The Americans: the best and worst disguises from the cold war thriller

From frumpy 80s housewives and goths to a janitor who bears a resemblance to a certain Rust Cohle, the disguises on FX’s spy series have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous

  • Spoiler alert: do not read on unless you are completely up to date, or not bothered about spoilers

The Americans is back for season four, and what are we most excited to see? Philip and Elizabeth dealing with Paige’s betrayal? Stan’s suspicions about Martha coming to fruition? Someone finally remembering to cook dinner for poor Henry? No – we’re excited to see what new disguises Philip and Elizabeth are going to be rocking this year. There have been some absolute classics over the first three seasons. Who could forget serial-killer-janitor Philip? Or bespectacled child-services nerd Elizabeth? Or even sweet-old-lady Claudia? Here are our top five disguises that have caused more subterfuge and deceit than you’d see if Iago were a character on House of Cards.

Philip as Clark

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings as Clark
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings as Clark. Photograph: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Clark is more than just a wig and a pair of unflattering glasses: Clark is a way of life. Clark is such a convincing character in his own right that he can get away with naming himself after the most famous alter-ego in history and still not raise any suspicions. But, we bet Clark Kent wouldn’t be so willing to break out the karma sutra to keep his sham marriage from getting stale.

The scene when Philip de-Clarked in front of Martha was one of the show’s most unsettling. We’d almost forgotten ourselves that Clark wasn’t real, and watching Philip pull off that wig couldn’t have been weirder if he’d pulled off his face and revealed that he’d been Stan Beeman all along. The audience shared Martha’s pain in that scene – yes, Martha, we’ll miss the strangely kinky Clark too.

Claudia and Elizabeth as Clark’s mother and sister

Crimes against fashion: Elizabeth and Claudia
Crimes against fashion: Elizabeth and Claudia. Photograph: FX

Sticking with Clark for a moment: seeing him, Elizabeth and Claudia coming together as an all-American family was a seriously surreal moment. Not least because they all looked so believably related. Where could a guy called Clark Herbert Westerfeld have come from but such a hotbed of early 80s-style crimes? Look at those pastel shades! Look at those hairstyles! Look at those glasses! They’re glorious in their hideousness.

The whole thing made us wish that Claudia was given more opportunities to get dressed up, because she nails the conservative mom look. Elizabeth is the real star, though, for managing to look so meek and frumpy while watching her husband marry another woman. Amazingly, she even manages to stay in character later when Martha is drunkenly telling her all about how Clark is an animal in bed. Now that’s dedication to the disguise.

Ponytail Philip

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings as Rust Cohle’s cousin
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings as Rust Cohle’s cousin. Photograph: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

When Philip needs to take on Fred, the asset of deceased KGB agent Emmett, it’s absolutely crucial that he wins his trust. He decides to do so by dressing exactly like the old, alcoholic Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. Nothing creates trust like a limp ponytail and suspicious facial hair, right, Philip? The amazing thing about Ponytail Philip is that in all his years of wearing disguises, he hasn’t realized that a weird loner dude with a rat’s tail hanging off the back of his head tends to attract attention. Isn’t the whole point of a disguise that it stops people from looking at you? Or is he just hoping that the ponytail will absorb 100% of the stares, rendering his face utterly invisible? We admire your dedication to the ponytail, Philip, even if that ’stache did look a bit glued on. And remember: time is a flat circle.

Blonde Aviators Elizabeth

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings as cool suburban mom
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings as cool suburban mom. Photograph: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

All Elizabeth had to do was pick up a car. She didn’t know that FBI agents would be staking her out – she had no reason to double up on the disguises. All we can assume is that she just woke up that day and felt like being fabulous. That honey-blonde wig with the awesome flicks. Those movie star sunglasses. That late-70s-chic jacket. Elizabeth looks like Jennifer Lawrence playing Elizabeth in a big-budget biopic of her life.

Elizabeth spends most of the show looking like either a disappointed middle-aged woman or a sex doll. None of her vixen wigs look like real hair – they look like a drunk, horny man’s idea of what a hot woman should look like. But here, Elizabeth is totally owning her feisty spy prowess. No wonder Stan gets a good look at her and still doesn’t recognize her. No suburban housewife has ever looked this cool.

Goth Philip

‘Life isn’t fair, mom!’: Goth Philip in the cafe
‘Life isn’t fair, mom!’: Goth Philip in the cafe. Photograph: FX

We told ourselves that nothing could ever top Ponytail Philip or even Definitely Not a Natural Blond Philip. Then along came Goth Philip at the 11th hour, riding into town like a hero with a completist’s collection of Cure records. Has any man over the age of 19 ever had that hairstyle? No. But a little thing like that isn’t going to stop Philip goddamn Jennings from going full goth. Philip is a man of confidence: if he can believe the role, he can become the role. In those few short scenes in the diner, he’s not just a KGB agent capturing and torturing a South African terrorist. He’s a moody teenager, feeling pain like only a teenager can, wondering why his stupid kids won’t let him go out and have all the spy fun. Life is hard, and Goth Philip knows it. Goth Philip wears his pain like armor. Goth Philip is basically Batman.

The Americans is on FX at 10pm EDT on 16 March

Abigail Chandler

The GuardianTramp

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