How The Americans makes massive, global stakes incredibly intimate

How The Americans makes massive, global stakes incredibly intimate

Safe House,” the ninth episode of the 1980s-set spy drama The Americans, does something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen executed so well on television. In short, everybody gets everything wrong. Having gotten into an ill-advised altercation with FBI agent Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández), KGB agent Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) accidentally overpowers and stabs Amador, who was expecting to fight a nerdy bureaucrat and instead ended up against a spy. The FBI, thinking that Amador was taken in a coordinated KGB attack, instead of something that spiraled horribly out of control, nabs one of the KGB’s guys, but not the target it wanted in the first place. Things only get worse from there. Because no one’s aware of what’s happening elsewhere, everyone has to rely on what educated guesses they can make, and those educated guesses are almost always wrong. Both Amador and the KGB agent the FBI nabbed end up dead. Both were largely innocent within the context of the series’ larger story. And the blood spilled will almost certainly be repaid, maybe even tenfold. What’s fascinating is just how thoroughly these terrible circumstances are driven by the ways that the characters try—and often fail—to read each other, or persuade each other of their own righteousness. Politics—family, office, national, and global—are important on The Americans, but they’re never as important as interpersonal dynamics.

Easily the best new drama series of the TV season (really, only BBC America’s kicky new sci-fi series Orphan Black can compete), The Americans succeeds because it constantly grounds its sociopolitical story in an intensely personal story, a Russian nesting doll that seems only more appropriate when one considers the two central characters are Soviet spies. While doing press for the show, series creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields have hewed closely to the line that the show isn’t about spies or the Cold War or anything like that. Instead, they say, it’s about a marriage, one formed by a KGB edict that somehow became at once more real and more tenuous than marriages formed in more traditional ways. This is definitely true, so far as these press-ready lines go: At the center of The Americans is one of the most astonishing examinations of marriage on American TV in recent years. What’s interesting is how that reading of the show spirals outward. This is a series about spycraft and global geopolitics and Cold War machinations, sure, but it’s only about those things insofar as it’s about the relationships driving them. The Americans is constantly about how people let down ideology and vice versa.

This kind of bait and switch is typical in serialized drama series here in the second decade post-Sopranos. Mad Men distracts from all it has to say about gender relations with sublime production values and enthralling stories of corporate culture in the ’60s. Breaking Bad may be the most deeply moral series on television, but it hides all of that behind a veneer of dark humor and mordant thrills. Justified takes the case-of-the-week format of procedurals and the humorously twisted dialogue of Elmore Leonard, then layers it over top of a somewhat somber consideration of the costs of sin down through the generations. Homeland, no matter your feelings on the second season, essentially forces viewers to reconsider its main character’s mental illness by suggesting that, hey, she just might be right. And Game Of Thrones is nothing if not an occasionally painfully earnest consideration of the politics, power bases, and gender roles of the Middle Ages, filtered through a lens that includes dragons and decapitations. Using the trappings and pleasures of a particular genre to make sure the meatier thematic material doesn’t seem so much like eating vegetables is a time-honored pursuit.

Yet The Americans is doing the sort of thing that not every series can do right from the first. In its first season, the show increasingly tells stories where what it has to say about the pleasures and pitfalls of the American marriage is inextricably bound up in the spy stories and vice versa. In “Safe House,” I was particularly struck by the way that the rapidly expanding not-so-Cold War between the FBI and KGB is heightened even further by the fact that Amador only came upon Philip (in disguise as Clark) because Philip was using FBI secretary Martha for information, having struck up a relationship with her in order to get her to procure bits and pieces of data for him. Amador used to date Martha, and it’s clear he’s unable to put her behind him, even as he puts on the guise of someone whose only weakness is skirt-chasing for his partner, Stan Beeman (the electrifying Noah Emmerich). Amador’s personal weakness touches off an international incident. That’s almost always how it happens on The Americans.

To examine The Americans’ take on interpersonal relationships is to find a series that’s at once deeply cynical about them and strangely optimistic. Philip’s marriage to his assigned wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), is stronger and “more real” than Stan’s marriage to his chosen wife, Sandra (Susan Misner), and it seems this is mostly the case because Philip and Elizabeth have to constantly work at pretending to be married, so their guise became “real” somewhere along the way. And yet because of the fundamental shakiness of the Jennings’ foundation, it’s all the easier for the two of them to simply abandon any pretenses of loving one another when the chips are down. Elizabeth finds out Philip strayed with an old lover, and she calls for a separation. He all too readily grants it. This is just a mission after all, isn’t it?

