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Friday, 22 October 2021

OPINION: The Americans: Why this overlooked TV classic had me rooting for the "Evil Empire"

Over six seasons this espionage thriller dredged the psyche, setting the bar for character development and quietly changing the face of TV. Get ready to root for the “Evil Empire”

First aired Wednesday 30th January 2013 on FX

*The show's first two series actually aired on ITV on a Saturday night but the series didn't attract an audience and the third and fourth series were moved to ITV Encore. The show's fifth and sixth series didn't air on terrestrial television in the UK.*

The series also made BBC Culture's Top 100 Greatest TV of the 21st Century. It came in at number 8 seeing off competition from the original series of The Office and Succession

 Contributed by Amar Patel 

*Contains gratuitous spoilers so bookmark this, go watch the show then come back for the afterparty.*

In 1983, then US president Ronald Reagan addressed the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando. In his speech, he compared America’s Judeo-Christian traditions to the Soviet Union’s totalitarian leadership, condemning the latter’s lack of religious faith and calling it “the focus on evil in the modern world”.

 It was as close as he had come to an outright declaration of war against his bitter adversary, who he had accused of running against the tide of history “by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens” less than a year earlier. Their conflict would come to define a decade and made nuclear annihilation a palpable prospect for citizens on both sides.

 The topic dominated popular culture, themes of thermonuclear anxiety and the end of humanity running second only to sex on MTV. Who could forget the groggy Spitting Image of Reagan hitting the nuke button in Genesis’ ‘Land of Confusion’? Or Men at Work saying ‘It’s a Mistake’ with not a hint of irony as Soviet and American generals played soldiers. As for ‘Two Tribes’ with its ominous air attack warning, well, Frankie Goes to Hollywood just had to hit you over the head with it.

 So why am I taking you back to the brink of oblivion? It turns out that imminent Armageddon provides a compelling backdrop for one of the best TV series of recent years. But not as you might expect it. The great ruse of The Americans is to cloak a relationships drama in the attire of espionage.

Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are KGB sleeper spies living in suburban Washington, posing as travel agents while fulfilling missions for Mother Russia at the tail end of the 70s. This is a deadly effective duo, now deep into their second decade of service, but we quickly sense there is a distance between them.

Elizabeth is unwavering in her devotion to cause and country. Philip, tormented by a harsh, impoverished childhood, likes the trappings of capitalist America (cowboy boots, Camaros n’all) and contemplates defecting as early as season one. The marriage, once a cover, has become romantic but ideological differences and their chaotic, traumatic lives threaten to drive a wedge between them.

If any of this sounds familiar that’s because it happened in real life. Back in 2010, ten Russian “illegals” (as they are known in real life and on-screen), were arrested in the US in Operation Ghost Stories. Their capture prompted DreamWorks to invite Joe Weisberg to develop a show.

Weisberg had trained as a CIA case officer in the 90s and immediately jumped at the chance. Speaking to Guardian in a piece about one couple that was apprehended (Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, aka Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova), he said he wanted to put family at the heart of the show.

 One of the interesting things I saw when I worked at the CIA was people lying to their children,” he said. “If you have young children, you can’t tell them you work for the CIA. And then, at some point, you have to pick an age and a time, and they find out that they’ve been lied to for most of their lives. It’s a difficult moment.”

 And we see this come to pass in The Americans as the Jennings’ daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) begins to suspect that her parents are not who they say they are. As the show progresses, she becomes a pawn in the ideological tussle between mother, father and country, while also trying to reconcile her religious faith with the birthright she has been burdened with. *If I have piqued your interest by this stage I urge you to seek out the series before I spoil it further.*

Elizabeth and Philip’s anxiety about telling Paige who they are is amplified by the bloody fate of their fellow agents Emmett and Leanne in season two. Their son Jared was being groomed to become a spy by the Centre (KGB HQ in Moscow) but after his parents dismiss the idea he kills them and his sister Amelia in their hotel room. (MIC listed the slaughter as one of the nastiest ever kills in the show, and that’s saying something.)

