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How The Americans Subverted Worn-Out Sexist Spy Tropes to Bring Us Its Most Disturbing Episode Yet

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, the lead actors on FX’s slow-burning spy series The Americans are gorgeous, sexy individuals with undeniable chemistry. I know it, you know it, and the FX marketing team certainly knows it. But in this most recent season, FX has turned down the sex on their leading lady, Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings, and it all paid off in last night’s devastating episode.

Especially in its first season, The Americans leaned in somewhat to certain gender stereotypes of the spy genre, with Elizabeth far more likely than her partner, Philip, to put her body into service for Mother Russia. (Comedian Amy Schumer recently said that watching the first season of The Americans inspired her to create her popular “Operation Enduring Mouth” sketch.)

In Season 2, when comely satellite assets like Aimee Carrero’s Lucia (R.I.P.) and Gillian Alexy’s Annelise (R.I.P.) stepped in to shoulder the sexual burden in their spy games, Elizabeth’s body was often on display for a different person. Elizabeth used sexuality as an olive branch as she and Philip transformed their marriage of convenience into a true and loving relationship.

Exposed flesh has always been a shorthand for Elizabeth’s more human side, and now, in Season 3, her body has remained largely (but not entirely) under wraps. The lack of humanity makes sense; the K.G.B.’s agenda for daughter Paige has driven a wedge between Elizabeth and Philip’s fledgling relationship, while Philip has been given the repugnant task of seducing teenage asset Kimmie. (Between Kimmie, his three-year long con on Martha, and fleshy flashbacks to his K.G.B. training, Philip is the sexual weapon this season.) Always a force of violence to be reckoned with, Elizabeth has been calmly dropping cars on innocent factory workers and engaging in the most physically punishing confrontation of the season. Notice that she shuts down her South African protégé Hans rather than try to influence him sexually. This has been the season of all-business Elizabeth.

In fact, the most human moment we saw from Russell so far this season was the gruesome tooth-extraction scene in “Open House.” A fully clothed but intimate scene between Philip and Elizabeth, it did as much to show her vulnerability (all in the eyes) as it did to show her robotic strength and endurance for pain.

All of this built up to make her emotional exposure in last night’s “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” all the more devastating. The title of the episode is an allusion to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the film Blade Runner. But the robot in question here isn’t the F.B.I. device Philip spends most of the episode fiddling with. It’s Elizabeth herself who, feeling the pull of loyalty to the K.G.B., has been torpedoing her relationship with Philip and covering up all that humanity he worked so hard to unearth.

But for all her stylish 80s attire, Elizabeth was stripped naked by her interaction with Betty (played by the brilliant Lois Smith), an older woman with a heart condition who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. To cover up their break-in, Elizabeth has to make the death look natural, so instead of her usual hair-trigger response (she shot a woman just two weeks ago for parking her van in the wrong place!), she wordlessly encourages her to overdose on heart medication. And in that lengthy interaction, waiting for the pills to kick in, Betty cuts right through Elizabeth’s carefully constructed layers.

The interaction between Elizabeth and Betty could have been much more ham-fisted than it was. Betty makes an obvious attempt to humanize herself to Elizabeth (here’s my husband, this is my son) in order to save her own life. But in doing so, she draws out the humanity that lay dormant under Elizabeth’s robotic demeanor this season. Betty (short for Elizabeth) has a life that’s similar enough to Elizabeth’s. The second go-around at marriage and the other woman (a Martha stand-in) obviously resonate with our lady spy.

And it’s only because the show worked so hard to remove Elizabeth’s physical humanity this season that the emotional devastation of the following exchange didn’t land like a lead balloon. “Do you think doing this to me will make the world a better place?” Betty asks. “I’m sorry, but it will,” Elizabeth responds. “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things,” Betty replies, basically spelling out the thesis of the whole series. The Americans is not a show that deals in absolutes or questions of good vs. evil. It’s a murky moral quagmire. But they needed something sharp to knife Elizabeth in this moment, something shocking to penetrate her robotic layers.

And it all improbably works. Thanks in large part to Smith and Russell, but also to the work The Americans did all season winding Elizabeth up, tamping her humanity down, and getting her ready for a breakdown.