The Long Haul —Keri Russell in The Americans

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans (2013-2018)

When The Americans made its debut on FX, a mere five years ago, its premise of Russian agents operating covertly on U.S. soil seemed like almost quaint in its Cold War retrospection. Set during the nineteen-eighties, an era when President Ronald Reagan set rhetoric against the U.S.S.R. to a low boil, the series brought a bruising authenticity in its depiction of street level spy trade, but the yet tougher drama is reserved for the family dynamics of the Russian agents who’ve set up residence in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C.

Series creator Joe Weisberg and his co-showrunner, Joel Fields, were always clear in their intent to use the high stakes of geopolitical intrigue to examine the equally fraught terrain of human relationships. It was part metaphor and part wry parallel. And as the show really found its thematic footing, the approach provided opportunities for its actors to dig into uniquely layered characters. Some — like Matthew Rhys and season two addition Costa Ronin — were strong from their first moments, and others — notably Noah Emmerich and Holly Taylor — developed crafty complexities as the the series proceeded. Even as widely distributed praise is merited, no performance across the run of the series was as consistently impressive as that of Keri Russell.

As Elizabeth Jennings, the matriarch of the implanted nuclear family with a secret mission, Russell arguably rides the most pronounced character arc of the series — from a unyielding true believer of the early episodes to a weary survivor at the end — but the fiercely contained nature of her performance is necessarily free of the showy moments that signal a change in inner being. Transformation plays out in flickers across her tensed face, certainty giving way to doubt with mere tremors of conflict in her bearing.

The character never becomes warm, exactly, never succumbing to a familiarized appreciation for the United States like her partner, cover spouse, and eventually actual husband, Philip (Rhys). He finds stabilizing solace in touchy-feely encounter groups, but Elizabeth is steely to the end. She does, however, grow to have affection for her family. Much of the agony of the later episodes comes from the strange tangle of emotions she feels for those around her, especially as she grooms her daughter, Paige (Taylor), to join the family business even as her prior ruthlessness ebbs when it comes time to share the most unsavory details.

Gifted with a good length of time to develop Elizabeth’s shifts and intelligent writing that generally favored nuance over clamor, Russell takes a character that could have been a gimmick and makes her piercingly true. As The Americans drew to a close, suddenly against headlines that seemed to forecast the fraught plot lines that could drive a rebooted version a couple decades from now, the facile observation touted the unexpected newfound relevance. Such critical punditry foolishly elided the fundamental spirit of the series. More errantly, it shortchanged the impact of Russell’s performance. She already made the material real as the daily sunset through sheer force of her acting.

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Other posts this series can be found by clicking on the tag “The Long Haul.”

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