How strange that two of the most interesting portrayals of marriage are about 1) a couple in an arranged marriage for the purpose of espionage during the Cold war and 2) a Viking raider and later Earl and a shield maiden, who challenge conceptions about hierarchical marriages and gender roles before modernity. Despite being more than 1,000 years apart, both examples are similar in the respect of offering an interesting take on non-conventional marriages and partnerships, both non-conventional for the specific time in which they are set and from a contemporary perspective.
In Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok stands out because of his curiosity – he is an explorer in an age where raids were only meant to bring treasure rather than insight into the world the Vikings inhabited, and the political system as it exists in the beginning of the show is veered against any kind of change or progress, like focusing on the lands to the West – England – so far unexplored, rather than constantly going back to the well-trodden lands in the East. Ragnar’s fierce need to know more about the world is what drives him and the show itself – it’s an unstoppable force that will transform history eventually. Rather than looking for treasures and coming back to his own lands, a strategy that never leasd to progress, he is seeking arable land for the increasing population of a country that isn’t supporting all the sons (so that, as he argues, they are forced to go war with each other over the limited resources – an endless circle of minor conflicts, rather than attempting to face an outer enemy united, and increasing their prosperity on a long-term basis). In order to reach this goal, he supports new technological advances, and sees more opportunities in gathering knowledge than in stealing riches (which he also does, but it serves more as a justification to his men for their trips overseas).
There aren’t many other couples to compare him and his wife Lagertha to, but the few portrayed on screen are markedly different from how they approach their marriage. Earl Haraldson and his wife Siggy appear to have a more conventional marriage where Siggy is involved in an advisory capacity (and later, after his death, she proves very capable at analysing situations and devising plans to manipulate them according to her needs) – but he makes his decisions without her. Meanwhile, Lagertha, a shieldmaiden, is intimately involved in Ragnar’s conquests, fights alongside him, shares his ambitions. He has a very close and loving relationship with their children and is very involved in their upbringing – and values his daughter just as much as his son, and mourns her profoundly when she dies. The contrast in these different conceptions of marriage as partnerships becomes clearer when Lagertha leaves Ragnar, after he has a child with another woman (and fears he won’t be able to have any more children from her, and she doesn’t want to be part of a polygamous marriage). Her new husband attempts to subjugate her, doesn’t consider her his equal and insists that he alone makes choices about both their fates – it’s unclear if this is the average marriage in the society Vikings portrays, and if Ragnar and Lagertha’s marriage, like their perception of the world and their progressiveness in terms of ambition and goals, is more modern and the outlier, but either way, Lagertha resists and proves to be stronger than her new husband.
In the pre-Christianized (and more successfully resistant to Christianization than other parts of Europe) Scandinavia, myths play a big part in religion, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why it is possible for women to participate in the raids, while a marriage like that of Lagertha and Ragnar seems impossible to imagine in the early Middle Ages anywhere else in Europe, including the lands that Ragnar is keen to explore. The princess that Ragnar meets on business elsewhere and ends up having a child with is less of a partner to him, very conscious of hierarchical differences that she considers essential (while Ragnar, “first among equals”, never treats the others any differently after he becomes the new Earl), identifies herself through her family history, in which historical truths and myths already are impossible to distinguish, or irrelevant, only a generation later. She traces her origins back to Brynhild and Sigurd, while Lagertha’s father was only a simple farmer without a family name – she writes her own history (which seems fitting since the actual existence of Lagertha and Ragnar is rooted somewhere between history and myth as well, which gives the show some dramatic license). They are as themselves without history and without myths, there is no past that weighs them down with rank and expectation, so they are free to make their own – and in the process, transform Viking society, from a raiding but ultimately inward oriented society to one that will soon have a much broader sphere of influence.
If Lagertha and Ragnar’s otherness has a transformative quality in Vikings (and is often seen through the eyes of Athelstan, a Christian monk Ragnar captures on a raid and mines for precious information to sate his curiosity), that of Philip and Elizabeth in The Americans provides an outsider’s view of 1980s Reagan-era America, through the eyes of two deep cover Soviet spies. Trained specifically for the purpose of disappearing into American society and contributing to the Soviet Union’s Cold War effort from within enemy territory, they appear to be a perfectly normal American family – living in a suburb close to Washington, D.C., two children, both working in a travel agency. Apart from focusing on their missions – surveillance, assassinating defectors, elaborate plots to make sure that the USSR doesn’t fall behind in terms of military technology – the show is more interested in portraying the dynamics of their marriage, or more precisely, how emotionally authentic it is in the face of how it began. In the beginning of the show, Philip seems to be both genuinely in love with Elizabeth and less convinced by the ideology that sent him to the US in the first place (to the extent that he proposes they defect, considering they would know better than anyone else how to avoid detection and retaliation), while Elizabeth very much believes in the cause, and has a much harder time with the cognitive dissonance of the socialist ideology and raising two children in the very materialistic world (filled with the trappings of capitalism – when they first met each other twenty years ago, both were smitten with the existence of a AC unit in their motel room, a shared awe that somewhat lessened the awkwardness of the situation), without any knowledge of their parents’ other life. Even if their feelings aren’t genuine (or if Elizabeth is only realizing them now, decades later), the consequences of their marriage are very real, and embodied in their children, who were originally conceived as part of the plan of appearing more normal.