The boundary lines between “the mission”—whatever that might be and not speaking strictly in terms of espionage—and the interpersonal relationships behind “the mission” are constantly made more permeable on The Americans. In the series’ strongest episode so far, “Duty And Honor,” Philip goes to New York for a travel agents’ convention. (In one of the series’ best ironies, Philip and Elizabeth run a travel agency, providing the capitalists they perceive as weak time in supposedly exotic foreign lands while they remain homebound, waiting for orders from far off. At the same time, modern viewers know travel agencies will be long gone in just a couple of decades, just like the Soviet Union Philip and Elizabeth are beholden to.) While at the convention, he re-engages with the aforementioned old flame, and his former lover tells him something devastating: He has a son back in the U.S.S.R., a son she was pregnant with when he left. Now, Philip, who has occasionally flirted with defection, has an even bigger reason to want the Soviets to succeed in the Cold War.

His lover tells him she’s ready. Philip leans back and begins to hit her, over and over. It’s part of a mission to frame a dissident leader for assault and rape, so that he might no longer lead a Polish separatist movement from outside the country’s borders. But it’s also a brutal, personal moment, a chance for Philip to legitimately express the anger and loathing he feels at being lied to. Later, when his ex-lover goes to board a train, he asks if his son is even real, or if he was played as skillfully as the Polish separatist leader. She answers ambiguously, and the episode leaves viewers with the thought that maybe it doesn’t matter. If the son wasn’t real to Philip for 20 years, why would it matter if he were suddenly real to him now? Rhys’ performance, the best on a series full of great acting, cracks just a bit to show the man beneath the hardened outer shell. Philip has become a series of masks, deployed at different intervals to keep the truth from others.

These moments of mask-wearing and mask removal resonate through every storyline on the show. Stan tells his wife about a colleague he was worried about at work, but he’s really talking about a Soviet mole he’s fallen in love with, almost in spite of himself. Elizabeth tries to put distance between herself and a former lover of her own, then forces him to keep an eye on her and her family, as if to rub in that her life with him was never more than something imagined, even if it felt very real to the both of them in the moment. Stan’s boss escalates the war between the FBI and KGB because of his personal ties to three FBI agents killed in an operation Moscow had called off. Elizabeth finds that the KGB has had Philip and her tortured to determine if either of them is the mole Stan has been using, then pummels her contact with a ferocity that goes beyond mere anger and into the sheer devastation she feels that this could be done to her in the name of a creed she believes in so deeply. And, yes, Amador launches an investigation that almost brings down Philip and Elizabeth simply because he’s driven by jealousy, unable to abandon the past.

Ever since The Americans launched, there’s been a fair amount of talk about how the show is tricky at getting the audience to “root” for two KGB spies. That’s true as far as it goes, in that Philip and Elizabeth are the protagonists and characters the audience understands and sympathizes with, but it doesn’t really involve a rooting interest. Stan and his FBI colleagues are just as well-depicted as Philip and Elizabeth, and there are heroes and scumbags on both sides. Even more telling here is the way the series is set in the early ’80s, when both Washington and Moscow were drawing ever-sharper lines between capitalism and Communism, between “right” and “wrong.” Yet The Americans never buys into this propaganda on either side. No, what The Americans is doing is far more interesting, particularly when considering how thoroughly rooted in interpersonal relationships it is: The series is arguing that ideology effectively doesn’t matter, because ideology will almost always be boiled down to two people, alone in a room, each trying to get the other to understand them. 

Each person may go in with the best of intentions, and may try to read the other, and may even know the other very, very well. But sooner or later, they are going to get something wrong, perhaps because someone has lied so skillfully it’s barely noticeable or because the need to believe forces someone to put blinders on. And that describes the relationship between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the early ’80s: Both sides are jockeying for a war that never came. But it also describes every marriage, every friendship, every long-term relationship going on in every quiet space around the world. Whatever the scale, massive or intimate, people are going to try to open up to each other or put things over on each other or sometimes both at the same time. And sometimes, they’ll get things wrong. Literal blood might be spilled, but in every case, the emotional wounds will take their time healing.

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