Lunchtable TV talk: The Good Wife and The Americans – When belief is the greatest rebellion

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In two of television’s best shows, The Good Wife and The Americans, the main characters’ children – teenagers – do not rebel against their parents or authority by partying, drinking, having sex, choosing inappropriate partners or dating at all, skipping school or typical teenage rebellion tropes. Instead, these teens rebel by seeking faith.

In many American families, this would not be unusual or considered as rebellion at all. But for the families at the heart of these two particular shows, faith is not central to the main characters’ lives and never has been. Many critics condemn the shows when they focus too squarely on the main characters’ children, and usually I would agree. In these shows, however, the children’s search for meaning and faith informs and deepens the viewers’ understanding of the characters we care most about.

In The Good Wife, arguably one of the most sophisticated and nuanced shows in recent years, the focal point is Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). The show has always been a critical success but has always struggled in the ratings; at this point, given the way the latter half of its most recent, the sixth, season has gone, I think the show has seen better days. I highly recommend at least the first five seasons.

Alicia faces many challenges in her personal and professional life, but one story that has not been particularly well-developed but which does shine a light on Alicia’s relationship with faith (as well as challenges with mothering – you never know what to expect from your kids!) is when her daughter, Grace, becomes curious about and explores Christianity. Alicia is not religious, and Grace’s exploration creates tension. It is not always the most well-designed plotline, but we can see clearly that Grace’s curiosity, though genuine, is a form of rebellion. Not argument-filled, contentious rebellion – but given Alicia’s ambivalence toward religion (I can’t recall if she ever explicitly stated that she is an atheist, but it is clear that religion is not a part of her life and that she did not introduce religion as a part of her children’s lives), it is a form of rebellion. After all, rebellion is often a form of finding and forging one’s own identity apart from what is expected.

In the better of the two shows (both of which are exceptional), The Americans, which, if possible, is even more highly acclaimed than The Good Wife, but less watched (!), the two main characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), find themselves at odds when their teenage daughter, Paige, decides to pursue faith. Philip and Elizabeth, both undercover Soviet spies, are atheists – but each “welcomes” Paige’s exploration differently. Both main characters have a complex relationship with how to parent (and with America and their cause). Both love their child, but Elizabeth – less seduced by America and more deeply, ideologically committed to the Soviet cause than her husband – is first against letting Paige look into her religious curiosities but eventually joins her, as a kind of way to get closer and more easily manipulate Paige when the time comes to enlist her into the “family business”. Philip is perhaps the more emotional of the two, and feels that their children deserve independence and the right to determine their future for themselves. Regardless of whether he feels that religion is the right choice for his daughter, he does not easily conclude that he and Elizabeth should interfere – and is vehemently against recruiting her to the cause. (Interestingly, Paige is a bit of a manipulator herself – asking her parents for a simple birthday dinner rather than a party, and her only request is to ask that her pastor and his wife be invited. By having the pastor present at the dinner party, she ambushes her parents into letting her get baptized.)

Although these storylines are meant to guide and illustrate our thinking about the parents/main characters, they also underline the general tendency of people – particularly when young – not just to look toward ideas that are different from what they have always been exposed to but also to question and search for meaning, whether that comes in the form of religious faith or something else. We can see how wrapped up in and brainwashed people can become (see the recent HBO documentary Going Clear, about the cult that is Scientology for a testament about that) in their search for authenticity, identity and belonging. Some people find that in their church, some find it in a social setting or scene, some people find it in politics. We can see that Alicia Florrick, while strong herself, has a community in the legal profession, her law firm and now in politics (though she is struggling with that). We know that the Jennings couple in The Americans has a guiding belief in Communism. It is easy to forget as adults, particularly ones with that depth of community and level of ideological commitment, that young people, even one’s own children, do not necessarily share those things and values. (Obviously the case if you are secretly spies!)

Where both shows have an opportunity with the stories about their children is that they can show how their parenting and relationships with their children can encourage healthy questioning and exploration and be supportive without smothering or undermining reason (i.e., opposing the children’s curiosity to the degree that they become even more determined to pursue a path just to spite the parents). In both shows, eventually, regardless of whether the end aims had impure motives (as in Elizabeth’s case with her daughter – even if it is considerably more complicated than that), the “rebellion” is nurtured with discussion and showing increasing trust in the children, even if the belief/faith is not ultimately shared.

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