Currently in its fifth season, The Americans is routinely hailed among the best shows on television. Set in the era of early 1980s Cold War Washington, DC has explored the intricate personal dynamics of Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), a married couple who are actually Russian spies. In doing their duty to the Soviet Union, the Jennings routinely adopt false identities and engage in morally questionable actions, though it comes at a personal toll they bear as individuals and as a family.
One of the most pivotal complications of their lives as “Americans”? The Jennings have two children – both born in the United States, who are American citizens. For the first couple of seasons, the Jennings children – Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) – were unaware of who their parents actually were and the true nature of their family. Phillip and Elizabeth kept the truth hidden from them to protect them. Gradually, Paige began to suspect her parents were lying and keeping secrets. The story of how Paige learned the truth about her parents, how she reacted, and what effect this reality is having on her psyche, continues to be a major focal point of the series.
The Centre, the arm of the KGB that oversees Phillip and Elizabeth, have since taken a great interest in Paige, at first against her parents’ wishes. American-born children of their agents already living in the United States are a valuable commodity that can be cultivated and exploited by the KGB. Though she had rebelled against her parents and their values – even pursuing religion and confessing who her parents really are to her Pastor Tim – Paige is also intensely curious about her parents’ secret lives and how and why they do what they do. Whether Paige can and should ever enter the family business is one of the burning questions of The Americans.
Meanwhile, often forgotten and left to his own devices, is young Henry Jennings. When the series began, Henry was only 7 years old and completely innocent. It was natural for his parents to keep him protected from their secret lives as spies. Now, at 12 years old, Henry has sprouted, but he remains as in the dark as ever, while everyone else in his immediate family is clued in to Phillip and Elizabeth being Russian spies. As much of The American‘s family drama focuses squarely on Paige – which has given Holly Taylor the spotlight to deliver compelling, emotionally complex work – Henry has become the all-but-forgotten Jennings.
Like the inherent visual humor of the wigs Phillip and Elizabeth don in their false identities, it’s actually become a bit of a running joke how The Americans keeps Henry hidden in nearly every episode. Henry’s appearances are fleeting, usually one scene in most episodes. Many scenes set in the Jennings household begin with Phillip or Elizabeth asking “Where’s Henry?” with Paige usually offering an offhand excuse: “He’s at the library.” “He’s next door at Stan’s.” “He’s in his room sleeping.” At which point, Phillip, Elizabeth and Paige all breathe a sigh of relief and and speak openly about secrets the youngest Jennings isn’t privy to.
With his parents often away from home (Phillip and Elizabeth pose as travel agents, yet they can both be gone for days at a time), Henry has grown accustomed to being neglected and fending for himself. For camaraderie, an ersatz father figure, and a male role model, Henry has grown close to Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the Jennings’ neighbor who is also an FBI agent; yet, is blissfully unaware of who really lives across the street from him. It’s Stan to whom Henry confesses details of his personal life. For instance, Henry had a crush on his science teacher last season and this season, to the surprise of the rest of his family, Henry seems to have found a girlfriend named Chris. Without Stan for Henry to talk to, and in turn, Stan and Phillip routinely commiserating over beers, Phillip would know even less about his son than he already does.
The Americans isn’t known for comedy, but season 5 delivered a most welcome and genuine laugh out loud moment when Phillip and Elizabeth were summoned to a parent-teacher conference. Henry’s math teacher revealed Henry is gifted at math and is one of the best students in his school. Henry and Elizabeth were baffled and speechless. The way Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell played their characters’ reactions was hilarious – Phillip and Elizabeth literally had no clue whatsoever about this important fact about their own son.
The Americans placed Paige front and center as the Jennings offspring most emotionally torn by the truth about her parents and what it means for her personally and the direction her life could take. Recently, the Centre’s interest in Paige culminated in Phillip and Elizabeth at long last taking Paige to meet their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella), something Phillip has been especially reluctant to see happen. After speaking with Paige, whom he had known of her whole life but never actually met, Gabriel offered a shocking assessment of the Jennings’ daughter: “You were right about Paige. She should be kept out of all of this.”
What if all this time, Henry is the Jennings best suited to follow in his parents’ footsteps? What’s more, what if the fundamental truth about his family – that is causing his older sister so much misery – is something Henry already knows about and has known all along? There has been no direct proof that Henry knows anything, but maybe that’s the point. Any semblance of awareness Henry might actually have about his parents has been a topic The Americans has assiduously avoided. Perhaps this is being done on purpose. When he is in an episode, Henry is often sighted in the corner of the family living room, blasting away on the joystick of his video games, like any carefree boy in the 1980s would be. But he isn’t deaf, he isn’t blind or stupid. Henry is the child of two spies. When his parents bought him a telescope, the naturally curious Henry often turned the lens not to the skies but to the houses next door, spying on his neighbors. Spying may come naturally to Henry.
Given the depth of complexity that’s a hallmark of The Americans‘ writing, the bizarre consistency of Henry always missing and neglected by his parents has to be on purpose. It’s a continual wink and nod to the audience who are well-aware that for a series so intricately plotted, detail-oriented, and exacting, there’s a remarkably jarring dearth of logic to where in the world Henry is most of the time and what he is actually doing. It’s possible that series creators and showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are actually playing a long con with Henry and his future. Is the commonplace question of Henry’s whereabouts a feint by the series to obfuscate the actual truth about Henry that not even his parents suspect: that he harbors the biggest secret of all and he knows the truth about his family?
When Henry brought Chris home to play video games with him, his parents and Stan huddled in the kitchen wondering what was going on with him and this girl. Perhaps they simply don’t suspect and can’t conceive that Henry isn’t oblivious, that he’s more aware of his surroundings and the adults in his life than they ever give him credit for. The camera lingered on Henry’s face as he played; staring straight ahead at the television, the vastly underrated and talented Keidrich Sellati played the moment with an almost eerie, calculating focus. Perhaps Henry was just intent on playing his video game. But perhaps there’s something more going on.
Maybe in a household of spies, Henry Jennings is the spy in plain sight no one suspects. His parents are just coming to grips with the realization that Henry is highly intelligent. In the newest episode “IHOP,” Henry revealed to his parents that his meteoric rise in academics is because he wants to leave home and attend an exclusive New England private school. This would indicate The Americans plan to write Henry out as a series regular and make him recurring until The Americans concludes in 2018. On one hand, Henry could just be forging his own path. On the other hand, could it be Henry Jennings seeks independence not just because he feels neglected, but because he actually knows more than he lets on? He may even know everything his parents have been hiding from him all his life – because unbeknownst to Phillip, Elizabeth and Paige, Henry has been watching. Henry did the math.
The Americans continues next Tuesday @10pm on FX.