The Americans is a relatively new show that FX broadcasts on Wednesdays at 10. The general premise is that the Soviet Union successfully placed a significant number of covert agents into the United States. These are not just commandos with accents, but exhaustively trained and elaborately I.D.’d infiltrators. They are selected young and spend years training in combat and the normal spy stuff, but also learn about American culture and cultivate a flawless, accentless command of English. Then, they are placed in a normal, unremarkable cover life somewhere near a point of interest for the Soviets.
The two main characters, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, have been living in the Virginia suburbs around D.C. since the 60s. Before the start of the show, things had been slowly becoming more and more peaceful, to the point where the Jennings barely had to do secret agent stuff anymore. However, the 80s and Reagan roll around, and all of the sudden they are again fully active and have to run around doing shit for the glory of Lenin.
They are deep cover agents, and the intricacy and strength of that cover generates most of the complications of the show. They are dedicated to the ideals of universal freedom for all mankind as interpreted by their home country, but they also run a travel agency, live in a big house, and have kids. The kids part is really messed up – their children do not know what their parents really do, so these two super-spies are deeply, immovably in love with two red-blooded American schoolchildren. They want to bring down the corrupt and bloated American autocracy, but their children, whom they adore, are 100% supportive of it. The mother, Elizabeth, the violently atheistic Soviet operative, almost goes insane when her child starts attending Bible study with a group of friends and cannot even explain to her own daughter why it makes her so upset because that would compromise her cover. They are also neighbors and family friends with Agent Beeman, a G-man who works in the counterintelligence department of the FBI.
Hey kids, we’ll be home late tonight. Mommy and Daddy have to blackmail a government official.
Most of the pleasure of watching the show comes from the friction generated by the mismatch between their American and Soviet personae, which, after two decades in the States, have begun to bleed together. The American side of the Americans is not simply a mask – is the part of Philip who loves his son and enjoys driving a fast car the “fake” part of him? Is he 100% okay with the side of him that murders people for a cause? On a less psychological level, it’s also great to see them switch flawlessly from American citizen into frighteningly competent Soviet operative. Elizabeth gets pulled over and has something compromising in the car with her? She plays the distraught wife to the cop until he gets close, then beats the shit out of him when it becomes clear she can’t cry her way out of it (I might have made up this particular incident, but stuff like it happens all the time). Watching the split-second transition from smiling, amiable, and confused civilian to a machine designed to collapse your trachea is good television. I talk a lot about how audiences love watching terrifying, almost superhuman competence on-screen (Breaking Bad, Doctor Who), and that dynamic is strongly in play here. The central pair of the series is frighteningly competent at any number of things – disguise, decoding, deception, dismemberment. They can do it all, and they can do it all really well.
Left to right: Normal look, bureaucrat disguise, smarmy dude disguise. The disguises are really great, because of course they’re the exact same person, but that’s the thing – you only need to change a little bit of how you look to throw off any attempt to make a police sketch of what you actually look like.
The conflict, the tension, and the spy stuff are only part of why this show is so good. In the end, this show is about a marriage. Elizabeth and Philip met each other only after they started training and became “married” only as part of their implantation into the USA. They have a marriage certificate, sure, but it’s forgery by the KGB, like the rest of their lives in America. This creates a really weird, stressful dynamic between the couple. On the one hand, they have lived together for two decades and that creates a definite bond, but on the other hand, their marriage is simply a tool to help them undermine the peace and prosperity of the United States. As deep cover KGB officers, they are not allowed to speak Russian, nor are they allowed ever to mention any detail of their lives before they came to America. This means that these two people sharing their lives with each other know almost nothing about how or where those lives started. Another item complicating things is that Philip has been more seduced by the American lifestyle than Elizabeth has. For example, Philip would betray the USSR to protect his kids, whereas Elizabeth would betray her kids to protect the USSR (she says). The progress of the show is their journey as a couple, working on their trust and emotional issues in the midst of the incredibly stressful reality of their lives. This stumbling in the dark to find out who they actually are and what they actually mean to each other is very rewarding to watch.
This is a three-minute recap of the pilot episode. It gives a really good idea of what I’ve been talking about this whole article.
Finish the article, watch the pilot recap, then decide if The Americans is for you. I love this show. It’s full of well-plotted suspense and action, it has a complex, compelling central couple, and it constantly assaults preconceived notions people hold about identity, appearance, and reality. It’s a free country thanks to Reagan so you can choose for yourself, but you’d be making a big mistake not to check this out.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.
Images: The Guardian, IMDB