Co-showrunner Joel Fields has mentioned that another objective was to humanise the demonised – to show that the other is just like us. Aja Romano wrote a really good article for Vox about embracing anti-heroes in the context of Disney. How cheering on the likes of a vengeful Cruella de Vil, exploring their backstory, allows the audience go beyond a two-dimensional world of good vs evil while also being able to “safely transgress social mores”. To be able to “find ourselves in narratives where many of us continue to be shunted to the side or rendered invisible”.

Here is a couple that often disagrees with, and disappoints, one another. They are parents who are scrambling to do their jobs while neglecting their kids. Son and daughter are growing up too fast, craving answers, kicking out for independence (Paige certainly). Sound familiar?

For all the killing these two do for their country – and believe me, this show has it all, from strangulation to stabbing, decapitation to dismemberment – there is a relatable yearning for a quiet life, happiness and fulfilment amid all the chaos.

The show does a great job of harnessing maximum tension from split loyalties (to country, spouse, family, friends) and the psychological toll of committing despicable acts and keeping secrets. As Brian Moylan wrote in the Guardian, rather than focusing on the personal path of exploration of a Don Draper or a Tony Soprano, The Americans is more expansive. “It’s about each of us and how we adapt to this country, accept its values or reject them. [It’s] focused on the common man, not one exemplary antihero whose conflict we’re supposed to be conflicted about.”

 Yes, the cat and mouse and the constant fear of capture keep us on the edge of our seats. But the real engine of suspense is inner conflict. How a state of constant deception, living a life of multiple lies, corrodes the soul.

As early as the pilot, we see the complex tangle of emotions between Philip and Elizabeth. When Philip strangles Colonel Timoshev (David Vadim) after learning that he raped Elizabeth while she was a trainee, it’s as if their sham marriage has been consummated in that one brutal moment. She feels closer to him, but you need only look into Philip’s eyes to realise the damage inflicted in trying to prove his love. A recurring condition throughout the series.

In fact, Philip is the moral conscience of the show, his countenance a plethora of afflictions. He becomes increasingly haunted and sickened by what he has to do on these no-questions-asked missions. Elizabeth is more unwavering, in comparison, and obedient in her actions. That could be because she is often more engaged in subterfuge than slaughter. We don’t see her kill until season three. Meanwhile, Philip’s body count just soars. 

 Aside from Timoshev, he eliminates three people at close range while on a mission to a rebel training camp which goes wrong in season two episode eight (Martial Eagle). At the end of season three, he murders a hapless IT assistant from the office of FBI Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas), faking his suicide to deflect suspicion from secretary Martha (Alison Wright), who is unwittingly supplying information.

Then there’s the unfortunate death of innocent lab employee Randy Chilton (Brian McCarthy) whose body is broken in half. Not forgetting how Philip comes out of retirement to help Elizabeth in Chicago during season six, and what he has to do with that axe. His loyalty is to her and his family first – country second. So yes, you could say Philip has more than his fair share of trauma to deal with.

The Americans is at its best when it fans the fug between reality and fantasy and we see both agents beginning to merge with their covers. Philip mines his real life for the backstory of internal affairs investigator Clark, how he has failed as a partner and feels ill-equipped to be a father.

In the guise of pot-smoking Jim Baxter, he avoids sleeping with Kimmy (Julia Garner) (the young daughter of a CIA Afghan group head under surveillance) by saying he is serving Jesus like his actual daughter Paige who’s just been baptised. Jim later confides in Kimmy about the son he has never met (a nod to Philip’s other son Mischa), which helps to manoeuvre their relationship into a more platonic space.

Inspiration also cuts both ways: Philip uses his time with Kimmy to try to improve his relationship with Paige (he buys her the Yazoo LP, which the similarly aged Kimmy had been listening to).

Elizabeth also draws from her real life. In The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum notes how painful memories are used to create intimacy just as much as clever role-playing. “The show’s trickery has an added layer: we’re watching actors give brilliant performances as actors who give brilliant performances. In one of [season two’s] most fascinating sequences, Elizabeth manipulates a virginal naval cadet to get classified information. At first, it seems to us, her other audience, that she’s unable to pull off the seduction of someone so vulnerable. ‘I’m really blowing this,’ she whispers, tearful, as they embrace – and then she rushes away, trailing excuses.

 “At home, when Philip asks about the case, she says, ‘Piece of cake.’ It turns out that she’s setting a trap for the soldier. She’s playing a woman who was raped, to make her target feel protective, so he’ll steal classified files. There’s a palpable complexity to this, because she’s duped us, too.

