Under Covers: On the Sex Appeal of The Americans


It began where so many stories begin: A blow job.

When the first episode of The Americans opens on a cold January in 1981 Washington, D.C., America’s favorite Russians hew a lot closer to what we would expect of our fictional spies, with pithy responses and ample sex appeal. It feels, in other words, almost nothing like what The Americans has come to be.

And yet there’s a spark there. Even with all the more standard stops and techniques, there was a knowing wisdom underlying the way Philip and Elizabeth struggled to connect, even as they so clearly wanted to. The show let them feel the intricate struggle of truly baring yourself to someone you knew but had never really known. Had the show been cancelled after one season it would have told (among a few other threads) a smaller, focused story about a relationship undergoing its first major change 15 years in. It would have ended with Elizabeth—stoic, hardened, loyal to a hilt, and injured—quietly breaking protocol from her recovery bed to make a two-word covenant, telling Philip to come home in their native tongue.

But it didn’t end there. The Americans would go on to run a total of six seasons. Despite never being a ratings bonanza, the show made a permanent dent in the landscape of modern television, abundant as it is. In that time, The Americans presented a more complicated look into a marriage, a partnership, an allegiance. It did so by playing a longer game with its narrative, and by shedding the flash that its fans weren’t really turning to the show for anyway.

The language of the show—and of the show’s “steamy” sex scenes, which have been highlighted by many an outlet—evolved. The show reached a different stage. The Americans stopped being a sexy show, and started being a seductive one.

If later Americans trades on a slow-boil, the pilot is all pizzazz. There’s the aforementioned boinking, of course, but that’s not all; its beats and rhythms reveal a show that could have easily gone an entirely different way. The camera cuts a bit more quickly and excitedly than it will as the series goes on; scenes often feel like smaller vignettes tacked on to complete the narrative, even when they’re a bit obvious. Philip is full of wise-cracks as he and another Directorate S agent operate, slipping in compact one-liners while they await the signal. Elizabeth pulls off her disguise in the car she’s parked right across the street from the hotel—a safety risk, probably, but it tells us what we need to know. This woman is a spy.

It’s filmic language like this that sandblasted over the quieter moments that would ultimately come to define The Americans. In its pilot, we are told, repeatedly, that this is a relationship that is strained and stagnant, built on convenience and commitment. “You’re my wife,” Philip says with surprising force when Elizabeth shrugs off his advances in the kitchen. Elizabeth’s blowing a guy not two minutes in, and her “husband” listens to the moaning and groaning on the tape (in addition, of course, to the recording of the intel Elizabeth extracted), all seemingly for no other reason than to underline the notion that “This marriage is different.” But older Americans, wiser Americans came to know that, intimately. It’s a given; whose relationship isn’t?

Some of this evolution from sexiness to seduction stems from the growth in the relationship at the show’s core: After Elizabeth tells Philip to come home at the end of the first season, their marriage moves from a directive to something true. Their mannerisms shift from a starved connection to a firm understanding of each other, both personally and professionally. It’s there in Matthew Rhys’ quick look of concern when their son jumps on the recovering Elizabeth, and when Elizabeth answers a friend’s inquest about Philip with a small smile and an introspective pause. “We’re better,” she almost beams when she finally answers.

Oh, and it’s there in the sex, too.

Philip and Elizabeth don’t get to have the first sex scene of the second season (that goes to Elizabeth and her comrade’s honeytrap threesome just before their heartfelt convo), but they do get the one with the greatest consequences. Paige (Holly Taylor) walks in on her mom and dad going down on each other—a quick, concise, and utterly mortifying way to show that Philip and Elizabeth are finally in a mutually respectful, loving relationship. For a brief and shining moment nobody wears the pants, nobody’s on top, and sex is shown more prominently for pleasure than it is for extraction. It’s lude, but a sex scene is, after all, important textual evidence. Anytime clothes get shed (and especially when birthday suits come out) there’s an impulse to dismiss the scene as merely vulgar or titillating. But there’s a choreography to these scenes that—when utilized effectively—can reveal something very real about its players.

Take Blue Valentine, perhaps a pinnacle in the hall of sex scenes. When we first meet Cindy (Michelle Williams) she’s in a taxing relationship with a guy that’s not as interested in her point of view as she wants him to be, and certainly not as interested in her as Dean (Ryan Gosling) is. And we see this: While Cindy faces away from the first boyfriend (when he neglects to use birth control, like a douche), Dean and Cindy spend their sex scene together with him going down on her (which almost earned the movie an NC-17 rating, in an example of complete bullshit).

There’s nothing inherently more freeing about one position over another, but director Derek Cianfrance utilizes these brief scenes to demonstrate a difference in the focus of pleasure within the relationship. For Cindy’s first on-screen sexual encounter, the camera stays stagnant, at a distance, an impartial observer imbuing the whole feeling of the scene with a basicness; there are no fireworks happening here. Compare that to Dean and Cindy, where the camera moves in and out, now handheld and just as reactive in the scene as she is.

