The thing to understand is that we see what we need to see in people. Things that aren’t really there. Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans
If I had to pick a new favorite show for this TV season, The Americans would win hands down. It's not just that the show consistently delivers a taut, thrilling spy drama each week, it's that the show is fundamentally about people and relationships and how we know each other. "A movie is not about what it is about," Roger Ebert famously said, "It is about how it is about it." The Americans is more than a spy show--the 80's setting, the Cold War conflicts, the spy activities--these are just the outer wrappings of a show that is fundamentally about marriage, about family, about friendship, about knowing each other. What better avenue to explore relationships and the way we appear to each other than a show that uses relationships to personal benefit, where the characters adopt different personas and become what another person needs in order to get information. It's so rare to find the TV show that manages to be completely entertaining while also deeply about the human condition in a way that's recognizable and understandable. The Americans is that show.
Last month one of my oldest online friends wrote a great piece for ArtHouse America. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since, mulling over the many things he said, the complicated nature of knowing people and loving them. The complicated way we have as humans of being in relationship. He wrote about a new relationship he's in, about how he doesn't want to end up using this person to ease his own personal loneliness but that he wants to really know and love her. He doesn't want to see what he needs to see in her, but rather to see for who she really is. This is no easy goal, in my opinion, the human tendency to use and abuse in relationship is strong. The sometimes necessary act of romanticizing someone in order not to dwell on the uglier parts of what it means for each of us to be human--selfish, weak, imperfect. Stephen calls this a different kind of lonely. It's complicated precisely because as humans we do need relationship, and yet the tendency to use in order to get what we need is also only natural. This can exhaust me sometimes, as I battle between my own unrealistic expectations and my desire to love someone for exactly who they are.
The feeling of love itself we love, though. The Great Gatsby recently released in theater, and there was never a more perfect example of loving someone only because they embody an idea. Despite the fact that Gatsby loves Daisy as an idea of his past, it's easy to sympathize with him even still. Have we all not walked that path in some way? Idealizing and romanticizing another is part of the human condition. Sure we may not carry it to the same extremes as Gatsby does, but we find our fair share of films and books and TV shows that are still about this all too common thing. The manic-pixie-dream girl trope exists because of our preoccupation with the ideas of loving something with no thought to the subject loved. The point is the idealization/obsession itself. This pervasive and sweeping trend captures our interest much more than actual stories about the hard business of loving.
This behavior exists in our treatment of public figures as well. We love them for the best foot they put forward. When the inevitable happens and they fail us by being human, selfish, disrespectful, unkind, violent we write them off. If their image is centered around their goodness, it's possible we never really know them at all.
On The Americans, we are introduced to a couple who has been "married" for years, they have children together, and share a home. But really they are KGB agents undercover in the United States. From the very beginning we watch them negotiate the terms of their marriage. Philip loves Elizabeth, but Elizabeth will have none of it. She's married first and foremost to her mission. She is as tough as steel and unyielding. We learn as the show progresses, she was chosen because of her fear of surrender. This doesn't mean she doesn't love. She loves her children and she has a lover, Gregory. I admit that while at first I felt a level of investment in Philip and Elizabeth's relationship, I was equally enamored of Elizabeth and Gregory's relationship. In one episode, Gregory's status is compromised and his death seems imminent. As he says his goodbyes to Elizabeth, he tells her to find someone who loves her for being so strong. Part of me swooned, it was so romantic and right. But I can't help but consider the way Elizabeth has been presented, that she was chosen because of her fear of surrender and love is nothing if not surrender. "Love and pride can't occupy the same spaces, baby" Sara Groves sings in Loving a Person "and only one makes you free." Is finding someone who loves you for being strong the best thing? Yes, but only if you're strong enough to accept it.
I think we crave equally to be loved for exactly who we are. When I trained in adult literacy we were encouraged to use praise sparingly. Not as a form of punishment but because it needed to be genuinely earned or its meaning weakens. I think about this in relation to actual life, to giving compliments. I tend to be fast and easy with praise and compliments, but it's clear they are valued less than if I didn't. And sometimes a kind word, meant as a compliment, can become a sort of trap or prison to the person who doesn't believe it genuinely reflects who they are. We hunger to be seen, not only the good of who we are, but also our rougher, more unpleasant edges. We want to be seen and known and not cast aside. We want to be loved for exactly who we are, because we simply cannot be anyone else.
Each week on The Americans, Philip and Elizabeth don a new costume and accomplish a mission. It's only made possible by their exploitation of people's desire to see a certain thing. This is never more apparent than with Philip's ongoing relationship with Martha that results in their fake marriage. While watching it's kind of hard to believe Martha doesn't figure it out, how can she not know? But of course the answer is there, is always there. We see what we need to see in people. Martha sees in Clark the answer to all her lonely nights, the one she's been waiting for. When the truth comes out, as it inevitably will in some form, she will most likely look back and see the truth of what was happening and be gripped with self-recrimination and regret.
So it's amid this world of costume and deceit that Elizabeth and Philip begin to find their way to each other. "I want it to be real," Elizabeth confesses to Philip. What does she mean? She means that, of course, in this crazy life they lead, she wants what they share to be genuine. This is the reason that she turns away from him when she discovers that he's lied to her after she point blank asks him the truth about an encounter with an old flame. Elizabeth isn't interested in seeing what she needs or wants to see. She wants the truth. She wants it to be real even if what's real is ugly and unpleasant. Idealizing and romanticizing someone can only you take so far. At some point the masks must come off, the costumes set aside, the real person must emerge.
"Loving a person just the way they are," Sara Groves concludes, "that's no small thing. That's the whole thing."