 “As the viewer knows, Elizabeth’s rape didn’t make her skittish: if anything, it steeled her as a true believer. And yet, as much as Elizabeth is playing a role – a shy classical-music fan in a pale-pink sweater – she’s also describing her real-life assault, and then playacting a new outcome, in which she is open and fragile, and a man comes to her rescue and comforts her.”

While on the subject of role-playing … With so many aliases and lives to skittle between it’s easy to lose sight of not only who you are in your partner’s eyes, but also wonder who you want them to be for you. The BDSM scene mid-way through season two is disturbing but intriguing. Martha has told Elizabeth that Clark is an animal in bed. When he returns home one evening, a curious Elizabeth beckons him over while he’s still in disguise and they begin to kiss. But it all feels too normal. “No, I want Clark!” she protests and “you’re not being him”. In anger, Philip complies and becomes rough with her, causing Elizabeth to break down. Jealousy has fractured many a couple but the Jennings’ case is rather extreme. When you are trained from day one to use sex as a tactic (to “make it real” as Philip described to Elizabeth), you might not know what genuine affection feels like in moments of intimacy.


Late in season four, we begin to see the first real signs of conflict in Elizabeth after she sabotages her one true friendship and wrecks a family. As Patty, she pretends to have slept with Young-Hee's (Ruthie Ann Miles) husband and become pregnant. This gives Philip leverage to blackmail him for level-four clearance at his work, where the deadly glanders virus is being developed. Patty disappears after that, but in a poignant scene Elizabeth parks outside Young-Hee’s house to check on her. The home is vacant.

Elizabeth often gets the job done with little hesitation, which annoys the more compassionate Philip who thinks she needs to think for herself more and not just take orders. There is no better example of this than the fate of Martha, who is forced to flee the US for Russia to avoid abduction by the FBI and compromising the Jennings. Having married this vulnerable woman (a tactic used in Western Europe according to ex-KGB spy Jack Barsky) and encouraged her to bug her boss’ office among other treacherous acts committed over multiple seasons, Philip’s conscience is killing him.

In season four, episode eight, tensions rise in the Jennings household. Elizabeth is acting like nothing happened – just another expendable target – while Philip is almost haunted by what he’s done to Martha. They dredge up old flames such as Gregory (Derek Luke) and Irina (Marina Squerciati) before Elizabeth lashes out at Paige for skipping bible study and thus arousing further suspicion from Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) “Thanks to what you did, [your relationship with Tim] is all that stands between us and this family being destroyed,” she roars.

What that aftermath is really about is sacrifice and doing whatever it takes to protect your family, even if others get hurt along the way. It’s easy to misconstrue Elizabeth’s clinical nature as callousness. What we are seeing is someone whose loyalty to country is paramount, family notwithstanding. It can’t be questioned. (Do that and you’ll get pasted like handler Claudia (Margo Martindale) in season one.) But that loyalty – let’s call it what it is, ideology – occasionally either clouds her judgment or suppresses her empathy.

Morality is a curious topic in a show that features copious murders and flagrant deception. Where is your line? When you believe so strongly that what you are doing is right, things can get pretty ugly. This is well conveyed in a scene during episode nine of series three where Elizabeth forces Betty (Lois Arlene Smith), who comes in late at night to do her son’s accounts, to swallow an entire bottle of prescription medication. As Betty begins to fade she admonishes Elizabeth, saying her insistence that “she’s making the world a better place’ is what “evil people tell themselves when they do evil things”.

These layers are what make the show so compelling, and the leads in particular. The Americans is a detailed character study just as much as it is a nuanced portrait of marriage – cracks, smears n’all. As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for The Vulture way back during season one, “His [Philip’s] sensitivity and alert warmth balance her cool remoteness so perfectly that we’re lulled into thinking there’s nothing more to either of them — and then we see how vulnerable she can be, and how vicious he can be, and how fantastically great they are together when they’re surrendering to their reptilian brains. They don’t seem like abstractions on a page but real people who’ve been married so long and been through so much that they can’t live with or without each other.”

