Truth, Lies, and The Americans Way: A Television Dilemma

How much truth do you really need to tell the ones you love? That is the million dollar question faced by characters on TV across networks, as the surge in morally ambiguous anti-heroes has corresponded with a new norm of morally ambiguous show worlds for them to interact in. But what kind of interactions are they having? Living as we do in a society where telling the truth is so moralized, how does one transpose or translate that ideal of honesty into a “real” life based around dishonesty and shifty dealings? Does one have a responsibility to tell friends and family everything or is some editing allowed? Is it best to side for the bold faced lie to avoid the chance that people may not accept you for who you are, or what you have become- might leave you or file a report with the proper authorities, or is there a degree of lying that’s acceptable for all involved? Most importantly, can a relationship based on love even exist if it runs on any lies at all and if so, how much lying before you “cross a line”?

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There is also a flip side to this small screen dilemma: what about friends and family who know more about what’s going on then they’d like to project?  This often shows up on television with wives of felons. Given the distinction between living with suspicions and living with the truth, some can’t take the latter and prefer the denial of awareness and culpability the former offers. Deep down they know they’re harboring a criminal but they’d rather pretend that’s not the case, or at least not face the details or degree of their illegality (i.e. Skyler White or Carmela Soprano). There are others who take the “tell me everything” stance (Tara Knowles Teller), recognizing the fruitlessness in only going halfway, but they, too, have their own delusions, like maintaining the belief that their loved one is different and will eventually follow through on plans to come clean.
Of course, with such a loaded question has come a multitude of different responses, but one strong example where lying is a blatant part of the show’s very premise would be FX’s riveting Cold War spy drama, The Americans [warning: spoilers ahead].
Episode three of the show’s current season starts with female lead, Elizabeth Jennings (played by Keri Russell), grappling with indecision over whether or not she should follow through on a promise she made to a friend and colleague several years before (Leanne Connors, played by Natalie Gold) . In the event Leanne was killed on the job, Elizabeth had promised to deliver a letter to her children.   When she’s murdered in the season premiere, along with her husband and daughter, Elizabeth is torn between keeping her word and following her gut, which is no longer certain that keeping her word would be the right choice. After meeting with the family’s surviving son, Jared, under the pretense of checking-in on him for a child care organization, she makes her decision. The closing montage, set to a Peter Gabriel song, depicts Elizabeth squatting down in a deserted parking lot to burn the letter Leanne intended for her son. Had it been delivered, Jared would have learned that the real reason his parents came to America was on assignment as spies for the USSR. He’d already been left shattered by the grief of his family’s grisly annihilation. To learn this news would have deprived him of his memories of them as well. Everything he ever thought he knew would have come into question and right at the moment he needed answers most of all…

Granted, learning your parents are spies working for the opposite side to the one you thought you were supposed to be rooting for, is an answer. But looking past the fact that such revelation would come as a painful shock, this is an answer to a question you don’t think you have to ask, and can never come back from once you do. Worse, until this information is shared with you there’s no way of making a fair judgment as to whether this is something you want to find out, or are better left off unaware of. On the one hand there’s the curiosity, the need for some semblance of explanation, but the price of this clarity is you can never forget. And since sometimes the pain of not knowing turns out to be preferable to the alternative— the route that only creates more upsetting questions— it is a truly a gamble to ask “what really happened?”, because the consequences are permanent. They will irrevocably change your entire perception of the world and at this point, with a teenager like Jared, deprived of the chance to ever confront his parents directly on the matter, it seems too late and cruel to bring it up now.

Consider if Elizabeth hadn’t made the decision for him, and Jared had been left to naively read the letter on his own, with no expectation of its contents- how would he have reacted? Worst case scenario he goes digging for more information and gets himself killed, since civilians are not exactly encouraged to snoop around looking for insight on spies, Russian, American or otherwise. Best case scenario, he is left paranoid and untrusting of anyone he comes into contact with for the rest of his life, for how can he ever be expected to believe anyone again, when his own parents were strangers? The anger that such a reveal insights, in the fact that it wasn’t told to him in person but took getting shot to come out in the open, creates not only a natural emotional response but a self-destructive one.

When his parents were alive it may have been a different story. Then the truth would have not only been right but necessary. After all, if, like Elizabeth and Philip (played by Matthew Rhys), Leanne and her husband left the Motherland because of a deep belief in the Russian cause and the evilness of capitalism, wouldn’t they have eventually had to interrupt their children’s education anyway? Otherwise what would have stopped them (or is stopping them) from being indoctrinated with “democratic” ideas in school? Doesn’t it make their cause mute when in order to bring the US down they must raise their children against themselves? Elizabeth has been shown flinching whenever her daughter displays interest in areas she doesn’t believe in, like the Bible, but to keep her cover there is little she can do to stop Paige (played by Holly Taylor). This all-American act simply doesn’t seem like it can hold up forever. It is too great a deception, especially considering what is all committed during spy assignments, including willingness for violence when needed that their children are clueless about. Plus, on a smaller scale (at least for now), you have moments of hypocrisy, as when Philip and Elizabeth’s son, Henry (played by Keidrich Sellati), sneaks into their neighbor’s home purely to play with their video game system. How can they punish the distraught and guilt-ridden child when they have broken into strangers’ homes for far worse reasons?

Until the letter incident, Elizabeth had always seemed to believe she’d want her children to know the truth, if her time came.  After all, truth is something loved ones expect, deserve, and assume they are getting out of trust. Elizabeth may not be afraid to die for her ideals but the thought of dying under a false, or at least incomplete, identity to her kids is not as easily accepted. Unfortunately it is something she has to seriously consider now in these tense times, where her friend’s death emphasizes the constant threat to safety inherent in her line of work. She comes from a background of surviving on her wits and very deceptive wigs but, as it turns out, she can’t count on them for everything. She needs to reevaluate what she wants her kids to know now before later doesn’t exist.
“No black and white but grey.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this saying (or some version of it) during your channel surfing this year. While certainly not a wrong statement it is an overused one and, as much as shows like The Americans seem to support it (an American show taking the perspective of the Russians during the Cold War to remind viewers of the double-sidedness of conflict) they equally question its legitimacy. Elizabeth and Philip in many ways can’t live in a grey world. That’s why there’s been such focus on innocents dying for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” this season. To follow orders and completely commit to their mission these terrible “sacrifices” have to be made. This doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by such decisions. Deaths and deceptions are wearying. Lying is exhausting but they made a choice and they are loyal to it. Their lifestyle is one of extremes for their beliefs and one could say the same stance has to be taken with the truth- it’s either all or nothing.

As viewers we feel some distance from having to take such drastic measures but in reality who is to say our parents aren’t spies or drug lords or mafiosos? We scoff at the absurdity of such a notion but absurdity is the point. We aren’t supposed to know. It’s too risky. The real question is would we want to and grey answers don’t cut it. The choice is one or the other.

The truth about Jared’s parents is going to come out during investigation into their deaths and when it does they  will be labeled the enemy. In that case, wouldn’t the truth have been better coming from Elizabeth, for whom Leane was not only Communist but friend?

Whatever the truth, maybe we need to know.

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