Scenes like these teach and illuminate without ever saying a word. Sure, there’s a certain genre that is used merely to tantalize, but isn’t that true of any tool in cinema’s tool box? The best scenes can bring their audience past that thrill, though, recognizing that whether or not it’s about power, it’s often about a whole lot more than sex.

And The Americans is no stranger to that argument—in fact, it ends up staking itself on it. When the pilot climaxes and the Jennings come together for a moment of intimacy in the front seat of their car, the whole thing is shot like a romantic film. Set to “In the Air Tonight”—a song with its own sexual legacy—the sequence is meant to be romantic. It is, as ensured by certain directorial decisions: the tentative glances, the wordless closeups, the heavy breathing, the way they can’t bear to take their eyes off each other for even a moment. This isn’t just a bang, it’s lovemaking.

The show has always had a complicated relationship with sex. Not too long after the opening scene of Elizabeth’s sexual favors in the pilot, we learn that she is a survivor of sexual assault, by an officer who trained her in the KGB and, in the pilot, was held prisoner by Elizabeth and Philip after he tried to defect. When Philip learns that the officer in the trunk of their car hurt Elizabeth, Philip snaps and kills him, complicating their mission, but forging a tendril of a connection between the somewhat estranged couple.

What could easily be a stale, even too-neat solution to a wedged in sexual assault is returned to by the show again and again: Just a few episodes later Elizabeth has to wave Philip off when he sees that a source beat her during sex. “If I wanted to deal with him, don’t you think he’d be dealt with?” She yells at him, the harshness in her voice speaking volumes about her own history as a spy and a “wife” in their partnership. “We have to do all sorts of things for our work, and it requires being a certain way.”

When Elizabeth’s history is brought up again in season two, it’s even more complicated. Soon after using the backstory to inform a cover used on one of her marks, she learns that Philip’s cover-wife Martha refers to him as an “animal” in the sack. It needles at her—that there’s potentially a side of Philip she doesn’t know. As Elizabeth coyly returns to the subject again and again in “Behind the Red Door,” pushing Philip to “be” that for her in bed, even just once, Russell moves from playing dumb to flirtily curious to shocked when the act is rougher than she imagined. It’s a layered scene from every angle, dealing with her history and their complicated language of jealousy. Every part of their encounter is mirrored from an earlier scene between them: Where Philip tenderly undressed her before, she’s now the one pulling off his clothes. A high angle shot looking at her lying on the bed, totally naked and unencumbered with him beside her after their hookup, is recreated as she sobs in a fetal position, this time alone.

It’s not that The Americans hasn’t always been this smart—it has! But the baked-in emotional intelligence displayed in the scene from “Behind the Red Door” often ended up layered behind more flashy and episodic demands.

While the first season certainly milked this salacious side of spy work for wider audience appeal—The Americans offered both male and female honeypots—by its second season, it had already graduated to using sex in a different manner. More of the scenes used sex as part of the larger story, not just as titillating transitions. There’s a shift in where the sex is placed within a scene, moving from a sort of obscene point of entry to an implied bookend. Whether it’s in the Jennings house or between Rezidentura workers Nina and Oleg, the intimate moments take place more and more off-screen, letting the intimacy fill in the gaps.

This is both a function of any show, and a deliberate choice by the crew behind The Americans. “At the end of the first season, having been disappointed with the ratings we had a very long postmortem/pregame conversation about the second season,” John Landgraf, FX Networks CEO, said in an interview on the show’s final season. “We really went through and debated. We know of course that there’s a commercial spy genre that tends to portray the business of spying as a sort of fun, video game-like thing generally lacking in moral, emotional, and spiritual consequences. The conclusion we came to was that anything we would do to intentionally make this show overtly sexier or more exciting in a [genre] way that was lacking in consequences would literally make it less good. We had to embrace its intent. We had to make it more serialized, more dense, more truthful and emotionally darker.”

Which is exactly what The Americans did. As it more fully embraced its intent, the show became bolder, more resolute in its slow burn. Episodic, showy setpieces gave way to longer narratives built brick by disciplined brick. The Americans now plays long-term, with an earned boldness to it. By its fifth season premiere, the show closed out with 14 minutes of methodical near-wordlessness. A year later, it opened its final season with a four-minute montage set to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” And the sex scenes were more strongly laced with narrative purpose, too: Elizabeth lets herself be pleasured and treated well on an assignment. Philip shows more interest and tenderness in hugging his injured wife than during sex with a source.

And since the marital sexual dynamics are more fraught than in most other shows, we often see intimacy permeate throughout other scenes as well. When Philip and Elizabeth are at odds—as they are in season three’s “Walter Taffet,” over how to bring Paige into the KGB fold—they separate themselves, existing in different parts of the same room, and rarely sharing the frame together. But when they come together—like they do later in “Walter Taffet”—the camera holds them close together, creating a space that is all theirs, and that could never be replicated in one of their other trysts. It harkens back to an episode earlier in the season, “Open House,” when Philip removed Elizabeth’s broken tooth. The scene is shot in intense close-up, which emulates the kind of trickery used to dodge MPAA censors in movie sex scenes, backed only by sounds of the Jennings’ bodies reacting to one another.