They are equal in their marriage in the sense of working towards the same goal, both using their minds and bodies to achieve their missions. Often, that includes (for both of them) seducing marks to get information or entrap them – and even being part of a second pretend-marriage, which Philip regards as more of an organisational than an emotional challenge. Since sexual monogamy is so inherently not part of their arrangement, The Americans raises the question of how their partnership works, what the foundations for it are since trust plays such an essential role. What does commitment mean if the marriage itself was arranged, not based on pre-existing emotions? What constitutes betrayal in a relationship that is based on acting and lies?
The answer is complicated, and will hopefully take another couple of seasons. The very fact of both of them constantly having to perform for others means that both of them also crave authenticity and honesty in their relationship with each other – a fact that Philip realizes when he finds out that Elizabeth has been having a serious affair with one of her recruits that includes an emotional intimacy she doesn’t – yet – have with him. What constitutes betrayal isn’t her sleeping with someone else, but being more open about her feelings with someone else, and discussing her relationship with Philip with a different partner. Equally she perceives him rekindling a very old relationship with a woman he knew in Russia as betrayal, because they left their past lives behind them and he doesn’t answer honestly when she asks him about the other woman. They constantly draw lines that are much more about their emotions for each other than what they do as spies, and sometimes the very premise of the show only serves to delve into these questions about trust, love and that moment when Philip and Elizabeth actually become the role they were meant to play. The first season leads them to a moment where they see eye-to-eye in terms of how they feel for each other, the second season confronts them with a threat to their family unit when another deep-cover couple is assassinated, which starts the much longer question of where their allegiance lies when their children are in danger, and how far away from their mission they will be willing to thread to protect what is worth most to them (a question they didn’t have to confront as long as the children were safely outside their secret world). Equally, their daughter’s quest to discover her parents’ secrets assumes additional meaning through the particular nature of that secret, but also works in the general sense of that horrible moment most children go through when they realize that their parents have – both inner and outer – lives of their own, even if most of them aren’t secret Soviet spies.
They look at the very world they inhabit with the skewed perspective of being raised outside it, and having a mission that is in opposition to everything they see (Elizabeth is more outspoken about this than Philip, who is more of a pragmatist, much like many in the Rezidentura) – and their marriage is contrasted with that of their neighbour, Stan, who works in the very part of the FBI tasked with uncovering people like his neighbours. Unlike them, his relationship with his wife is strained because he can’t share the details of his work with her, part of it is secret, part of it is difficult to communicate to someone who isn’t immersed in it, and he wants to protect her from the more grisly aspects of counter-intelligence work. The result is that there is a constant sense of alienation and distance between them. In contrast to Elizabeth and Philip, their marriage presumably is based on emotions, but with those feelings fading, and no shared ambition or mission, it falls apart as Stan starts an affair with an informant (who, driven by her own ambitions, becomes a double agent – the show is also very intelligently about observers being observed). Since Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage started as a farce, they are more conscious of what makes it work and what each of them needs out of it emotionally – after the struggle to retain it and claim it for themselves, it is stronger than ever (and just as they use sex in their work, the show uses sex to portray the change in their relationship). Stan is helpless when he realizes that his marriage is crumbling and looks for the emotional intimacy that he needs (also to balance out the horrors of his work) elsewhere, with someone who comprehends intellectually and emotionally what his work involves, even if she is playing him at the same time. Philip and Elizabeth’s intimacy is hard-won and all the stronger for it – the performance of the conventional, conservative marriage turns into a genuine emotional partnership, while the actual conventional marriage falls victim to the Cold War.
Vikings (2013-), created by Michael Hirst, starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, George Blagden, Clive Standen, Jessalyn Gilsig, Gustaf Skarsgård, Nathan O'Toole.
The Americans (2013-), created by Joseph Weisberg, starring Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Annet Mahendru, Susan Misner, Lev Gorn, Alison Wright, Holly Taylor, Margo Martindale.