INTIMACY VS. COLD WAR POLITICS IN THE AMERICANS
by Alessio Franko
From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
“THIS MIGHT HELP you understand them a little bit, ” says Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), handing the teenaged Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital. The pastor is privy to a secret that Paige and almost no one else on The Americans knows: that her parents, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), are KGB agents posing as a typical American couple in their 1984 suburban home outside Washington D.C.
For a show about Soviet spies, it’s quite a feat to hold off for so long — until four episodes into its fifth season — before trotting out Marxism. Yet it is precisely through narrative restraint that The Americans has grounded its nail-biting suspense in rigorous historicity and psychological insight. Not a word or a look on The Americans is ever wasted, and while the Cold War backdrop was of global importance, the writers wisely keep the world of the show chokingly small. The Jennings’ spy missions always consist of meticulously managing a single detail — bugging an office, stealing a blueprint or a list of names, and so on. They never see the whole picture, and neither do we. The show mines its characters’ taut relationships for intimate, incremental developments rather than vaulting into Big Ideas or exotic new places.
The critical consensus has rightly identified that The Americans is not centrally about the espionage, the Soviet Union in its final decade, or the Reagan era in America. Rather, it is a show about marriage, family, and partnership, in a setting that highlights the importance and tenuousness of honesty in these arenas. Even the rise of Donald Trump has not significantly changed the experience of watching The Americans: The show has stayed remarkably consistent in its narrative style, overall aesthetics, and faithfulness to period in all five of its seasons, with characters and relationships driving the show.
In Season 3, however, after two seasons of rock-solid groundwork on the Jennings family — mother, father, daughter, and son, the parents running a travel agency as their front, while living next door to an FBI agent — The Americans opened itself up to weightier philosophical themes. These were punctuated by Reagan’s famous “evil empire” speech and by the devastation Philip and Elizabeth leave in their wake as spies. Then, in Season 4, their assassinations, fake marriages, and more balloon out into the world, as they are made complicit in both biological and nuclear arms races.
The current Season 5 injects more moral ambiguity into their work, however, by having our spies research a possible and plausible American plot to decimate the Soviet grain supply. This grey zone finally frees the show to make the Russians into the good guys (for now) and to move on from the question of evil. This has been a refreshing change of pace after two seasons that were focused on the Jennings’ struggle to convince both their daughter Paige and her pastor that, as agents of the USSR, their prime objective was to do good in the world. When Paige finally cracks the cover of Capital this season, she is where many fans of The Americans started when they watched the pilot in 2013: These people are Russian spies! Am I really supposed to root for them?
THAT SAID, if Russian spies and Reagan somehow strike us as timely references in 2017, so should Karl Marx. Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialist presidential campaign, focusing on universal healthcare, free college, and “political revolution,” had undeniable impact on the landscape of the American left and made him the most well-liked politician in America, according to nearly every survey. A growing number of younger voters now identify with socialism and believe it to a better, more just system than capitalism. If Paige Jennings had been born thirty years later, she would probably be signing up today for the Democratic Socialists of America.
Yet as we find out, Paige does not totally buy into Capital. She tends to agree with Marx, but reading him does not, as Pastor Tim seemed to have hoped, close the book on her ambivalence towards her parents’ work. “I want [Paige] to believe in something,” says Elizabeth. “I want her to care about things that matter.” In fact, this is exactly what Paige has been doing: After joining Pastor Tim’s church youth group, she chooses to be baptized and maintains an active presence in the church community. She participates in anti-war demonstrations and volunteers at a food bank regularly. Elizabeth and Paige both center their lives around justice, yet their approaches lack any common ideology. For Elizabeth, the world runs horizontally: Russia versus America, East versus West, left versus right. For Paige, everything is instead vertical: God and man, heaven and hell, good and evil. Yet when Elizabeth and Paige finally have a moment of mutual understanding this season, it is not over ideology, but over fear: both Paige’s fear of violence and Elizabeth’s fear of sexual violence, which she, as a victim of rape in the Soviet spy academy, has worked for years to overcome.
