FX’s “The Americans”: Putting on masks at work

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I’ve been making my way through season 2 of “The Americans,” the excellent FX drama series featuring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a Soviet couple operating as deep cover spies in Washington D.C. during the early 1980s, the decade leading to the end of the Cold War.

On the surface, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are your basic well-scrubbed American couple, living with their two kids, Paige and Henry, in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb right outside of Washington D.C. They work together in a travel agency, and they mix pretty well with the neighbors. In reality, however, they are KGB sleeper agents who blend the facade of their everyday lives with serious, often deadly intelligence work.

The other day, it hit me that “The Americans” is, at least in part, about putting on masks at work. Elizabeth and Philip must wear these masks almost all the time, even with their kids.

In their work, they take on different roles, identities, and personalities. For example, in an ongoing plot line, Philip poses as government operative “Clark,” who deliberately woos and eventually marries a clerk for the FBI, as a way of keeping tabs on the Bureau’s counter-intelligence efforts. In a shorter story line, Elizabeth poses as a shy single woman in Annapolis to manipulate an innocent young Navy enlisted man to obtain the military records of an officer she claims sexually assaulted her.

Elizabeth and Philip have no purely authentic selves in terms of their structured lives. Although they confide in each other and continue to grow closer, even their marriage isn’t real. They live to serve the Motherland.

Granted, most of us cannot relate to the lives of deep cover spies. But many of us have been in jobs where we couldn’t quite be ourselves. In fact, most jobs require putting parts of our personalities on the shelf. And in the cases of jobs done largely for a paycheck, big chunks of our personalities may be buried while at work.

At the same time, we may be expected to show qualities of friendliness, courtesy, or deference, even when we don’t honestly feel them. Organizational psychologists call this “emotional labor,” and it can be taxing. Think about the ticket taker at the movie theatre who cheerfully says “Welcome to Loews” to every customer entering the theatre, or the lawyer who must be deferential toward a judge she doesn’t respect through a long trial.

When I think about those aspects of work, I have even less desire to go into the espionage business! The freedom to be one’s true self, as much as possible, is a blessing. I’m happy to get my spy-versus-spy thrills vicariously, thank you.

5 responses

  1. Hi David, good angle on this story. I have only seen one episode and that is the one where Elizabeth beats the crap out of their prisoner who is being stored in the trunk of their car parked in the garage. All this was going on while their kids’ loving mother is good inside the house but a killer on the outside.

    I noticed in my career, the higher up I progressed in the organization, the more I was involved in psychological labor. It was a very miserable experience for me as I like to be honest with people and myself. When you are an executive, you are supposed to represent the company as though you were raised in a country club. For this once lower middle-class kid, a country club sounded like the name of a double-decker sandwhich. Executives have to be good actors and I routinely forgot my lines.

    Again, good article as always.

    • Kevin, thank you, as always!

      Your comment raises a topic related to masking: The ability of some managers, HR directors, and management-side employment lawyers to be caring parents and solid members of the community, while perpetuating, enabling, designing, implementing, and defending the worst kinds of employee relations practices. As if being a moral monster at work somehow is justified because you remember your kids’ birthdays and you volunteer for the church pancake breakfast!

      I often wonder if these folks think about the inherent conflict, or are so rationalized in their belief system that they don’t even see it.

  2. The unspoken requirement to be less than genuine at work strikes me as requiring compromise of personal integrity. That was particularly distasteful to me in my career in mental health, where being genuine and authentic is critical to the work. I couldn’t continue, knowing that the concessions I would have to make would undermine my ability to perform effectively in an area that so critically affects the lives of others.

    If employers truly understood that they are asking employees to act without integrity, I doubt that they would continue on the course of favouring employees who do so. Of course, my perspective only makes sense for people are fundamentally decent and mature…those who aren’t are well advised to continue the charade.

    • Ain’t that the truth. Professional bullies make themselves out to be saints to higher ups. Hence their targets are rarely believed.

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