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10 Years Ago, The Americans Showed Us Keri Russell’s Face

When Felicity took down Mags Bennett, it changed the trajectory of Russell's career.
  • Keri Russell and Margo Martindale, post-beatdown (Photos: The Americans)
    Keri Russell and Margo Martindale, post-beatdown (Photos: The Americans)

    Ah, the double-edged sword of the long-running television role. On the one side, professional stability and the opportunity to mold a character over the course of several years. On the other, the potential for creative stagnation and an endless parade of people asking, “Hey, weren’t you…?” For every Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Henry Winkler who lands a part rivaling the one that brought them to prominence, there’s a dozen other TV actors pigeonholed by an earlier success. This ugly side of the business could ensnare even an icon of Mary Tyler Moore’s stature: Told by CBS she couldn’t play a divorcé on her eponymous sitcom because viewers might think the couple at the center of The Dick Van Dyke Show had split up; stuck in the spunky shadow of Mary Richards until she earned an Oscar nomination for playing Mary’s polar opposite in Ordinary People.

    Or consider the case of Keri Russell. These days, she may go toe-to-toe with the Cocaine Bear or swap Star Wars barbs with Poe Dameron, but when The Americans premiered in 2013, you couldn’t swing a hammer or sickle without hitting a review that referenced the WB roots of the actor playing Soviet sleeper agent Elizabeth Jennings. More than a decade after the end of Felicity, the campus drama and Russell’s portrayal of its titular character hung heavy enough over The Americans to inspire writing like this (astutely prescient) bit of cheek from critic Willa Paskin:

    The series begins with Elizabeth in a trashy blond wig, seducing an FBI agent. (Or rather, the episode begins with Felicity giving a guy a hummer. Russell has been cast way against type here, and whether the tough-as-nails Elizabeth is all there is, or if some aspect of the gushy, emo warmth Felicity-watchers know Russell can put over is lurking inside Elizabeth too is one of the show’s more meta hall-of-mirror effects.)

    The marriage drama undergirding The Americans’ Cold War exploits would give Russell a chance to tap into that tenderness: The show’s third episode, “Gregory,” ends with an impassioned soliloquy in which Elizabeth comes clean about her romantic past with the titular asset before renewing — really, initiating — her commitment to Philip (Matthew Rhys), the KGB agent she’s been playing house with since arriving in the D.C. suburbs in the 1960s. Of course, Elizabeth’s first and truest loyalty is to the cause of bringing the United States down from within, and a few weeks later, The Americans used this character attribute to prove that J.J. Abrams was onto something when he idly mused, “What if Felicity were a spy?” (The lesser seasons of Alias notwithstanding.) Ten years ago today, Keri Russell showed us her face — SHE SHOWED IT TO US.

    “Trust Me,” which premiered on March 6, 2013, begins on an uneasy note: After Philip is abducted on the streets of Washington D.C., Elizabeth tussles with intruders in the Jennings home. Hauled to a black site where they’re tortured and interrogated, Philip meets the business end of a phonebook and a water trough while Elizabeth is locked in a room decked out with pictures of the faux-couple’s real children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Long story short, their captors are their comrades, attempting to sniff out a mole in their midst. 

    The emergence of the Jennings’ recently appointed KGB handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale), isn’t as shocking as the reaction that it prompts from Elizabeth: After nearly drowning Claudia, she pummels the woman, the camera positioned in such a way that it doesn’t exactly capture Claudia’s POV of the beating, but it does catch droplets of water as they fly from Russell’s punches. She punctuates Elizabeth’s rage with dialogue delivered at the absolute top of her lungs: “Tell whoever approved this that your face is a present from me to them! Show them your face! Show it to them!”

    That line is ludicrous on its face. It’s the ferocity of Russell’s performance that sells it. She hits the first “face” with, well, the force of Elizabeth’s fists pounding Claudia’s mug. She points with a determination that suggests a bullet just might leap from the tip of her index finger. By the end of the line, she’s clenching her teeth hard enough to earn the disapproval of four out of five dentists. It’s silly, then startling, and altogether riveting — the kind of thing that could change your perception of an actor and her character for good.

    It’s not like The Americans hadn’t given Russell the chance to go off like this before; hell, when Elizabeth is taken at the start of “Trust Me,” she’s springing off the scenery to get a few hits in on her attacker — the actor putting her dance background to bruising use. (“It lends itself easily to fight choreography, because that’s what it really is. Choreography,” she said at the time.) But the “Show them your face” moment has a physical and emotional intensity that would become a hallmark of her time on The Americans, whether Elizabeth is walloping a CIA director with a paper towel dispenser or arguing with her daughter. She and the production staff would come to harness these peaks in close-up, where the raw honesty of Russell’s acting was broadcast by the veins throbbing in her forehead and below her right eye. “Show them your face” could’ve been a motto for her entire performance.

    It matters who Elizabeth’s beating down, too. Textually, she’s uncorking feelings of betrayal, and Claudia represents those who’ve betrayed her. Metatextually, she’s taking down one of the most intimidating presences on basic cable circa 2013. Character actress Margo Martindale was still relatively fresh from a defining performance of her own when she joined The Americans, channeling some of the crime boss energy of her Emmy-winning Justified turn into Claudia’s enigmatic steeliness. It’s the hall-of-mirrors effect Paskin cited used to the show’s advantage: “Who would win in a fight between Felicity Porter and Mags Bennett?” seems to have an obvious answer, but there’s a real impact to the former undergrad from Palo Alto coming out on top.

    The Americans was all about scrambling perceptions, whether it was disguising Communist subversives as the family next door or hiding a searing look at marital relations inside a high-tension spy thriller. It’s all too appropriate that a series whose characters put on a variety of performances on any given day would help one of its stars prove the versatility of her talent. Even if the next phase of Russell’s career winds up defined by the internal and external fire of Elizabeth Jennings, those who watched The Americans know she’s more than that: She’s also Dee Eckhert, flight attendant and mother of Vietnamese adoptee Tuan. And Patty Rawlings, the Mary Kay-slinging best friend Young-Hee Seong ever had (until that unfortunate business with Young-Hee’s husband, Don). And Jennifer Westerfeld, devoted sister to the Office of Professional Responsibility’s Clark Westerfeld. And Ann Chadwick, Laura Gering, Michelle from AA, and every other alias she adopted over the show’s run.

    Erik Adams is a writer and editor living in Chicago.

    TOPICS: Keri Russell, The Americans, Felicity, Margo Martindale, Matthew Rhys