For fans of The Americans, it’s tough to pick between the Jennings parents. Both Philip and Elizabeth are so essential, so scary, so Russian. Yet we must choose only one to be the show’s best character, because, well, who doesn’t love a good game of spy-vs.-spy? And as great as both are, I’d say Matthew Rhys’ Philip has the edge over Keri Russell’s Elizabeth. Even if just by a (wig) hair.
Like his wife, Philip contains murderous multitudes: He’s a walking, running, snarling one-man show with own dense cast of characters. There’s Clark Westerfeld, the square C.I.A. bureaucrat who sometimes treats his wife—yes, a second wife—to wildly passionate romps in the hay. There’s Scott Birkeland, a Swedish intelligence officer who also plays the long con with women (all in the name of intel, natch). Those are just a few of his best undercover personae—only the most diligent KGB desk jockey could keep count of the countless wigs, mustaches, and turtlenecks Philip has sported to fool his marks.
But that’s not why he’s the best character on the show.
Elizabeth, after all, takes on just as many roles (though certainly none involve a second marriage). What’s made Philip Jennings especially compelling to watch this season is the way he handles playing the most complicated persona of all: Philip Jennings, who may be a sheep in wolf’s clothing. As we’ve seen throughout the series, Elizabeth definitely has a stronger stomach when it comes to performing the jobs required of them, which are mainly spying, stealing, and killing— plus raising their kids Paige and Henry. But Philip tends to feel a sense of reluctance and even regret. Even their bosses suspect that his commitment to Mother Russia isn’t as fierce as his wife’s. When someone poses a potential threat, such as the truck driver in the season 2 episode “Marital Eagle,” Philip tries to spare a life but leave a message—whereas Elizabeth’s instinct is to kill and move on.
The constant contradictions of Philip’s life take a toll on him, often leading him to explode in unexpected ways—like when he aggressively demonstrates Clark’s sexual fury to Elizabeth, leading her to tears. But the most chilling moment of the year came when he confronted Paige about her emerging Christian curiosity in “Marital Eagle.” Fed up with his daughter’s lack of obedience, Philip enters a furor as he forcefully rips the pages out of Paige’s copy of the Bible, shouting, “You respect Jesus, but not us?” Cold as he seemed in the scene, it was clear that Philip was wrestling with all sorts of demons, and that he has yet to figure out how to square them all away.
Not everyone agrees with me—and I don’t just mean the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which snubbed Rhys in the Best Actor Emmy category. EW’s Anthony Breznican is firmly Team Elizabeth. “She’s as cold as a Siberian winter at times, but that makes the moments of warmth all the more precious,” he says. “Elizabeth is a true believer in the cause, someone who knows suffering, someone who continually sacrifices her own humanity to make the world a more just and equitable place (at least as far as her philosophy sees it.) Her great tragedy is that she causes so much loss and pain in her zeal to prevent it on grander scales. I love Elizabeth because she’s trying so hard not to love anything, but that’s one fight she has already lost.”
Certainly a solid argument for Elizabeth—yet I’m still sticking with Philip on this. Then again, who knows; maybe he’s got me fooled, too.