February 18, 2020

Finding God in ‘The Americans’

Six intense seasons of the Russian spy drama “The Americans” on FX culminated in a brilliant payoff. The series finale provided the audience with a perfect ending — and a deep Torah secret about relationships. 

Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, KGB spies living as Americans, are confronted in a parking garage by Stan Beeman, their counterintelligence FBI agent friend and neighbor of almost a decade.

Philip Jennings and Beeman are best friends. Beeman has been honest about his job but has kept the details of his investigation into KGB operations from Philip. Both have been wearing masks to hide their secrets. 

Audiences, however, have been seeing beneath the masks for years and have been waiting for this moment. When the masks finally come off, Beeman is stunned and Philip is crushed by the weight of his secret falling on Beeman. In the space where their friendship once drew them together, a gaping chasm and the barrel of Beeman’s drawn gun pulls them apart.

The scene in the parking garage lingers for an agonizing 12 minutes — an eternity on television. Yet watching the rhythms of the friendship unfold was somehow completely relatable. That’s because “The Americans” is really a show about friendship, marriage and family. 

The Torah of “The Americans” is that hiddenness is a necessary ingredient even in the most profound of all relationships: our relationship with God.

We all wear masks. We all keep secrets from friends and family. It’s not possible to completely expose our inner selves. As such, our darkest secrets may even be hidden from us.  Yet, even when justified, our relationships hang by a thread woven by our masks. If we are caught in our lie and we are unmasked, the betrayal becomes a vast darkness.

The Torah of  “The Americans” is that hiddenness is a necessary ingredient even in the most profound of all relationships: our relationship with God. To whatever extent possible, the God of the Torah hides miracles, or at the very least obscures them. On the eve of God’s signature miracle, the splitting of the sea, a strong and strange wind kicked up a storm. 

A miracle without some natural explanation overexposes God, so God hides behind the mask of nature. Similarly, God promises that throughout our long Diaspora, God’s face will be hidden. Masks are part of all meaningful relationships.

But there can be a cost.

The final scene of  “The Americans” doesn’t take place in America. The Jenningses must return to the Soviet Union, but Beeman, and the Jennings’ two children remain a world away in America.

“The Americans” is about the way lies and masks can corrupt our relationships. We all have our share of both. The show reminds us that it’s a topsy-turvy world out there. If we fail to work through our deceptions, the darkness will consume us. But if we can confront our masks together, there is a chance we will survive. 

Do not fear the mask. Fear denial of the mask. If you catch a glimpse of what lies beneath the mask, use it to find yourself, your loved ones and God. 

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.