—Hamlet‘s eponymous protagonist
Yeah, but that didn’t really save her, did it Ham?
If memory serves, I read the YA novel Ophelia before getting to the Bard’s account of the Danish Prince–hell, it might have even been before I watched Slings & Arrows. In Lisa Klein’s version of what exactly was rotten in Denmark, Ophelia has her own story, her own motivations, opinions, fears, and sexuality. As much as I revere Hamlet, Ophelia isn’t given nearly as much to do in Shakespeare’s original text. She is manipulated, berated, and slut-shamed; she cries, goes insane, and dies. Game, set, match.
As Slings & Arrows‘ Geoffrey aptly summarizes, “Ophelia is a child. She has been dominated by powerful men all of her life and suddenly they all disappear. Her brother goes to France. Her father is murdered by her boyfriend and he is shipped off to England. She is alone for the first time, grieving and heartbroken and guilty because–as far as she’s concerned–it’s all her fault. She ignored her brother’s advice and fell in love with Hamlet and now her father is dead all because of her. And the pain and the loss and the shame and the guilt, all of this is gnawing away inside this little child’s mind…”
Alongside Hamlet, there are plenty of narratives about great, powerful, morally-ambiguous assholes and the women they abuse, ruin, and sometimes reduce to little girls. You can find many of them in Golden Age television series. You have Walt & Skyler White, Jess Mariano & Rory Gilmore, Jax Teller & Tara Knowles, Tony & Carmela Soprano, Don & Betty Draper, Don & Megan Draper, etc. Like Ophelia, these women end up dead, miserable, and/or royally fucked. They are interesting (or, in Tara’s case, I’m told they’re interesting–I don’t have the time or stomach for SOA) but their stories are entirely dictated by their anti-heroes.*
Which is why I–like her fellow characters, tons of cultural critics, and dozens of viewers–fell in love with The Americans‘ Nina Sergeevna Krilova.
As played by Annet Mahendru–who really, really needs to play the titular character in a Russian-language Anna Karenina miniseries–Nina is a KGB agent working at the American Rezidentura in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s. Over her three season and four episode arc, Nina transforms herself from just another Ophelia to an autonomous, agentic, and three-dimensional character. Like her Danish counterpart, she is relentlessly used and manipulated by the men in her life. I’ve been re-watching The Americans recently and images of chess pieces flash in my head and the word “pawn” echoes in my ears every time Nina is onscreen. To be clear, Nina isn’t perfect. The catalyst for her eventual downfall and death is theft–she steals from her government and sends the extra money home to her family. An FBI agent finds out and blackmails her into becoming an asset. As soon as she chooses that path instead of a decade in a labor camp, her fate is sealed.
What follows is the aforementioned men using her for their own personal gain; if the Soviet Union and the United States are in a game of tug-of-war, Nina is the rope. In a particularly captivating plot in the second season, Nina is a triple agent, displaying very different sides of herself to very different men. To Agent Stan Beeman, Nina is his damsel in distress, just another victim of Communism that needs Western intervention. To Soviet Rezident Arkady, Nina is traitorous, cunning, and smart; she needs to use those skills to square herself with Russia and turn Beeman against the US. To colleague Oleg, Nina is a comrade who is sacrificing her body and soul to Beeman for the greater good. Arkady loves her like a daughter, while Oleg and Beeman are in love with her. Or so they say. Their affection doesn’t stop them from selling her down the river as soon as she’s out of effective intel and cards to play.
To bring it all back to Hamlet, each of these three men force Nina into a role, harm her. and then deign to act devastated when she is hurt. As of writing this, Stan, Oleg, and Arkady do not know Nina is dead. I can only imagine how they will make it about them when they finally hear the news.
But here is where The Americans’ superior treatment of female characters comes to pass. When Stan refuses to work with the KGB and Nina is sent to a Moscow gulag to pay for her betrayal, she doesn’t lose her mind or fall into a pit of despair. On the contrary, at first she keeps up her mind games and manages to leverage her cellmate’s trust for a mere 10 years’ incarceration (as opposed to a life sentence or execution). But on her last mission, she manages to transcend every role forced upon her. Tasked with working Anton Baklanov for information, she instead develops a genuine friendship with him. Both prisoners are collateral damage in the Cold War and are treated as objects, not people. Nina has and had real feelings for Arkady, Stan, and Oleg; she definitely enjoyed her sexual relationships with Stan and Oleg. But the power dynamics in each relationship are far from equal. Nina is always at the mercy of the man; she and he both know it.
At the end of the third season, she confesses to Anton: “I–I can’t keep doing this. Buying back my life. It’s not–I don’t know if it’s worth it.” This is Nina’s moment of clarity. She can’t keep lying to herself and others, especially if her actions are controlled by someone else. No matter what her handlers promise, Nina will never truly be free. She has been pulled in so many directions, has withstood so much pressure and stress that she no longer has any sense of self. This is the scene where Nina makes her choice to stop being manipulated and manipulating in turn. She has real, undeniable fondness for Anton and, listening only to herself, acts on it. So she defies Soviet law and her lawyer’s recommendation and tries to help Anton send a letter home to his son. This selfless act is her ultimate undoing and triumph. Nina betrays her country once more by pledging her loyalty to her friend. What’s more, her motivation for doing so is completely her own.
At that moment, Nina breaks the molds her men have forced her into and simultaneously shatters the tragic Ophelian trope. When Nina is executed for her betrayal, she dies free from anyone else’s influence and agenda. Nina–and The Americans by extension–rewrite Ophelia as a doomed woman who only answers to herself.
*Yes, yes, I know Rory is the exception that proves the rule. Don’t yell at me.
(Image #1 courtesy of creepypasta.wikia.com; #2 courtesy of theguardian.com; #3 courtesy of http://tvmagazine-351227-yahoopartner.tumblr.com; #4 courtesy of tvatemywardrobe.com; #5 courtesy of starpulse.com)