It may be a sort of perversion of the connections we’re used to seeing with these sorts of editing ploys, but the end result is the same: This is a couple getting intimate with each other. And it’s important that we understand just how far the trust between them will go.

The Americans has educated its audience to understand that they’ve thinned the plot down to what we need to know, adding new layers to every seemingly innocuous chess scene or liason. In turn, sex became a more nuanced and powerful tool in the show’s arsenal, turning into an almost entirely different language for the show, building in the idea that desire can be powerful. Philip wields Martha’s concern about her lack of sex appeal in order to enlist her help against the FBI office she worked at; Paige’s coming-of-age always flusters her parents when it comes to her sex life; Oleg remarks that Nina has nothing to protect her except her wits, courage, and beauty—immune to our understanding that she could be playing him as well, as they lie cuddled in bed for the first time.

Conversely, what we’re not shown has value as well. In the scene between Oleg and Nina, we only see them cuddling naked in bed, cutting away before anything too tawdry is shown. We are not meant to think about the dynamics between them; it falls short of what we need to know. We see it time and time again, typically when the end desire is that these relationships are more untouchable, true, or romantic: We see it when the Jennings get their marriage sorted in a time-jump after his cover wife leaves the country, and we see this when they jump each other’s bones in “Behind the Red Door.” It’s why FBI agent (and Jennings family friend) Stan Beeman’s sex scenes are almost always merely implied: We’re not supposed to think about the power dynamics of an affair with an informant; his feelings are sincere.

In fact, The Americans  has trained us so well to trust that these are inherently more loving connections that, by its final seasons, the show is able to play us. In season six’s “The Great Patriotic War,” Elizabeth ends the cold shoulder between them with a simple touch and a yearning in her eyes that pulls them together, carnally or otherwise, for the first time in what we understand to be a long time. She giggles, the music gently swoons. In the morning, as he beams at her over coffee, she springs her trap: She wants him to return to Kimmy—a source as young as their daughter that Philip had once groomed romantically (if chastely)—in order to potentially kidnap her and threaten her CIA-employed father.

Operating like a finely-tuned machine, The Americans allows this moment to serve as a one-two punch for both Philip and the audience, after the amorous interconnection we just observed. Philip lets it wash over him, silently, never making eye-contact as Elizabeth yammers on and explains the plan she’s devised. Until finally he looks up at her, separated by the frame for the first time since they sat down: “She’s just a kid.” Elizabeth holds his gaze in return, simply stating, “Not anymore.”

The pins are set, and the rest of the episode slowly peels back the layers of discomfort that has always surrounded Kimmy and Philip. Desperate to keep this avenue open with his wife, we see Philip bend and break, finally consummating his relationship with Kimmy. The scene is decidedly distressing, with him clearly disgusted and ashamed, his face darkened by shadows when we get a look at him. We know this so well that when Philip confesses to Elizabeth that he’s cut ties with Kimmy, and she spitefully accuses him of “just wanting to fuck her,” we don’t even need to see him fight back. We know this choice—years in the making, and after plenty of intentional avoidance—weighs on him. And we know Elizabeth knows, too.

These artistic decisions are a far-cry from what the show was in its first season, which held the audience’s hand and walked it through shorter scenes in order to ensure, for example, that you knew the baby made it to Russia and the mother didn’t (it’s a long story). Every show teaches you how to watch it, but The Americans reeled you in. What started out as a spy show that felt very much like other spy shows meticulously worked itself over and embraced its intent, until it felt almost like something else entirely; the best kind of bait and switch. Gradually, it stopped teaching its audience how to watch it, and instead luxuriated in the knowledge that it was a show worth watching.

The characters themselves have been changed, complicated and elongated by the events of the series. Philip is both more and less clearly a “possible defector,” but he’s also less cartoonish, less menacing, and less full-on. Elizabeth is still as resolutely patriotic as she’s always been, but layers that performance in an ebb and flow of brittleness. Our understanding of them feels deeper, our relationship to them stronger. It’s not that they’re new people, but in a season engaging more overtly with ideological disillusionment than ever before, we are able to have a more in-depth understanding of how these large-scale power struggles can play out at the smaller scale, in bedrooms across the country.

And isn’t that kind of how every long-term relationship works? Sparks fly, before eventually settling into something firmer, deeper, truer. Lust gives way to love; independence to commitment. We watch as Elizabeth and Philip go from putting themselves out there and asking for love, to trusting that commitment is always there. And in turn, we allow ourselves to do the same. The best kind of show is always a seduction: With each episode, each scene, each second, it establishes itself. Like a spy, it’s casing you, learning the best pressure points and fine-tuning its ability to strike when you least expect it. You understand what’s good and bad, even if you can’t understand what’s going to happen to next. It’s exciting. The Americans was playing a long game, and for six seasons a loyal contingent of fans fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

And thank god we did.