No one who watches The Americans can claim Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — Soviet spies posing as married American suburbanites in the 1980s — are a perfect couple. They have crippling trust issues due to the secretive nature of their work. They routinely have sex with other people as part of their jobs. And they’re not above killing innocent people to maintain their cover.
But just because they’re bad people doesn’t mean they’re a bad couple. If you look beyond all their homicidal cloak and dagger honey trapping, and their frequent lies to their children (who have no idea what their parents do for a living), you’ll see Philip and Elizabeth, “Philizabeth,” possesses many admirable couple qualities. Heck, if Walt and Skyler were this functional during their own suburban criminal activity, Breaking Bad would have ended much differently.
So without endorsing murder, spying, child neglect, and serial infidelity, we submit that Philip and Elizabeth from The Americans are one of the best couples on TV — and they can teach us a lot about marriage. Here are 10 lessons we’ve learned:
1. Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to.
Both Elizabeth and Philip frequently have sex with their intelligence assets to pry information from them (Philip has even married one of his sources — Martha, a naive FBI secretary who thinks Philip’s name is “Clark”). Both are fully aware of the other’s extracurricular activities in the service of Mother Russia, but they talk about it only when necessary. In last month’s season premiere, Philip… er, “Clark” spends the night practicing the Kama Sutra with his other wife. After he returns the next morning, Elizabeth simply asks him if he got any usable intel. Philip responds with a simple “no,” and they move on. So the next time you’re tempted to, say, quiz your significant other about her exes, or ask him which one of your friends he’d “Shag, Marry, Kill,” think of Elizabeth and Philip, who know it’s OK to keep some matters on a need-to-know basis.
2. Understand the pressures of your parnter’s career.
There’s something to be said about having a spouse who fully understands the stress you’re under at work. When Elizabeth has to stay out late to seduce a government contractor, Philip’s not waiting at the door to give her grief for not spending enough time with their two kids. And when Philip’s out late assassinating a pair of Afghan resistance fighters, Elizabeth doesn’t call him to complain that he failed to take out the trash that morning. These two may not always like each other, and they darned sure don’t always trust each other. But they 100 percent understand each other, which is more than we can say about Claire and Phil from Modern Family.
3. Know that being bad every once and a while is hot.
Elizabeth and Philip spend much of The Americans’ pilot arguing over a botched mission. But that all changes when they kidnap and murder a KGB defector who’d raped Elizabeth when she was a young spy trainee in Russia. Immediately after dumping the man’s body in an abandoned factory, Elizabeth and Philip burn off the excess adrenaline by having sexy time right there in their car. Dr. Phil would never prescribe murder as a way to spice up your marriage. But who could argue that taking a (homicide-free) walk on the wild side is just the thing to shake off the pressures of suburban/espionage life?
4. Perfect the art of marital good cop/bad cop.
In one tense episode, Elizabeth and Philip are taken prisoner by enemy agents, interrogated, threatened, and tortured. They find out later the whole ordeal was a loyalty test set up by their Russian handler, Claudia (played by a steely Margo Martindale). Philip, though upset at the betrayal, takes it in stride. Elizabeth, not so much: she beats Claudia to a bloody pulp (“Show them your face!”) and doesn’t stop until Philip intervenes — which, it should be noted, he takes his own sweet time doing. The KGB hasn’t messed with them since. Even the best non-spy couples know that running a solid good cop/bad cop game can come in handy when dealing with rebellious children, snooty customer service reps, and, yes, ruthless Soviet spies.
5. Recognize the importance of “date nights” away from the kids.
Philip and Elizabeth resist the urge to spend all their nights going to PTA meetings and watching Diff’rent Strokes with the kids. They know when to leave the little ones at home, shake off the shackles of suburban routine, and let their (red) freak flags fly. Parenthood be damned, this is one couple who make Mom/Dad time a priority — even if that means staging a car accident so they can explain to their kids the injuries they got during one of their espionage missions. Speaking of the kids…
6. Don’t be too hard on yourselves.
Sure, Elizabeth and Philip disappear for long stretches at a time. And it takes them a full season to appreciate the danger their work poses to their children — a fact we viewers were able to grasp in the first five minutes of the pilot. But Philizabeth do have their good moments. Philip has an easy, affectionate rapport with his preteen son, Henry. And Elizabeth deftly handles daughter Paige’s teen rebellion by alternating between motherly patience and “Oh-No-You-Di’n’t!” ferocity. In Season 2, Elizabeth wakes Paige in the middle of the night and orders her to clean the house just because. Henry and Paige may grow up with trust issues (that is, if they grow up at all). But they will not grow up spoiled. Respect.
7. Mix it up in the bedroom, even if it doesn’t always go well.
Maybe it’s all the sex Philip and Elizabeth have with different people in different costumes under different aliases, but when it comes to their little Soviet unions with each other, Philizabeth get down in a variety of ways. Elizabeth once asks Philip to have sex with her as his alter-ego, “Clark.” That doesn’t go so well (Philip freaks out). On another occasion, we see Philip and Elizabeth strike a position we’d never seen them attempt with anyone else. That goes even worse (their daughter Paige walks in on them. You’d think the last thing two super-secretive spies would do is forget to lock the door). Still, our married anti-heroes don’t let the occasional setbacks keep them from changing things up. They may be Russian spies, but they’re not afraid to get all 007 in the boudoir.
8. Tackle problems as a team.
You might not have to worry about a massive brawl breaking out during your couples game night or at the school choral recital. But if one ever does, you’d want Elizabeth and Philip on your side. Each of these two is fully capable of kicking ass by themselves. But together, these two are the toughest Russkies since Drago in Rocky IV. They once took out an entire camp of armed Nicaraguan rebels by themselves.
9. Don’t be afraid to argue.
Unlike the couples on House Hunters, for whom a benign debate over fixer-uppers vs. new construction can turn into a 22-minute case study on passive aggression, Philip and Elizabeth aren’t afraid to throw down with brutal honesty. They’ve had pointed, sometimes bitter arguments over loyalty to Mother Russia (his) and over-reliance on violence (hers). Right now, Philip and Elizabeth are split over their orders to groom Paige to enter the family spy business: Philip is vehemently against the idea while Elizabeth is a lot more open to it than he’d like. “You’re assessing her!” Philip says to Elizabeth. “She’s my daughter,” Elizabeth fires back. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, this is one couple who respect one another enough to let fly with the painful truth.
10. Be committed to each other.
As one character tells Elizabeth, “at the end of the day, you either choose to keep going or you don’t.” Through all the disagreements, infidelities, and breaches of trust, Elizabeth and Philip clearly have made their choice: They are in this marriage/spy thing together. We never really know whether it’s some warped version of love, a belief in “‘til death do us part,” their children, or the threat of a Siberian labor camp that motivates these two to persevere. But does that even matter? Liz and Phil are sticking it out, taking care of each other, and doing right by their kids as best they can. You can’t ask more of a couple — except to maybe tone down the murdering. As we said, no couple is perfect.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.