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A Salute to Lesser TV Siblings

Henry from ‘The Americans’ is the latest in a long line of window-dressing children on high-concept dramas, but before you steal his Apple Jacks in annoyance, let us — and the showrunners who created him — convince you that Henry and his ilk actually deserve to be celebrated

(HBO/FX/Showtime/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/FX/Showtime/Ringer illustration)

On a recent episode of the ongoing fifth season of The Americans, each character confronts the type of existential obstacle that one would expect from a show about Soviet sleeper agents living double lives in Reagan-era America.

Philip and Elizabeth, fresh from killing a lab tech who could have identified them, try to seduce two targets whom they believe to be plotting to starve the Soviet Union. Oleg, a former KGB agent who’s returned to Moscow, gets squeezed by the CIA, while FBI agent Stan risks his job to diminish the pressure on Oleg. Mischa, the son from a previous relationship whom Philip has never met, smuggles himself out of Yugoslavia in a hidden car compartment so he can go to D.C. and find his dad. Paige, Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter, wrestles with guilt and anxiety after deciding to spy on her pastor, who almost unmasked her parents in an earlier season. And Henry, their growth-spurting son, discovers that the family is out of Apple Jacks, then goes to school hungry after Elizabeth fails to apply a proper helping of jam to his toast.

One of these story lines is not like the others. As usual, the outlier is Henry, the aggressively normal adolescent who doesn’t realize that he’s living at the center of a storm.

Henry is the latest in a proud lineage of lesser TV siblings on suspense-driven, high-concept series. The average American married couple has two kids, which means that to mirror real life, many TV families must also include two kids. Some dramas — Billions being the latest and greatest example — reduce those kids to Downton Abbey–esque window dressing, inserting them into the occasional scene to remind us that they exist but never requiring us to know their names. Others, though, make kids integral components of the plot. But because there’s only so much time for kid stuff in series with such high stakes, it’s almost inevitable that one sibling — often the older one — will assume a more prominent role and leave the other out of step with the story.

“We’ve noticed the pattern, and I think our analysis is very similar to yours,” says Americans co-showrunner Joe Weisberg on a call that also includes his colleague Joel Fields. “Even if we see a pattern like that, we try to not pay any attention to it, because we don’t want what we’re doing to be driven by other shows or what has or hasn’t happened in them. So we weren’t going to run away from this and cram Henry in to make sure that we weren’t following in a pattern.”

The Americans distinguishes itself from most other binge-bait by literally marrying its character development to its life-or-death thrills; it’s a show whose climaxes and cliffhangers are as memorable for their relationship ramifications as their momentary spikes in excitement. Thus far, though, Henry hasn’t been the beneficiary of any of that careful character work. Paige’s promotion to A and B plots has come at a cost to Henry and to actor Keidrich Sellati, who by my count accumulated 9.2 seconds of screen time in the first three episodes of this season combined. True, Henry more than topped that in the fourth-episode breakfast scene alone, and he really broke out in this week’s fifth episode, which dropped the stunning revelations that he’s (a) surprisingly good at math and (b) being moved into Algebra II. (By Henry-story standards, this was almost as momentous as Philip and Elizabeth finding out that the lab tech they killed was innocent, or the heartbreaking moment when Mischa learns that he has to go home before meeting his father.) But one might reasonably wonder what purpose Henry and his equally obscure counterparts on other shows are serving, and whether only children wouldn’t be better fits for TV families.

Well, wonder no more. I’m here to tell you that Henry and his ilk actually deserve to be celebrated, for the following four reasons — one for every scene Henry has appeared in during this season so far.

They Don’t Get in the Way

“Children should be seen and not heard” might be a backward parenting philosophy, but it’s an attitude many viewers share when it comes to the kids on their TVs. Spending time with a TV family is a lot like visiting someone else’s family in real life: The kids are cute in short bursts, but you’re happy that you don’t have to deal with them for more than a few minutes at a time.

In sitcoms, the cuteness (and catchphrases) of kids can be a big draw. But in plot-driven dramas, we want answers to the big questions. In The Americans’ case, that means wondering whether the Jennings clan will ever recant, be caught, or develop a convincing disguise. (Actually, Philip’s most recent disguise came close.) Devoting more time to the junior Jenningses means less time in which Philip and Elizabeth can be snapping someone’s neck, having sex with strangers/second wives, or narrowly eluding disaster.

Like my colleague Rob Harvilla, I’m pro-Paige, whose occasional sullenness is understandable in her situation, and who’s shown incredible restraint and filial loyalty in not exposing her parents to the authorities as the misguided monsters they are. But your mileage may vary on Henry’s big sis, whose do-gooder devotion to others and doubts about her boyfriend don’t deliver the same dopamine hits as the show’s guilty pleasures. Every Paige scene has a high opportunity cost.

Henry, however, isn’t going to get in the way of Americans consumers. He’s going to sit quietly in the corner, playing computer games at his tiny desk and only occasionally complaining about breakfast.

(FX)
(FX)

Have you had enough of Paige’s guilt-ridden romance with the boy next door? Did you think Homeland OD’d on Dana Brody’s doomed fling with Xander or her hit-and-run conspiracy with the vice president’s son? Henry is the TV sibling for you. He isn’t a screen-hog, and he’s definitely not going to judge the actions of more interesting characters. To express disapproval, he would need to have lines.

They Provide Occasional Comic Relief

When a character is neglected long enough, their anonymity and frequent absences from the screen become a running joke for fans. Witness the moment in this week’s Americans when Philip and Elizabeth learn that their rarely seen son has obtained an actual character trait.

