Why The Americans Is the Quintessential Spy Thriller for Our Anxious Age
The Cold War is the comeback geezer of dramatic genres, the original, minatory “Winter Is Coming.” The genre that gave us doomsday nail-biters (Fail Safe), let-it-rip satire (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), cold-sweat fever dreams (The Manchurian Candidate), and penitential studies in betrayal (The Spy Who Came In from the Cold) went moribund almost overnight after the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989. “The Evil Empire” that President Ronald Reagan decried had lost its bear claws and the fearful hold on our imagination that, later, Islamic terrorism would so ably resupply. People began to express nostalgia for the simpler days of arms races and superpower standoffs.
But with the rise of Vladimir Putin, the former K.G.B. lieutenant colonel and judo master whose mirthless smile projects a Stalinist chill, the Cold War genre emerged from retirement. A spate of films with an authentic restoration patina ushered viewers back to the good-bad old days of microfilm, floodlit checkpoints, and sinister loitering under the lamppost: The Good Shepherd (2006), loosely draped on the life and career of sepulchral spymaster James Jesus Angleton; Bridge of Spies (2015), Steven Spielberg’s rich mahogany docudrama about the U-2 spy-plane incident, with Tom Hanks representing truth, justice, and the American way as only he can; and Atomic Blonde (2017), a kinetic thriller set in 1989 Berlin that serves primarily as a fight club for Charlize Theron at her most stylishly badass as she disaggregates enemies with gun, blade, and stiletto heel. Whatever the qualities of such movies, however, they can’t match the roomy stretchiness of long-form television, which does a superior job of immersing character, motive, and decision-making under a prolonged tight-focus stress test, the actors becoming so intimately familiar over time that we can read their faces, parse their pauses, share their apprehension. The surveillance culture of Stasi, the East German intelligence operation, continues to exert fascination, as witness Deutschland 83 (SundanceTV) and The Same Sky (Netflix), both excellent. But the Cold War retro that means the most to us here in the land of the free and the home of the nervous is, of course, The Americans (FX), which is kicking off its final rotation this month after five seasons of spying on the Defense Department, outfoxing the F.B.I., seducing vulnerable targets, cramming corpses into suitcases, and modeling a flotilla of unflattering wigs.
Created by Joe Weisberg, a former C.I.A. officer, The Americans could have easily been played for dark irony, an inversion of family values. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings—Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell—and their two offspring, Henry (Keidrich Sellati) and Paige (Holly Taylor), present a brochure image of a perfectly balanced nuclear family, with Elizabeth an MTV-era update of wholesome TV mom Donna Reed. But this mom and dad, when not attending parent-teacher conferences, are Russian agents, a coupla Commies, whose marriage was arranged as part of their work-snoop-slay on behalf of the motherland. Expert infiltrators, they report to a handler, who for a number of seasons was the rabbinical Gabriel (Frank Langella), offering soothing words of comfort and guidance as he passed along instructions from Moscow Centre. Living across the street is an F.B.I. counter-intelligence agent, Stan, played with his usual sneaky, beaky canniness by Noah Emmerich. (He and Philip become buds, popping brewskis and shooting the breeze the way buds do.) The contrast and conflict between the spiffy appliance shine of American optimism—“They tell you everything, but when you see it, it just seems brighter,” remarks Philip in the pilot—and the bruised depths of the brooding Russian soul contend in every episode, abraded by the constraints of time management. Only so many hours in a day, and it’s tough making sure the kids attend to their homework before heading out to plant a bugging device in some adulterer’s hotel suite. To be an ace spy is to master the art of compartmentalization, and with each new season of The Americans the compartments multiplied as the mission load increased—so much collateral damage (poor Martha, poor Nina), so much accumulated guilt, and so much to keep straight when they’re flipping from one alias to another like quick-change artists. Moreover, The Americans doesn’t settle for a binary showdown between capitalism and Communism—stars and stripes versus hammer and sickle—but complicates its clash of creeds by introducing the granola idealism of Christian outreach, personified by the insufferably folkie Pastor Tim, and the extreme, cut-the-crap individualism of Werner Erhard’s est movement. The est meetings with Philip and Stan sitting like parishioners are among my favorite scenes in the show because they seem the least plot-integral, inserted because the creators found them compelling, a dissonant break from the overarching obligations of answering to one’s masters. These est interludes speak to the sense that, whichever side you’re on, you’re being held captive by the misery you’ve chosen.
Where most spy dramas concern themselves exclusively with the mental toll of remaining undercover, the morale depletion over time, The Americans lays a heavy stress on the physical trauma—the literal body blows. What makes The Americans the most contemporary of spy dramas, despite its Reagan-era setting, is its centering of the female body as predator target and battle zone. As a self-defense fighter, Elizabeth is a far fiercer punishment inflicter than Philip, and not just because of Russell’s dance training; her ferocity in close combat—the velocity of her strike force—is character-driven, a fury rooted in violation. In a flashback in the series pilot, Elizabeth, a young trainee in her native Russia, is pressed facedown to the floor and raped by a K.G.B. operative, who tells her years later, before he gets his neck rotated permanently out of alignment, that forced entry with the trainees had been one of the perks of his rank. After ditching his remains in a wastewater pool, Elizabeth and Philip go at it hot and heavy in the car, as aroused by murder as an itchy James M. Cain couple, nailing the nexus of sex and death that animates their animal senses. Pain and pleasure are often indistinguishable in The Americans: the horrific extraction of Elizabeth’s broken tooth without anesthesia (since an emergency trip to the dentist might blow her cover) was photographed with a writhing intimacy and intensity that was like a pain orgasm, two pairs of eyes locked in unholy communion. With each season, Elizabeth’s physicality becomes more balletically gaunt, more bone-shadowed, more of the scaffolding on which the show hangs.
THE AMERICANS CENTERS THE FEMALE BODY AS PREDATOR TARGET AND BATTLE ZONE.
It is the female body in peril and resisting force that bonds Elizabeth and Paige, despite the usual mother/teenage-daughter frictions. In the pilot episode, we see Paige, only 13, being rapily eyed and verbally slathered over by a hulking dude who seems to collect under-age girls as trophies. It’s hunting season on the young and vulnerable. Years later, she’s scoped as fresh meat by a couple of muggers who converge on her and her mother—in a flash, Elizabeth coldcocks the first and, when the other pulls a knife, disarms him and slashes him across the throat with his own blade. This isn’t something you pick up taking self-defense classes at the Y. Paige is stunned, confused, and yet impressed, as any good daughter would be at discovering her mother is Kali reborn. Once Elizabeth begins coaching Paige in kicking, punching, and blocking to protect herself on the street, it’s a preliminary lesson in grooming her to become a Russian operative herself, a homegrown, sweet-faced, wide-eyed little traitor. For this farewell season, The Americans hops ahead three years, to 1987, where we’ll witness Paige carrying on the family tradition of spycraft and deception under Elizabeth’s tutelage, elevating Take Your Daughter to Work Day to a whole nother existential dimension. Kids, they grow up fast, and before you know it they’re helping you hoist a body into the back of a van.
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