My essay on marriage, intimacy, and getting past our cover stories as appeared on, May 10, 2013

What ‘The Americans’ can teach us about marriage

As “The Americans’” first season closed last week, it’s worth taking stock of what turned out to be perhaps this year’s most sustained and emotionally involving pop commentary on married life.

This smart espionage thriller set in 1981 focuses on a Soviet couple embedded as spies in the DC suburbs — a scenario built for teeing up both clever plot twists and a killer soundtrack. But ever since the credits rolled on the pilot, it’s been clear that the couple’s relationship is as rich a field for storytelling as the program’s Cold War context.

KGB agents Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings didn’t have a courtship. They didn’t have a wedding ceremony. But together they have built a studiously white-picket American life — small business owners, parents of two, drivers of a GM sedan. The Jennings have been married for 20 years.

Or, they have never been married at all.

As knotty and riveting as any piece of the overarching spy story has been the puzzle of whether or not Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is real. It’s a puzzle that the Jennings are trying to resolve along with the viewers.

On one hand, their union functions as just the charade Moscow intended when they assigned Phillip and Elizabeth to one another. Their marriage works well an elaborate cover for their lives as sometimes spies whose secrets-gathering tool kits include everything from violence to wire-tapping to seduction.

On the other, the show raises the fascinating question: is there an inflection point at which a cover story becomes so encompassing that it becomes your real life, a moment when you have lived something for so long that there is little sense protesting that it is not, in fact, your true identity?

By bracketing sexual faithfulness per se, the series forces its characters and its viewers to look for other clues to the Jennings commitment to one another. The Jennings and their fans must deduce what it would look like for marriage to be central to someone’s identity rather than just an elaborate cover story about the condition of their heart.

Over the course of the season, “The Americans” proposed a range of marital fidelities worthy of contemplation. These alternate indicators of love and union surfaced in moments when Phillip or Elizabeth surprised themselves with actions or emotions. They also surfaced when the Jennings fell short, and the ways that they failed each other made them (and the viewers) question their relationship all over again.

Here are five non-sexual marital fidelities that have held my imagination long after my TV set went dark.

1. Fidelity of confidences — For all the things they don’t get about each other, Elizabeth and Phillip hold one another’s secrets tightly and exclusively, more known by one another than any other person. It is a manner of faithfulness that breeds others: Even when the feeling of trust is absent, the exclusivity of this intimacy brings them back to each other as the truest of allies.

2. Fidelity of the everyday — The Jennings perhaps most excel at love worked out in the grind of life, in the trenches of lunches packed and laundry folded. They move through the mundane in a fluid ballet that testifies to unwavering presence and unquestioned partnership.

3. Fidelity to a shared vision — The Jennings did not get married to help each other achieve their individual dreams or to sustain a rush of passion. Nor is their mission the happiness of their children. Rather, Phillip and Elizabeth share a vision for how the world works and how they can work together to impact the world — a shared vision that includes but exceeds their nuclear family.

4. Fidelity of forgiveness — Over the course of the season, Elizabeth struggles to accept the ways that Phillip disappoints her. Her decisions to forgive him or to cut him off have been some of the richest ground for exploring their marriage’s authenticity. Alienation is the opposite of oneness and it can only be avoided with a commitment not to harbor resentments.

5. Fidelity of selflessness — Lied to, kicked out of the house, rejected in a moment of intense vulnerability… Even after each of these scenarios plays out in the Jennings’ relationship, both Elizabeth and Phillip nonetheless outdo one another trying to be the spouse whose life is at risk in order to save the other.

Through these other, non-sexual fidelities and the ways they expose the accidental authenticity of the Jennings’ cover story, “The Americans” suggests that marriage is less about feeling like you are adored than it is about your being faithfully oriented toward someone else. In this story, being married reshapes one’s character.

L. Kenna is a writer, former professor, pop culture blogger, and TV junkie living in Washington, D.C.