The Cold War is an intriguing period of history. Rather than being a war in the conventional sense, it was an era of international one-upmanship. Like two chess players who have whittled each other down to the kings and are now going around the board in circles, the Cold War consisted of a series of events and smaller ‘wars’ which raised or softened tensions. The previous half of the century had consisted of two world wars, millions dead and some of the most horrific crimes known to man. Understandably then, neither the United States of America nor The Soviet Union was eager to engage in yet another all out total war. In the end, there wasn’t even a clear victory. Those chess players simply got bored.
The Americans, airing on FX, takes place during this time period and concerns two KGB agents who are sent to America to enact undercover missions. Their covers for these missions are as an American family with a house and children. The show takes place in the 80s with flashbacks to their lives in the KGB and during their initial arrival in America. It’s an interesting premise and not one that has really been done on American television before. There have been films involving sleeper agents disguised as average citizens and some televisions have hinted at the possibility. Mad Men takes place during the Cold War but never really concerns itself with espionage. Pan Am had espionage and air stewardesses but it purely from an American perspective and never really involved agents masquerading as normal, everyday people. More recently, Elementary featured a single case in which a man was revealed to be a KGB sleeper left in America whose daughter the Russians were trying to recruit. Again, however, that was mostly from the American’s perspective.
What I find most interesting about The Americans is that it doesn’t approach the subject from the point of view of the FBI trying to uncover the KGB spies. Instead, it places the Russians as the main characters and asks the viewer to sympathise and relate to them as they try to avoid detection and carry out covert missions. This is effective as you really begin to root for these characters and hope that they don’t get caught. It helps that the story and the characters aren’t as simplistic as ‘commie plot to take over the beautiful land of the free’. These feel like real people with real desires. The husband, Philip, played by Matthew Rhys, is idealistic and can see that American isn’t so bad. But yet he is willing to forgo orders and even kill for his fellow agent. There’s the very real sense that having lived with his wife Elizabeth, played by Keri Russell, for so long that he has actually begun to fall in love with her. In one scene he listens to a voice recording but in prelude to the intelligence it’s clear she had sexual relations with the mark. On the one hand, she had to do it to gain access to the information but it is utterly heart wrenching to watch Philip listen to it.
Elizabeth is the Scully to Philip’s Mulder. She is colder, harder, more rational and more capable of compartmentalising the aspects of her work and her life. It doesn’t bother her to use sex to gain Intel and then go home and play the role of the wife and bake brownies for the FBI agent and his family who move in next door. She is perfectly capable of living in America and still being loyal to the motherland. The only times that she shows any real emotion is when she put under considerable pressure or confronted with moments from her past, such as when she tries to kill the KGB captain who raped her. It’s a momentous moment then when she does open up to Philip and break command by telling him about her life prior to the mission. This is further explored in the second episode when Elizabeth tries to bond with her daughter, showing that she might be adjusting to the ‘normal’ life more than she’s willing to admit. The second episode also presents an opportunity to see Philip in the role of the seducer but, true to character, he seems to revel in it less than Elizabeth seems less bothered by it, bar one side-remark about how pretty the mark is.
As for the espionage side of things, don’t go into this show expecting James Bond style missions with big guns and hi-tech gadgetry. Their missions involve much more subtlety and are generally about staying one step ahead of the other team. For instance, the second episode’s mission is basically about setting up a wire in a room. Granted, it’s a high ranking official and the methods used to get the wire into the room are questionable and immoral, but in the end, that’s all that has really been achieved by the two agents. As the same time, the FBI is recruiting employees of the Russian Embassy to spy on their high ranking officials. It’s a very realistic portrayal of what the presence of enemies on American soil would actually have been like. There are no big shoot outs, just little baby steps in a massive game of cat and mouse.
Interestingly, both sides use black mail to get their way in the second episode but what really makes the difference is how the agents react. The FBI seems to think nothing of blackmail and theft in order to get what they want. On the flip side, Philip and Elizabeth’s blackmail is much more brutal and morally reprehensible. They poison a boy and blackmail his mother into planting a listening device. However, much like the aforementioned Mad Men, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have good intentions even if much of the time, they don’t do good things. Philip cries in the car after the blackmail and the entire ordeal convinces Elizabeth that there are actually things the KGB shouldn’t ask them to do.
If a tension filled drama with some humour and action scenes sounds like something you would like, then I’d certainly recommend The Americans to anyone who is considering it. Despite being about KGB sleeper agents living in America it is never overly political to the point where one might get lost, but instead the plots are thoroughly character driven. It is a show that wants the viewer to become invested in the struggles of Philip and Elizabeth and so far it’s working.