Who could forget Henry’s spiritual ancestor/descendant, basketball soothsayer Chris Brody? Actually, almost anyone could, because Chris was barely on Homeland. While Dana worried about whether her father was a terrorist, Chris just wanted to watch his Washington Wizards and have some huevos rancheros. Eventually, he became known for being told to leave the room, just as Henry has achieved internet notoriety for his family’s frequent explanations for why he’s never around. Each new reference to Henry’s hidden life off camera feels like a nod to longtime viewers who’ve learned the language of the show.

“We are very aware of it, but I don’t think it ever got to the level quite of inside joke,” Weisberg says about the many mentions of Henry’s ever-changing whereabouts. “Because I think for us it just seemed natural that a kid that age would be gone all the time. So I think the fact that it’s funny was more pointed out to us, but when it was pointed out to us, I don’t think we resisted that. We were like, ‘Oh yeah, that is kind of funny.’”

Both showrunners observe that the Jenningses not knowing where Henry is also helps place the show in an early-1980s period of laissez-faire parenting, before cellphones and kidnapping scares made it seem possible and imperative to know where kids were at all times. “My parents never knew where I was,” Weisberg says. Fields adds, “In a way, that question — ‘Oh, where’s Henry?’ — we try to do as a throwaway, because I think I imagine that’s how my mom or dad would go ‘Oh, where’s Joel?’ ‘I don’t know, he’s at so-and-so’s house.’ ‘OK, whatever.’”

They’re Easy to Identify With and Contrast With Other Characters

Most Americans watchers are more like Henry than the rest of his family. I’ve never been an undercover agent for a foreign power or discovered that my parents secretly spoke fluent Russian. As a result, I’m constantly questioning the actions of every other Jennings. Why are you working for the Soviet Union when your own flashbacks make it seem so awful? Why don’t you dread going to church as much as I did when I was 15? What makes you think those jeans look flattering?

But Henry? He just wants to start his day with a square meal, do well in school, spend time with his friends, and plant himself in front of a screen at every opportunity. I see so much of myself in him. He’s the one member of his family who’s not consumed by concerns or hiding anything abnormal for his age (aside from his algebra skills), and his apparently carefree existence drives home how unfair it is that Paige has so much on her mind. Henry is the typical teen she could have been if her parents took being travel agents more seriously. (“We think if you’re a client, they probably take good care of you, but boy, I wouldn’t want to call them in an emergency if they’re not available,” Fields says about the couple’s travel-agent abilities.) And while most of us aren’t related to undercover agents, Henry’s obliviousness to his parents’ true nature reminds us that even our closest companions hold hidden truths.

“I think from the beginning of the show, there was this sense that [Henry] was apart,” Weisberg says. “Paige always had a darkness to her, and a heaviness to her, and a way that in that sense, you could almost feel almost a ‘Russian-ness’ to her that made her like her parents, whereas Henry was kind of a happy-go-lucky, as we always thought of it, ‘very American’ kid.”

That division has only deepened as Paige has been pulled toward her parents while Henry has continued to be barred from the Jennings circle of trust. “As soon as Paige found out the truth, suddenly she was yanked into her parents’ secret sphere, and Henry unknowingly — unconsciously, he clearly feels it — is outside of that,” Fields says.

Henry’s existence signals that we’re watching a real fictional family, which grounds the show’s improbable premise in a world we all know. Thanks to his cameos, however infrequent, I can imagine myself as a Jennings despite the family’s unique circumstances and nontraditional take on work-life balance.

They Add Useful Complications

Henry doesn’t do much to propel the plot forward, but his sporadic appearances add constraints that the other characters need to navigate. For instance, if Henry is home, his parents and sister can’t speak freely about spy stuff (which could be why Henry seems to be home less often than ever as the series approaches its Season 6 endgame). Plus, having to parent Henry (however half-heartedly) makes the juggling act Philip and Elizabeth are attempting seem even less manageable. Not only do they have to protect their homeland from the “Rotting West,” make sure the FBI agent across the street doesn’t detect what they’re doing, and assemble some attractive packages at the travel agency, but they also have to talk to Henry’s math teacher and apply inadequate amounts of jam to his toast. It’s enough to make any couple kill an innocent lab tech or two.

Remember Nasir’s brother on The Night Of? No? Well, he had one, and his name was Hasan. In those heady days of speculation last summer, some Redditors theorized that Naz’s brother could be responsible for Andrea’s death. That was crazy, of course: As a lesser TV sibling, he was destined to stay in the background. But even in the background, he made minor contributions. Naz’s actions had consequences for his non-law-breaking brother: Hasan lost his laptop, was picked on by bullies, and got expelled from school. Naz’s brother was basically a blank slate, but his featurelessness allowed writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian to convey the cost that Naz’s actions had inflicted on his family.

In Henry’s case, the costs are not really knowing his parents, running out of cereal, and worse, not getting to go to Disney World. Life isn’t easy for lesser TV siblings. But our lives are better because of them.

Fields and Weisberg won’t say whether Henry hiding his math skills is a prelude to more meaningful secrecy and a belated introduction to the family business. But Weisberg says to expect “a bigger role” for Henry in the rest of Season 5, which will test his happy-go-lucky veneer.

“I think the question that remains looming as we approach the final ending of the show [is] what’s under that, and will that crack or not,” Weisberg says.

Maybe there’s still hope for Henry to achieve sibling screen-time equality.