No significant series spoilers except where specifically marked.
FX Networks isn’t above capitalizing on Russia fever to The Americans’ benefit. In the week prior to the series’ fifth-season premiere, they took out ads in the digital edition of the New York Times that briefly translated the front page to Russian. Indeed, the timing of the show’s return would, on the surface, appear to be incredibly serendipitous; just as headlines and social-media chatter are abuzz with ominous proclamations of insidious Ruskie influence over American democracy, the acclaimed series about KGB agents disguised as ordinary American citizens would seem to be more timely than ever. That turns out to be true – but not only for the reasons one might reasonably expect.
For the uninitiated, The Americans concerns the early-to-mid-1980s adventures of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), real names Mischa and Nadezhda, covert KGB agents posing as travel agents operating out of DC. (The series is very loosely based on the exploits of real-life Russian spies who did indeed pose as American and Canadian citizens.) They have two American-born children who, as the series opens, are blissfully unaware of their parents’ true professions or national sympathies. Their neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich) works for FBI counterintelligence, whose efforts to sniff out covert Russian activity we also follow. A third plane of action involves the KGB actors at the Soviet embassy, particularly Oleg (Costa Ronin), whose quest to carve out a useful niche separate from his powerful father offer a window into the particulars of Russian corruption, nepotism, and plain old bureaucracy.
While the series’ peerless performances, tense setpieces, and dense plotting have helped to make it one of the most acclaimed on television, it’s remained curiously underwatched. Indeed, despite the new round of hubbub, its paltry ratings haven’t seen an uptick. That may be in part because the series doggedly avoids the sensationalism of 24 or the strained topicality of Homeland, and it resists the urge to make covert spycraft seem sexy or appealing. More daringly, however, The Americans exploits the natural phenomenon of audience identification to subtly hammer home one of the most radical points of view on TV: when it comes to global covert interference, no one comes out with hands unbloodied.
Throughout its five seasons and change so far, both the KGB and FBI have been depicted committing monstrous acts of terrorism, sabotage, and murder – some historical fact, most pure conjecture. Agents and supervisors on both sides constantly misread, overestimate, and underestimate the other. We spend a lot of time with Philip, Elizabeth, and Stan, often in the act of simply looking in the mirror in quiet contemplation of things they’ve seen and done. Flashbacks depict the Jennings’ early lives as hardscrabble kids in postwar Russia. Dozens of characters, many of them small players, are given long scenes to espouse their views on Russia, the West, and how their experiences have shaped their views on each. Most importantly, we come to understand all of the series’ principal characters both as tools of state apparatuses and as complex people wrestling with their choices and actions.
This is where The Americans’ core strength and radical focus lies, one that’s especially refreshing in the current political climate. Over its run, the series has developed a case for understanding state intelligence and counterintelligence operations (regardless of country of origin) as mercenary, witless forces of systemic corruption, acting out of pure self-interest even when its individual actors are capable of good judgment, compassion, mercy, and remorse. For anyone with a passing knowledge of violent, antidemocratic intelligence-community misadventures over the decades, this seems like an obvious conclusion to draw. Yet as I write this, ostensibly pro-democratic commentators openly yearn (as James Wolcott of Vanity Fair and others have) for the so-called “deep state” to subvert an election result they’re unhappy about. Moreover, the fevered finger–pointing at any and all US officials who have taken meetings with Russian officials reeks of an urge to identify foreign villains whose nefarious manipulation of American democracy can explain away how an open-faced monster like Trump could rise to the highest office in the nation. (The problem couldn’t principally lie, of course, with the overall failure of Trump’s opponent, herself under erroneous FBI investigation during her campaign, to provide a compelling alternative vision for a clear enough majority of ordinary Americans, because that would mean rethinking the entire Democratic Party ethos.) The fact that the conspiratorial Russia chatter is far eclipsing any discussion of actual US-caused civilian deaths overseas, themselves simply an extension of Obama-era drone campaigns, is perhaps a sign of how fervently liberals are thirsting for a foreign enemy to pinpoint their contemporary woes on to the exclusion of all other considerations.
