Joe Weisberg, creator of FX’s The Americans, was looking for something specific when casting the early-’80s undercover Soviet spy/suburban DC housewife Elizabeth Jennings: a thirtysomething who could be alternately frigid and hotheaded, sexually enticing yet detached, good with a firearm but bad with a skinned knee. Out of nearly 100 actresses, one, famous for playing a lovesick coed with corkscrew curls, stood out. “If you’ve seen her in Waitress, you know that Keri Russell can inhabit anyone you ask her to,” says Weisberg. Case in point: In The Americans’ pilot, the 37-year-old Felicity alum, clad in a leather bustier and platinum blond wig, performs a sex act on an intelligence-spilling U.S. government employee. A few scenes later, in high-rise Guess stovepipes and a violet scoop-neck, she mechanically clears breakfast plates while husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys)—also a KGB operative—cracks jokes with their two young children. “More than anything, it’s a show about a complicated marriage,” says Russell. “Elizabeth isn’t a bad mother. She just doesn’t have the emotional tools to deal with her kids.”
The real-life couple on which the series is based, who gathered classified information on the U.S. for 10 years, was arrested in 2010 and deported back to Russia. Still, last season an average of 3.4 million viewers championed the Jennings each week—one of the highest-ever ratings for a first-year FX drama (season two premieres February 26). Not that loving morally ambiguous characters is anything new. We’ve justified Tony Soprano’s narcissism, recast Walter White’s megalomania as paternal instinct, and pardoned Nicholas Brody for murdering the vice president. But are we willing to celebrate a woman who values her anti-American ideals over her family?
There’s been a lot of discussion about unlikable women on TV recently: Mad Men’s Betty Draper and Breaking Bad’s Skyler White have been subjected to countless online burn books, but never has this kind of female taken top billing. “We don’t want to think that the mom gave a blow job in a hotel room and then went home to make school lunches,” Russell says. “But why not? Men do it all the time.” At first it feels strange, almost comedic, to hear a soft-spoken homemaker deliver lines like, “I’m sorry I didn’t kill you. That’s my apology.” But as we go deeper with Elizabeth—who was raped by an officer during training, forced into an arranged marriage by her agency, and sometimes, late at night, listens to a tape of a woman speaking in Russian and cries—she stops being a pretty mom with a secret and becomes a martyr with a family. And therein lies her potency: She refuses to let chromosomes—or a painful backstory—inform conviction. They, like the men she seduces, are assets. And that self-control is a welcome contrast to a lovestruck CIA agent who morphs from clever to cloying each week. Russell agrees: “I get my armor on—my eyeliner, my tight clothes—and my temperature drops a bit.” What’s cooler than being cool? Ice-cold.