The show’s writers keep their distance from all ideology (sometimes at the cost of passing up real opportunities to explore interesting political and religious ideas.) Still, as impartial as The Americans may present itself to be, an intrinsic worldview shines through. The writers cleverly funnel the show’s most sincere and trenchant meditations through the least likely node available to them: the New Age EST seminars that Philip steals away to in private. What the EST guru tells the room in this season’s fifth episode speaks directly to Elizabeth’s difficulty with Paige:
Love. It’s all around us. But because we can’t see it, can’t experience it, it seems like it must be very far away. You can’t experience the love your parents have for you or you for your children, when old habits and belief systems, all the things your mind is telling you about who they are, who you are, stand in the way.
Unwittingly confirming this bit of insight, in her clashes with her daughter, Elizabeth takes a set of unexamined principles and makes of them a real barrier. If this sounds familiar to viewers of The Americans, it’s because making the fake real has been the core motif of the series since the first episode. Part of Philip’s and Elizabeth’s KGB training is learning how to “make it real” when they court and seduce their targets, and their own arranged “marriage” has spent five seasons sustaining damages to its intimacy. Still, that intimacy grows — even while the friendships and romances that they cultivate with their informants sometimes prove difficult to make unreal again, once their missions are over.
THE QUESTION at the heart of The Americans has always been: What in American life is artifice and what is real? Is it even possible to distinguish one from the other? If so, how do we go about attempting to live an honest, fulfilling life, free from constructed beliefs?
This question resonates with contemporary American life more than any plot point or set piece in the show. Election 2016 demonstrated, after all, just how overwhelmingly factionalized and “belief”-driven our society is. Reductive debates about whether race or class drove Trump’s support ignore the bland truth that most party-affiliated voters vote their party, whether or not they are satisfied with the ticket itself. In the days following the election, you could go onto YouTube and see videos of Team Hillary watching the returns, a heartbroken throng flooding the cavernous Javits Center, while in the news crawler below, young reactionaries spewed gleeful vitriol. But a backhandedly compassionate theme also came through the mass of comments: Now they know how we felt with Obama.
Our politics has become a zero-sum game. Democrats and Republicans are like adversaries in an intramural Cold War, where the only possible outcome is total victory for one half of the country and total defeat for the other half. We have awaited the arrival of American totalitarianism since January, but we have abided a dysfunctional, increasingly arbitrary electoral process far longer.
Another broad critical consensus about the The Americans has been that it moots the question of evil by placing the blame on both sides of the Cold War. There are no good guys and bad guys in a binary opposition, no clean hands. After learning that U.S. may be targeting the Soviet grain supply, we join KGB bureaucrat and nepotism beneficiary Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) back in Moscow, shaking down a family-run grocery store on suspicion that they are illegitimately obtaining superior produce. The KGB may not have a grand scheme to starve a country, but the differences between the White House and the Kremlin indeed seem minimal here. At the end of the day, the authorities in both lands seem to be exerting unilateral control of an entire country’s food supply, deciding who eats what, when, and how much.
WHAT IF, instead of showing how everyone is evil, The Americans is showing us how no one is evil? No one, that is, except the State. As anthropologist David Graeber reminds us, states are political and social constructs that exist only insofar as people acknowledge them — acknowledgements that are both seduced and coerced with a ubiquitous threat of physical violence.
Philip and Elizabeth’s euphemistic refrain to their daughter, “We work for our country,” evokes more than their covert information-gathering. It also encapsulates the cognitive work of making the State real, without which the illusion would crumble to reveal nothing more than a sky-high structure of domination.
From Russell’s and Rhys’ endlessly subtle performances, to the show’s unique ability to balance the thrilling with the quotidian, we have plenty of reasons to remember The Americans after it concludes next year with Season 6. But its true legacy may still be emerging. In a cultural moment enamored of grand, eye-popping television dystopias like The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale, The Americans makes a strong argument that to understand the political, we must first understand the personal. As another EST adage from Season 4 puts it, too many of us “love the cages we make for ourselves.” In this season and in this year, The Americans reminds us that we don’t have to love those cages — that we are all free to embrace the inconsistency between what we believe and how society compels us to act.
Alessio Franko is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago.