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.