 

Of course, there is a fabulous supporting cast who each play their part, led by the brilliant Noah Emmerich as work-obsessed FBI agent Stan Beeman. Emmerich is a master of understated acting. He does so much with so little, for instance, the facial tick that means Stan is feeling the strain of the world but can’t even begin to articulate that feeling (#emotionallyunavailable).

Beeman moves in next door to the Jennings in episode one and almost immediately has suspicions. Yet we have to wait until the season six finale for a showdown, by which point he’s messed up his marriage, had an affair with Directorate S employee Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru) and played a critical role in sealing her fate, developed a touching bromance with Philip and become Henry Jennings’ surrogate father.

Stan’s relationship with Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), cocksure head of Directorate X, is a rare ray of hope as it shows that two people on opposite sides can unite for a common cause. In this case, an attempt to save the woman they both love. Nina is from a humble background and is just trying to make a better life for herself but instead becomes a casualty of war.

Burov eventually leaves the KGB and returns to Russia where he goes on to investigate corruption in the Soviet food industry and then work on urban planning. He is a progressive and the death of his brother, a soldier, without military burial has made him sceptical about the war. He also seems to have his own mind and moral compass. For him, it’s a matter of principle, not ideology. That’s why he gives Stan information on the glanders virus because he believes Russia isn’t ready to handle a bio weapon of that power. In return, Stan warns off the FBI from trying to turn Oleg in season five. They look out for each other in a low-key manner.

Music is such a crucial element in this show, and many of the defining moments that stay with you are because of the deft interplay between sound and cinematography. How these songs, though there may not make literal references to the scenes or vice versa, are the perfect choice to evoke and intensify what the characters are feeling.

 The Americans has given me a new level of appreciation for Peter Gabriel and the epic, austere overtures of ‘Here Comes the Flood’ are the perfect bed for a season two montage where we see Elizabeth torching the revelatory letter she promised Leanne (Natalie Gold)15 years earlier that she would give to son Jared. Cut to the other Jennings leading their splintered lives, satellites in their own orbits, and the message is clear: it’s not perfect but you do what you have to do to survive.

 Roberta Flack’s lamenting ‘To Love Somebody’ feels like it was written for the spurned Gregory in season one as he would rather face a shootout with the police than live without Elizabeth or flee to Russia. A dramatic and bittersweet counterpoint to the firefight on screen.

As a statement of intent and grand ambition, the use of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ in the opening of the pilot is right up there. The underscore subtly evolves into the song as Elizabeth and Philip give chase during a nine-minute sequence full of twists and turns.

Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ turns up the heat later in that episode. Here’s Den of Geek encapsulating the mischief and bravado that occasionally surface in this show: “Philip and Elizabeth dispose of a body and then bang like teenagers in their car. It’s the perfect introduction.” That’s entertainment.

The darkroom scene towards the end of season five carries such psychological menace and malevolence. Paige has got a taste for espionage and has taken photos of Pastor Tim’s diary, against the wishes of her parents. As Philip and Elizabeth develop and hang each frame in that Luciferian red basement, we see how the pastor burrows deeper into their minds, speculating on the damage they are causing Paige. How he has never known evil like this and wonders whether she will ever be able to trust anyone again. The way the scene is cut to Bauhaus’ ‘Slice of Life’, the shifting tempo mirroring their mounting dread, is just great filmmaking.

 And I can’t not mention the finale with an extended and spliced version of U2’s heart-pounding ‘With or Without You’. The mood is already tense with the Jennings on the run, very sparse dialogue and viewers biting their nails as papers are checked on the train between an exchange of awkward glances. The way Bono comes back in on the “oh-oh-oh-oh” coda just as Elizabeth spots Paige and beats on the glass was sorrowful but very satisfying.

The Americans dialled up the Cold War mythology a little too much for some experts. Jack Barsky himself said that being an agent was “95% waiting, 5% action”. His missions certainly weren’t as sinister as those of Phillip and Elizabeth. Stealing commercially available software hardly gets the pulse racing. (Barsky was threatened by the KGB at one point if he didn’t return.)

But it's a TV drama, and series after series, they mine the psychology of being under deep cover. They also succeed in evoking the spirit of the times, which was charged by mythology, both in the USSR and in the West by a Conservative right-wing who positioned America as that ‘shining city on the hill” under attack from within.

