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Why I watch “The Americans”

I haven’t been this anxious since November 21, 1980. William Small, president of NBC News, was speaking that Friday at the Society of Professional Journalists convention. As the plates were cleared and the emcee rised at the podium, my roommate and I, both journalism majors, stood up and headed back to our hotel room.
We had to find out who shot J.R.
This coming Wednesday I’ll find out what happens to the Jennings family. And Stan Beeman. Perhaps Martha. Maybe I’ll discover whether Stan’s live-in girlfriend is a red spy or a red herring.
“The Americans,” a period drama about two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, comes to an end this week.
It really is the best show on television.
Seriously.
The memorable scenes date back to the first episode. Philip and Elizabeth, Soviet illegals, standing in the new neighbors’ doorway with a plate of brownies. “So what do you do, Stan?” Philip asks. Stan’s response is iconic: “I’m an FBI agent.”
I’ve experienced heart-wrenching drama as Elizabeth kills the widow of a World War II veteran by forcing the woman to swallow an entire bottle of heart medicine. One pill at a time.
My heart raced as Philip and Elizabeth escaped an FBI trap at in northeast D.C. I sat perched on the edge of the couch as both Stan and Elizabeth closed in on Martha at Rock Lake Park, wondering who I should be rooting for.
I gasped as Philip and Elizabeth broke Annelise’s bones to fit her dead body in a suit case, and winced when Philip broke the glass to grab an axe to remove Marilyn’s hands and head. “Hard to identify a body without hands or a face,” Agent Aderholdt mused.
But for me, the most memorable, most suspenseful moment came in “Martial Eagle” (Season 2, Episode 9).
Elizabeth glared, her features casting a mix of anger and determination. Then her eyes softened, her jaw relaxed. Her tone reflected a mother’s love. Would she follow through with her task? I wondered, held in suspense for what seemed like a full minute. Suddenly she arched her back and carried on.
“The mop and bucket are in the basement.”
Yes, after watching six seasons of the spy drama, my favorite memory is a parenting scene.
Philip and Elizabeth chastised Paige for donating $600 from her savings to Pastor Tim’s relief program. Philip blew a gasket. He stared tearing pages from Paige’s International Youth Bible. Clenching is teeth, his face taut, he screamed in Paige’s face. “You lie behind our backs! Does this book tell you to do that? You respect Jesus but not us!?!”
Watching the scene, I saw myself standing in my kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. After refusing to go to school for three consecutive days, my son had stumbled out of his room with the audacity to ask me to go out for McDonald’s. I erupted, gritting my teeth as blood rushed to my face. “You need to start showing some respect. Do we to send you to military school?” My wife started to speak, but I cut her off. “We will do it.” Like Philip, I resolved the crisis by leaving the room.
While Philip raged, Elizabeth stood in the other side of the kitchen island. “Philip,” she began. But he kept going. Like my wife, she realized that her husband was losing control, yet she also understood that parents cannot contravene one another in front of a teenager. Her eyes conveyed the mix of emotions — fear, concern for her husband and daughter, love for her husband and daughter, the desire to be a 1960s television family.
Later Elizabeth gets Paige out of bed and tells her to clean the refrigerator. “And after that mop the floors and fold the towels,” she instructs the bewildered teenager. “Being a grown up means doing things you don’t want to do. All the time. … Your father and I never had a childhood,” she lectures in a stern tone. “Nothing came easy for us. Ever.” She pauses, her voice softening. “You’re so lucky, Paige.”
Then she hesitated. I wondered what she’d do, pondered what I would do. Enforce the discipline? Or had the point been made? What’s the right decision for a parent?
Elizabeth acted with the same dispatch as when neutralizing a target: “The mop and bucket are in the basement.”
Over the course of six seasons, Philip and Elizabeth have navigated the shoals of parenting. In addition to Paige’s youthful rebellion, they interrupted a mission to visit Henry’s algebra teacher. And they had to deal with Paige developing a crush on the boy next door and Henry’s infatuation with video games.
That’s why, for me, “The Americans” is the best show on television. As a “period drama” the show is certainly compelling. But it’s so much more than intrigue and suspense. It’s the subplot of two parents facing real-life issues that affect all of us as parents.
For lawyers and spies alike.