watch a show in which religion, specifically a church youth group experience in the 80s, is an actual part of the drama rather than a throwaway plot device.
The Jennings watch her daughter get baptized.