What differentiates The Americans from other, more openly nationalistic contemporary spy stories (again, Fox’s 24 leaps to mind), and places it more in line with brutally unsentimental works like le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is its commitment to examining the human toll of counterintelligence work, which by definition replaces human will with national interests. The FBI and KGB’s respective missions corrode the souls of those who carry it out, even as each espouses the other’s evil with single-minded conviction. In the world of The Americans, as in ours, working for the state’s covert enforcement arm means all other moral and ethical considerations are bunk. Were the series set in the ’60s instead, we might have seen Stan helping to pen the letter urging Martin Luther King towards a lonely suicide, or enmeshed in some other nefarious COINTELPRO scheme. (Remember, this is the same organization that many modern-day liberals are hoping will precipitate the end of Trump.) He might well have protested, as Stan is, individually, someone who tries to be morally upright, but ultimately he’d have heeded orders, as the Jennings would were they handed down similarly monstrous orders. Ultimately, it’s they, and not the state, that carries the emotional and spiritual toll of such acts. Similarly, The Americans‘ second season features a sub-plot wherein an American counterintelligence effort dooms dozens of Russian sailors no nation was at war with, a fact that the Russian operatives (who unknowingly helped to pass along the poisoned intel) must carry with them indefinitely.
As depicted on The Americans, each state operative’s individual point of view is often defensible. Elizabeth in particular demeans American life and culture as aimlessly indulgent and counter-productively individualistic, a critique that rings true in the light of the failure of neoliberalism, the ideology that now drives the entire American project. Meanwhile, embittered Russian expats on the series bemoan the rampant corruption and destitution that drove them to dissent against their country in the first place. Stan might be part of the enforcement arm of one of the most corrupt American governments ever (the series coincides with the Reagan administration), but in his context, Russian operatives are murdering citizens and it’s certainly understandable that he wants to bring the perpetrators to justice. Behind all of the machinations on The Americans is a quiet recognition of the fact that state-sanctioned espionage and terrorism can only function because of the history of foreign misadventures and forced economic imbalances that foster the levels of enmity required for “true believers” to override any incipient sense of compassion within themselves in favor of horrific acts of violence.
Season 3 and up spoilers in the following paragraph.
Perhaps the most poignant representation of nationalism’s poisonous influence comes when the Jennings are forced to recruit their eldest child, Paige (Holly Taylor), into the true family occupation. As they instruct her on the finer points of spycraft, what they’re really training her for is the act of putting the requirements of a nation-state ahead of all other considerations, including the sanctity of human life. On The Americans, death and suffering are always subordinate concerns if they support tactical gains, even if those gains ultimately prove futile or illusory, and not even the holiest order of American life, the nuclear family, is immune from the state’s corrupting influence.
End of spoilers.
The poignancy of The Americans‘ take on the poisonous nature of violent nationalism is especially effective due to the natural effect of our growing personal affection for and association with Philip and Elizabeth as we consume the series. Other series have taken advantage of audience association to subversive ends (The Sopranos more or less invented this technique, developing a rapport between audiences and Tony in order to set up a punitive, adversarial relationship between viewer and viewed), but The Americans exploits this natural occurrence a little differently, getting viewers to not only sympathize for but actually take the place of The Other, while associating Stan and the FBI with the role of the aggressors, the ones who will effectively terminate the story (and the series) if they’re successful. As we watch Elizabeth and Philip struggle with the enormity of their actions, we find ourselves seduced by their plight even as they commit increasingly indefensible acts. The fact that they do so not only for country but in defense of their (uniquely American) family unit only amplifies the seduction.
Yet there’s another human dimension to The Americans that’s less despairing or cynical. In a recent sequence, Philip and Elizabeth are holed up in an Alabama motel room on a mission about to go violently wrong. Alabama (the band)’s saccharine country tune “Old Flame” comes on the radio, a cowboy hat is passed around, and the two tenderly console one another while succumbing to the irresistibly romantic, utterly alien (to them) pull of the music and culture they find themselves immersed in. If The Americans has an optimistic dimension, it’s that it’s possible, if only for a moment, to transcend the forces that seek to violently divide us in order to locate moments and sensations beyond the reach of state interference and influence. If we could forge stronger connections based on such moments and experiences of transcendence, we might be more popularly inclined to leave behind the superstructures that pit us against each other. Wittingly or not, The Americans argues that somewhere behind every tragically misjudged national agenda is a lost chorus of ordinary people striving to make their lives more liveable.