With “Better Call Saul” back on hiatus, FX’s “The Americans” is arguably the best TV show currently delivering new episodes. Yet as much as I love watching this blast of Cold War nostalgia, I sometimes feel as if I’m rooting for the wrong team.
Set in Reagan-era Washington, D.C., “The Americans” revolves around a pair of Soviet super-spies masquerading as a normal American family. By all rights, this series should not work as well as it does. The plot itself is preposterous, bearing as much resemblance to actual espionage as James Bond or Jason Bourne. The two spies – Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — can not only physically trounce any three adversaries, but are mechanical and technological geniuses, brilliant mimics, steady shots, masters of disguise, talented seducers, and ruthless killers. And they’re so attractive!
Further, if the premise of the show even began to approach reality, we would all owe Senator Joseph McCarthy a huge apology for his anti-Communist ravings. We are expected to believe that the Washington suburbs, numerous government agencies and several defense contractors are riddled with spies who consistently manage to outwit the federal investigators who are hot on their trail. Oh, and the FBI agent whose job it is to track down the illegals lives across the street from the Jennings.
The show works, though, because of its taut storytelling, great acting and deep dive into themes that cut across all eras and cultures. Like all good TV shows, “The Americans” is about many things other than the actual plot that drives the action: it’s a meditation on marriage, the immutability of sex, loyalty, patriotism, child-rearing — and, ultimately, making difficult choices.
And like all good spy shows, it’s about the difficulty of knowing the truth, in big ways and small. The Jennings lie constantly to the people they are recruiting, but also to their children and sometimes to each other. Their lying is so pervasive that we can’t figure out when they’re lying to themselves and to us. That’s why it’s so moving when Philip actually delivers the unvarnished truth to someone he cares about. It’s also why he attends encounter group sessions at est. Those sessions might be fundamentally bogus, but it’s one of the few places where he can be honest with himself.
Philip and Elizabeth keep making choices that are by any definition evil, and yet we keep hoping they succeed because we are so emotionally invested in them and their kids. I long ago lost track of the number of deaths they caused. Philip Jennings at least has the moral compass to regret the death of innocents and to push back against seducing 15-year-old girls, but Elizabeth is — let’s face it — a bit of a psychopath, who views the death toll as the necessary price for advancing worldwide Communism.
It’s this dichotomy between the two Jennings that has driven the dramatic tension for four seasons. Despite flashbacks demonstrating that the system has repeatedly let her down, Elizabeth is a committed ideologue who unquestioningly follows the orders of her Soviet overlords. By contrast, Philip LIKES it in America, regrets the people he’s killed, doubts the righteousness of his cause and is adamantly opposed to letting the KGB recruit their daughter Paige into the family business.
Because the show is set in the 1980s, which we know ends with the dissolution of the Soviet Union — in other words, with America winning the Cold War — we can elide our own moral queasiness at rooting for the Jennings. We know a happy ending is coming — if not for them, at least for our side.
“The Americans” tries to recreate the climate of anxiety that gripped the nation during the Cold War, but really succeeds only during the opening credits (see below), which, with its flashing images from behind the Iron Curtain, raises my level of paranoia 500% even 30 years later. I’m sure the producers are trying hard to depict the menace that everyone felt during that period, but they really only succeed in creating a Spy-vs-Spy atmosphere. Except for a few clips of speeches from President Reagan, you don’t feel the absolute urgency to beat the Communists that gripped the country even as late as the 1980s.
In the 1980s, the Cold War was still a global conflict involving proxy nations like Afghanistan, Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Without warning, the Soviets shot down an unarmed passenger airliner that accidentally crossed into their airspace. NATO installed Pershing II nuclear missiles in Germany, which many thought would trigger World War III. The U.S. started work on the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”), which would supposedly shoot down potential nuclear missiles before they reached the U.S. We boycotted the Russians’ Olympic games, and then they boycotted ours.
In other words, it was a dangerous time, but we only glimpse how high the stakes were during the scenes set in Russia, which feel gray and oppressive. At least the show doesn’t fall into the trap of making the FBI and KGB morally equivalent. The KGB is clearly more ruthless and amoral and at least the FBI never deliberately kills anyone, but they still don’t feel like the good guys.
I suspect that as we move toward the end of the series, the Jennings’ FBI neighbor friend, Stan Beeman, will emerge as the real hero of the series. Unable to express his feelings and conflicted about what his job has done to his family, Stan is actually an honorable man. Arresting the Jennings will probably break his heart — but with the Soviet Union hurtling to its ultimate demise, it’s hard to see how there is any other alternative awaiting these characters besides jail or a bullet to the head. And then we’ll know that the good guys did, in fact, win.