The Americans: A Show About Patriotism, Murder, and Marriage

Andrew Findlay

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

The Walking Dead Has Become a Show About Nothing



Alex Russell

The Walking Dead is pulling in 12-15 million viewers a week consistently. For perspective, that’s roughly seven times more than most episodes in the last season of Breaking Bad. The last 21 in a row all had more viewers than the finale of Breaking Bad. I use that show because it’s on the same network and because the difference should be shocking. Breaking Bad was certainly a niche experience that blew up into the one thing everyone you knew talked about, but the finale was appointment television. It is very likely going to be remembered as “the show” of this generation of television.

I say again: more people are watching The Walking Dead, on the same channel, in the slow season than the most-anticipated episode of the most exciting show of this generation.

The Walking Dead isn’t a bad show. It’s a pretty exciting show, for starters. If you’re not one of the tens of millions tuning it, it’s a show about zombies attacking people who survived the end of the world. Scattered groups of survivors interact with zombies and learn the eternal lesson that even after a more obvious threat emerges, the ultimate villain is always man.

It’s tough to label it innovative, because that paragraph both A. made your eyes glaze over and B. describes the entire world of The Walking Dead. If you want zombie television, you’ve found it. It looks like all the other zombie stuff you’ve ever seen: dark, brooding, lonely, and violent. Sometimes the groups meet other dangerous groups. Sometimes they make tentative friends. Sometimes they attempt to live a normal life. It’s all of the challenges of the end of days mixed in with the challenges of every day. Cool. Check. Got it.

But the most common complaint lobbed at a drama that’s nearly 50 episodes deep holds especially true for The Walking Dead: nothing happens.

It feels ridiculous to say that about a show that features people losing limbs and family members by the month, but the show has a habit of bogging down. A new group will show up, we’ll meet everyone, some people will get character (and some won’t), some people will die for a reason (and some won’t), and we’ll rinse and repeat with a new batch. The setting changes a little bit and poor Andrew Lincoln has to teach a whole new group of people the true meaning of friendship.

The show was loosely following the plot and characters from the graphic novels of the same name, but now it’s on its own. Sure, people want to see people with big swords and big guns blow up clearly-evil zombies, but you need a hook. You need to care, or you’re just making pulp. Is there any reason to care?

Seinfeld has famously been called a show about “nothing.” The point was that it was to show how people really interacted when they were at their worst, because Larry David thought everyone was most honest at their worst. The Walking Dead would buy that line of thought, but it also seems to buy the idea behind the classic comedy, as well.

The most recent episodes of the show have seen the cast divided up after a terminal event at the mid-season point. Everyone is split, which is fine, but everyone is also battling their own hopelessness in a dead world. If it sounds like that’s an easy way to slip into darkness, well, yeah. This show’s closet is always full of a lot of blacks and grays, but right now we’re in an even darker place than normal.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It helps to reset the expectations: Civilization, as we know it, is over. It’s been enough time since the zombie outbreak that everyone knows help is never coming. Everyone’s seen death and loss in droves. It’s definitely time for a glass-half-full outlook. The darkness isn’t what stagnates The Walking Dead, though. It’s literal non-movement.

For two solid hours two characters hole up in a house and wander around the enclosed space. There are elements of people that are revealed and we, as an audience, see our humanity through their choices… kinda. For the most part people just wander around the same dirty, dead spaces and don’t do anything. It’s supposed to remind us that there’s nowhere to go and there’s no hope, but at a certain point that starts to feel like, well, nothing.

Seinfeld was funny because the cast was a reflection of our true selves. The Walking Dead succeeds when it shows us that we are all at a loss in a tough situation. I’d never tell you that Seinfeld missed a step, but the whole idea was to go out on top. The Walking Dead seems to have made every point about humanity that it has to make. It’ll keep demolishing in the ratings because it is entertaining and well-made visually, but the story is about nothing now, and that’s certainly not intentional.



Image source; NY Daily News