*note: this essay contains spoilers about the Pastor Tim character
I can’t fully recommend watching The Americans, the FX television drama about Russian spies living in deep cover in the D.C. suburbs during the 1980s. It’s too violent for most viewers. In fact, I gave up on it three times in the past. It was hard to see the lead, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), face and commit so much violence, then come home and be a suburban mom. Her husband, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), is more sympathetic in some ways, often showing remorse, but the violence was always too jarring.
At a friend’s urging, I tried the series again this summer and ended up binging all six seasons, now available on Amazon Prime. I was hooked by the complexity of the relationships between characters and their ongoing conflicts between loyalty to country and to real people in their lives. One of the most interesting ways that conflict plays out is in the relationship between the Jennings’ teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) and Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin).
Paige is an important character in the series. As she grows older, her parents’ cover story as travel agents grows increasingly implausible. Also, the KGB pressure the Jennings to recruit Paige into a next generation of spies. Her conversion to Christianity is a challenge to her Russian parents.
Elizabeth and Philip are not fans of church. They see it as a manipulative institution transmitting American nationalism and capitalism to its youth. But this church is openly critical of American policy, with a strong focus on nuclear disarmament and social justice. Although Pastor Tim, with his curly blond hair and gentle ways, seems like the perfect surrogate father for Paige, whose own parents are often unavailable, Paige is attracted to the social justice mission of this church as much as to Jesus or Pastor Tim. The youth group attends a nuclear disarmament protest, where Pastor Tim chains himself to a fence and gets arrested. The church runs a food shelf in a poor neighborhood in D.C.
Paige also uses her relationship to the church as a way of acting out against her parents. She knows they don’t like it. Philip even goes to the church and warns Pastor Tim to stay away from Paige, but he says he won’t turn her away from church. It’s a humorous take on teen rebellion, but also a sign of how the forces of American life and culture are rallying against the subtle attempts of the Jennings to raise children who are both Americans and critical enough of America to someday be sympathetic to their parents’ mission. The Jennings are constrained, however, as any overt criticism of America will threaten their cover.
Things comes to a head when Paige and Pastor Tim put the Jennings on the spot at Paige’s birthday dinner and announce that she is going to be baptized. The Jennings are as angry as any parents who get played by their teenager, but they also realize that Paige’s interest in the church is deeper than they thought, and that they need to be on board, or they’ll risk losing her. Elizabeth finds a way to bond with Paige over the food shelf. Paige is attracted to the church mission as something bigger than herself, a concept that rings truer to the 2000s than to the 1980s, but nonetheless a way for Elizabeth to defend her own work to Paige, preparing Paige for the revelation that is coming.
Paige finally confronts her parents over their secrets, and they reveal that they are Russian spies. This doesn’t go well. Paige, in true teen form, sees how this secret turns her into a liar, an inauthentic person forced to pretend her family is something they’re not, and she’s terribly burdened by it. She turns to Pastor Tim, who is now a greater threat to the relationship between Paige and her parents.
Shortly after the revelation, Paige leaves a note saying she is spending the night at Pastor Tim and his wife Alice’s house after an event at church. Elizabeth and Philip meet them in the driveway and tell Paige she has to come home. At first Pastor Tim defends Paige and wants to know what the problem is. However, when he finds out that Paige didn’t ask her parents’ permission, he apologizes to them and tells her to go home. Although he is critical of the Jennings and sees Paige as a lonely and somewhat neglected kid whom he can help with his mentoring, he doesn’t participate in this power struggle. He makes the right decision, and I was relieved to see him recognize a limit to his authority.
Following this event, Paige tells Pastor Tim the secret about her parents, swearing him to strict confidence. And Tim tells his wife Alice. Given the previous four seasons of the show, and the trajectory of so many characters, which follows that old trope: “Now that you know who I am, I have to kill you,” the audience rightly fears for Tim and Alice’s safety. Also, there is a moral dilemma: is this pastor really going to keep their secret?
One great scene shows Elizabeth and Philip in Pastor Tim’s office with a KGB agent who is impersonating an El Salvadoran priest. The man says that the Jennings worked on his behalf and saved his life with their covert intelligence. He also claims to have known Oscar Romero. It’s part of the same con the Jennings are running now on Paige: We help people be safe, we are on the side of peace, we do important work for our country so that both countries can live in peace and safety. America’s misguided action against communist revolutionaries in Latin America are a perfect way to appeal to Pastor Tim.
Is this pastor really going to keep their secret?
There is, of course, no way to make Pastor Tim and Alice disappear without permanently alienating Paige. However, when Paige’s interest in the church eventually wanes, she is forced to maintain a close relationship with Pastor Tim to protect the family secret. The family can’t risk the pastor and his wife becoming disaffected and turning them in, so in effect they become Paige’s first assignment. The relationship becomes increasingly false, as Paige keeps them close and reports to her parents that they are still keeping the secret for her sake. And yet, Pastor Tim’s concern and care for Paige remains true and consistent.
In the end, the Russians get rid of Pastor Tim by landing him a choice assignment with the World Council of Churches in Argentina. But we see him again in one more scene, in the second-to-last episode of the series. It is 1987, and Pastor Tim has been gone for three years. An FBI agent is closing in on the Jennings, and he places a phone call to Pastor Tim in Buenos Aires. We wonder again: Will he keep the secret? Pastor Tim, too, must choose in the end between loyalty to his country and loyalty to his personal relationship with Paige and her parents. Of course, there is also the pastor’s role as confidante to consider. But espionage and treason are serious crimes! They warrant breaking the confidence. As the FBI agent asks, “Is there anything I should know, as an FBI agent, about the Jennings?” we wait in heightened suspense. There is a pause. And then, “No, not really.”
Pastor Tim must choose between loyalty to his country and loyalty to his personal relationship with the Jennings.
It’s a stunning conclusion. At every turn, Pastor Tim and Alice could have been the Jennings’ undoing. It would have been easy for the writers to kill them off— other, more beloved, characters reach this bitter end. Pastor Tim could have turned against the Jennings without incurring our judgment, but his loyalty to relationships, the chief value in the show, holds up. Pastor Tim is consistently pastoral. He stays in his lane. He cares about Paige and counsels her well, gets her through an impossible rough patch, and lets her go when it is time. It’s a truly refreshing, positive portrayal of a Christian pastor in a place one might least expect it.