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‘The Americans’: Is Keri Russell’s Elizabeth a bad mother?

Abandoning her kids at home without a babysitter. Leaving them to defend themselves from some creepy guy with a beer bottle. Failing to lock the door when she’s tangled up with their dad in a position that might scar those young’uns for life.

Some might say that choices like these make Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) a terrible mother. Well, tonight’s season finale of The Americans probably won’t help her reputation. [Spoiler alerts ahead!]

Since the show began, Elizabeth has been included on lists of TV’s bad mothers, named (half-jokingly) as a candidate for “worst mother of the year,” and skewered by viewers who claim that she “doesn’t really love her kids.” (Check out the comments in this recap.) The Denver Post recently ranked her among other “heartless, killer psycho TV moms,” attacking her because she’s “more attached to the Motherland than to the notion of mothering.” (Maybe that’s the real sin here: mothers aren’t allowed to like anything more than mothering.) And now that Elizabeth might allow the KGB to recruit her daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), we should probably prepare ourselves for more mom-shaming next season.

Granted, there are plenty of good reasons not to defend Elizabeth: this is a woman who doesn’t believe that there’s anything inherently wrong with murder or treason or very bad wigs. But in an era of TV where all morality is relative, and everyone from Tony Soprano to Walter White is doing the wrong thing in the name of his protecting family, the hostility against Elizabeth does feel especially pointed. She might not be perfect, but does she really deserve to have viewers rallying to hang her from her Young Pioneer pin?

What I’ve always loved about this show is that Elizabeth was never a typical mother. Russell and her co-star Matthew Rhys seem like they’ve swapped scripts: she’s playing the traditional “father role” — the cold disciplinarian who enforces late-night kitchen cleanings and always puts work first — and he’s playing the traditional “mother role.” As Elizabeth’s husband, Phillip, he’s the one who’s there to send Paige off to church camp, who brings coffee and vanilla cream donuts to Elizabeth in one early episode, who reacts to his partner in this arranged marriage totally emotionally. For Elizabeth, any romantic partnership is just business. When we first meet her, in the pilot, she’s wearing a leather bustier and blond wig, performing a certain sex act on a guy who’s spilling secrets for the U.S. government. A few scenes later, she’s wearing mom jeans and clearing the dishes off the kitchen table. That juxtaposition might seem like silly provocation to more enlightened minds, but the idea that a moms aren’t necessarily chaste creatures is still so strange for some people that one journalist even asked Russell how she can “reconcile” dropping her real-life kids off at pre-school before filming that racy scene at work. “We don’t want to think that the mom gave a b— j– in a hotel room and then went home to make school lunches,” Russell told Elle back in February. “But why not? Men do it all the time.”

If such scenes feel scandalous, Russell is partly to blame. The Americans wisely takes her image as the vulnerable young cutie from Felicity — a kid who believes that love is more important than anything — and uses it against anyone who believes that ideal is still possible in the adult world. You can still see traces of Felicity in Russell’s cherubic face, but now that’s the only thing about her that’s sweet. As Elizabeth, she has no qualms about executing a hit because, as she once put it, “the mission comes first.” In many ways, Elizabeth is play-acting at being an American mother just like Russell was play-acting at being Felicity: She’s all conservative sweaters and Kewpie-doll eyes, playing house before an audience of suburbanites, but you get the sense that there’s something deeper and wilder going on behind the scenes. Isn’t that true for so many women, even the ones who aren’t Russian spies?

When we think of what makes a good mother in this country, rightly or wrongly, it often comes down to self-denial. (It’s easier for dads — they just have to show up.) The Good Mom sacrifices her own needs for her children’s health and happiness. She never considers her own desires, unless they benefit her family. If she works, she only does so to set a good example for the kids. All of this perfectly defines Elizabeth. At one point this season, Philip tries to get her to admit that she might actually like the pleasures of capitalist life. “Don’t you enjoy any of this sometimes?” he asks her. “Do you like it?” But she never answers him. Her own enjoyment is irrelevant. She believes that by destroying those pleasures, she’s making life better for her kids. In the season finale, when she tries to tell Jared, the teenage boy whose KGB-operative parents were killed, why his mom and dad devoted themselves to The Cause, she could be talking about herself. “I never met anyone who loved their kids as much as your parents did,” Elizabeth tells Jared. “I mean, the risks that they took, it was because they believed in something greater than themselves. You have to understand that. They wanted the world to be better. For everyone. For you.” Many years ago, Elizabeth’s own mother did the same thing for her. And the fact that Elizabeth now only hears her mother’s voice on an old cassette tape that she replays over and over again just proves how much she has sacrificed.

It’s ironic, then, that Elizabeth and Paige clash so much, especially over Paige’s involvement in the church. Elizabeth might take that “opiate of the people” stuff to heart, but the way that Paige describes Jesus — “He was willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and that inspires me” — actually doesn’t make him sound that different from dear old mom. When Elizabeth discovers that Paige has been donating money to the minister, she calls her daughter out of bed and makes her scrub down the kitchen, which might seem like a harsh punishment on a school night. But Elizabeth’s rationale for why Paige should do this is actually pretty reasonable: “You want to be a grown-up? You want to spend money the way you want? Being a grown-up means doing things you don’t want to do. All the time. It means working when you are exhausted and almost never getting what you want when you want it.” That’s the truth, not just for many moms, but especially for a female KGB operative who has so little power, her best bargaining tool is sex.
Being forced into early adulthood has clearly changed Elizabeth. But having kids never did. (That might be true for Russell, too, on a different level. When the New York Post asked Russell what surprised her most about motherhood, she said, “Everyone’s like, ‘You’re going to change so much!’ Which you do, sort of. But your core, what you want, what moves you, that’s all still the same.”) Maybe that’s part of what’s so unsettling about this character. She came to this country as a killer, and nothing about raising these sweet little pumpkins has softened that resolve. So when Claudia suggests that Paige would make a good recruit, Elizabeth doesn’t balk. “She’s looking for something in her life,” she tells Phillip. “What if this is it?”

All of this can make you wonder: Does anyone ever really know their parents? And if not, how can a girl prevent herself from turning into her mom? Paige is already spying on Elizabeth and Phillip’s phone conversations. How long will it be before she stops listening to her mother and starts following Mother Russia? “Paige is your daughter,” Claudia says. “But she’s not just yours. She belongs to the cause, and to the world. We all do.” There’s something about this final scene that perfectly sums up why some people might hate Elizabeth: blaming mothers is just an easy deflection employed by the craftiest politicians. Maybe it’s really the government that fails to take care of our children.