Elizabeth Jennings is one of the most complex female characters I’ve ever come across. She is an undercover KGB agent posing as a travel agent in 1980s Virginia, at the height of the Cold War, with her husband Phillip and their two American-born children. From the outside they seem like the perfect American couple, but in reality, their lives are full of spying, lying, betrayal, and murder. What is especially intriguing about Phillip and Elizabeth, however, is that it is Elizabeth who is the cold, closed-off emotional enigma, while Phillip often showcases vulnerability and honesty.
As a teenager in Soviet Russia, Elizabeth was recruited by the KGB and sent off to America with Phillip at the age of 22. For the first 16 or so years of their marriage, they had a relatively loveless relationship, but in the first season of the show, Elizabeth expresses a desire to be “real” with Phillip, a rare display of vulnerability. Their love and loyalty for one another is one of the cornerstones of the show, and it is only with Phillip that we see Elizabeth’s tenderness.
The key to understanding Elizabeth is understanding her motivations, which are relatively straightforward, despite the moral complexity of her actions. She is a true believer: in communism, in the Soviet Union, in her desire to make the world a better place. She betrays and kills people because she truly believes she is working for the greater good. Her beliefs enable her to commit some truly horrendous acts, which weigh less heavily on her than they do Phillip, who is not as staunch in his beliefs.
This is not to say that Elizabeth is as cold as she appears. Yes, she is guarded and reserved (and played by Keri Russell with beautiful stoicism) and possesses a sort of flinty pragmatism the likes of which I’ve rarely seen. But she is fully capable of love, empathy, and compassion. She grows genuinely attached to some of her targets, to the point where she once asks her bosses to let one of these targets go, because she has grown to care about her so much. And yet, when her request is refused, Elizabeth goes ahead with her mission anyway, no matter how much it hurts her, because the mission – her ideals, her country – are more important than how she feels. She suffers her guilt silently, puts aside empathy and compassion out of necessity.
And the beauty of The Americans is that Elizabeth is allowed this moral complexity and moral ambiguity without judgement from the narrative. What is especially interesting about Elizabeth – and by extension, Phillip – is that despite being the series’ protagonist, she is, ultimately, a villain. Her intentions are good, yes, but her actions? She is a fantastic example of the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” which is one of my favorite villain tropes. Because, yes, though she murders and betrays and lies, she does it for the hope of making something better for all.
Elizabeth is, more than anything, fiercely loyal – whether to her country or to Phillip – and committed. Her desire to serve her country overshadows everything else: her life, other people’s lives, even her children’s futures. She’s not a bad mother, as some fans have said, nor does she not love her children. It’s just that she cares deeply about everyone else’s children too, even while she actively harms or murders innocents in her pursuit of the greater good. But she’s so desperately loyal and trusting of the KGB and her country; it’s heartbreaking when you consider that in just a few short years the Soviet Union will completely dissolve.
Her moments of vulnerability are heartbreaking too, when you recall that Elizabeth was recruited into this work as a teenager, sent off to a foreign country with a strange man before she’d ever even had a boyfriend, lived in total isolation with no friends, after having grown up starving and impoverished in the Soviet Union. What does that do to a person’s mental and emotional development?
Ultimately, while many may think of Elizabeth as unlikable, whatever that means, I find it difficult not to love her, in all her complexities and flaws. Whether it’s her cold intelligence, her fierce determination, her staunch belief in communism, her hilarious disdain for organized religion, or her genuine desire to make the world a better place despite how much it harms her own soul – she is just such a unique, richly developed character.