The showrunners were obsessive about detail, ably assisted by the costume and make-up (how about those wigs), art, production and other departments. Weisberg talked about the importance of authenticity at ATX Festival in 2018. “The last thing we ever wanted was for people to say this doesn’t add up, this doesn’t make sense. Because our biggest fear is that whenever you have that, it punctures the world of the story and you drop out of it. So we would really go to any ends to find out anything and close any loop.” 


Aside from Barsky, Fields and Weisberg recruited Keith Melton (founder of the International Spy Museum) as a technical adviser. And the Moscow-set scenes were translated “in actual, idiomatic, living Russian” by Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who has been writing about Vladimir Putin and other modern autocrats for two decades. 

 In a piece for The New Yorker, Gessen detected the greatest lie at the heart of The Americans – that the USSR would last for eternity. Look at Elizabeth’s devotion. Why else would she go through all of this, if not for a cast-iron belief in the cause? When we leave the spies in 1987, gazing from a bridge at an asphalt grey and snow-white Moscow skyline, they are obviously shellshocked, in grief but optimistic as they have to be. “We’ll get used to it,” says Elizabeth in her mother tongue.

 “She has no idea what she’s talking about, says Gessen. “The first quasi-private businesses are about to open in Russia. In two years, the Eastern Bloc will disintegrate in a quick succession of velvet and not-so-velvet revolutions. In another two years, the Soviet Union itself will collapse following a failed and fumbling hard-line coup. In the year in between the collapses, thousands of people will line up to eat at the first McDonald’s in Moscow.”

Is this what she and her husband fought for, sacrificed so much for? Putting aside, national and political allegiances, The Americans cuts so close to the bone, into the marrow of life and our conflictions, it is impossible to not be deeply affected by its depth and scope. You don’t need to be a Soviet spy, a parent or even someone leading a double life of sorts, to empathise with these characters. The writing and acting are that good.

Then, after its probed our minds and challenged our preconceptions and loyalties over six series and five years, Weisberg, Fields & co hand over the story to us, its bereaved audience, to speculate. Is Paige following in her parents’ footsteps? Will Henry be OK? Are Philip and Elizabeth kingpins of the travel industry in the new post-capitalist Russia? Is Stan sleeping with the enemy? Does he even care? Will Martha take revenge on Philip/Clark in Moscow or is she still clinging to hope of a happily ever after? I’m still immersed in this universe and it’s a wonderful place to be.


The relationship between parents and children is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the climax. Should the Jennings ever reunite, would the damage be irreparable, their relationships irreconcilable? My thoughts turn to the Guardian interview with Tim and Alex Foley – real-life Paige and Henry living a lie for so many years with their parents, the illegals Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova.

They were denied Canadian citizenship because of their parents and this made Alex resentful. He says he wonders why his parents decided to have kids at all and then captures the futility of their efforts in one sorry sentence. “I am glad they had a cause they believed in so strongly, but their choices mean I feel no connection to the country they risked their lives for. I wish the world wouldn’t punish me for their choices and actions. It has been deeply unjust.”

But Foleys or not, they are the same people who raised them lovingly regardless of the secrets they kept. In 2019, the sons were granted Canadian citizenship and have reconciled with their parents. We wait to see what becomes of the Jennings. In the meantime, all six series are available to stream on Amazon Prime or Disney +

The Americans didn’t receive Emmy recognition until its final season in 2018. And there have been endless other series fighting for viewers’ attention since then. Few people I speak to have watched it, though critics do rate it highly. Why is that, particularly when Putin’s Russia and espionage as such ominous spectres in modern geopolitics? Is Netflix such a crucial arbiter of zeitgeist entertainment? (The show was produced by FX.)

Sonia Soraiya argued in Salon that The Americans is polarising. “For every person who says it’s one of the best shows on television, there’s another complaining that it’s “boring,” “cold,” or even traumatic. This is not just an acquired taste, it’s an acquired distaste, too.”

The New Yorker’s Joshua Redman called it the “whisky sour of television shows” and few could match its “combination of genuine sadness and muted, mordant hilarity”.

"Sounds delicious, doesn't it? Another round!

The Americans is available on Amazon Prime and Disney + in the UK

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You named all the actors except Pastor Tim. Who was he?

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