Given the bizarre state of ethnonational rhetoric in US politics since the (dare I say?) unsavory rise of Donald Trump to the office of the Presidency, I thought it would be worthwhile revisiting a short piece on the show The Americans that I wrote for another venue. If you’re not familiar with it, The Americans, which is set in 1980s Cold War America, follows the lives of two deep-cover KGB agents who have been posing as natural-born Americans for decades. With two children who were born in America with no idea that their parents are anything but average Americans, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings—the identities they assumed as the “Americans”—speak with perfect American accents and try to raise a perfectly normal suburban family, even as they surreptitiously lead the lives of top-level secret agents spying for the Soviet Union.
The most fascinating aspect of the show for me has always been how compellingly it steers viewers towards siding with Philip and Elizabeth. Whatever one’s ethnonational loyalties, however monstrous Philip and Elizabeth’s lies may seem, and however awful the acts they commit may be, the show’s lens being squared firmly on the couple’s everyday lives makes it difficult not to be sympathetic toward them. As such, the show seems to me to have a sophisticated take on the way nationalism actually works: by compelling you to filter events through a particular frame of reference, nationalism shapes your reality in profound ways.
Spies are an especially apt subject for such dynamics. The show Blackadder made marvelous use of the subject of spies to offer cogent commentary on the way nationalism irrationally influences our moral judgments. In the episode General Hospital during the World War I era run of the series, the patently mad General Melchett responds with polar-opposite commentary on the moral character of spies, with his views depending entirely upon the side for whom they spy. When German spies are mentioned, the British general, foaming at the mouth, ejaculates, “Filthy Hun weasels fighting their dirty underhand war!” In the very next moment, when “our spies” are mentioned, the General loudly pronounces, without missing a beat or delivering a trace of irony, “Splendid fellows! Brave heroes, risking life and limb for Blighty.” The absolute partisanship of nationalism, which sees the same sort of person—the spy—as villain or hero depending only on nationality, is made hilariously clear by the ridiculous Melchett.
I was reminded today of The Americans, not so much by my recent acquisition of the Season 4 DVD, nor by its fifth-season return, but due to the bizarre ways in which our current political climate has made its intriguing work to both humanize Soviet spies and to subtly align viewers with their interests seem so…prescient. Never in my life would I have guessed that a Republican administration would have rocketed to power on radically pro-Russian policies, with a then-candidate inviting Putin’s personnel to hack his opponent’s email and undermine the democratic process. It really seems like a looking-glass world we are inhabiting right now.
Don’t get me wrong: I have found a lot of the anti-Russian rhetoric that has lately been permeating mainstream media to be disheartening, reactionary, and dense. As a great admirer of Russian culture, and as someone who has been slowly (but I hope surely) trying to learn the language, I find much of the knee-jerk rejection of anything Russian to be a grotesque inheritance from the Cold War US paranoia (in which I was raised, by the way). That many of my relatives came (way back when) from Russia and / or Ukraine also contributes to my skepticism concerning much of the mass media tendency to provide reactionary caricatures of Russian culture rather than honest communication about its current world.
It is nevertheless striking for me to see the Republican Party, which has so often wrapped itself in the mantle of rabid pro-American identity, to be suddenly interested in nuanced analyses of Russia’s role on the global stage. It is as if older worries about Russian territorialism as a constant threat to America’s own global ambitions have been instantly dissipated, with pragmatic skin-saving overriding deeply held prejudices and loathing. As it seems increasingly likely that there were not simply minor, but actually concerted Russian efforts to deploy both hacking and fake-news propagation to tilt the balance in favor of Trump, it is fascinating to watch the right-wing of United States policy suddenly find itself in the position of allies to a nation-state that has often been portrayed as its greatest rival.
In observing the strange goings-on in Trump’s scandal-wracked administration, I have often resorted to cheap jokes as I vent my frustrations on my favorite venue for micro-statements of anxiety—Twitter. For example, I can hardly be the only one who came up with a version of saying that Trump’s Russian actions make me wonder just which side Trump roots for in Rocky III, or to pull one-liners about the urgent need to protect our “precious bodily fluids” from Dr. Strangelove, or to make affectless remarks about what a warm and wonderful person Jared Kushner is à la Manchurian Candidate. The list of cheap cultural jokes could be multiplied.
The Americans, however, struck me as one of the more fascinating cultural developments that has been running eerily parallel to the Republicans’ unseemly executive alliance with Putin’s state. Might, I wondered, the fascinating invitation to relax one’s partisan biases and to see war and espionage form the perspective of the other, executed so consistently powerfully in the first few seasons of The Americans, have in some way eased the way towards Trump’s unsettling pro-Putin politics?
This is all a long preamble for my decision to post here that article I wrote some time ago, on the subject simply of recommending people to watch this interesting show. So, here goes:
Humanizing the Cold War: The Americans
Set in the chilly Cold War atmosphere of early-1980s America, The Americans offers a consistently compelling spy story. If you haven’t yet seen this thriller about KGB agents living as Americans, you still have time to discreetly binge-watch the first four seasons before it returns in 2017.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are KGB operatives living undercover as married travel agents in Washington, D.C. Speaking with perfect American accents, they lead a seemingly normal life as the parents of two young children, Paige and Henry, even as they conduct dangerous espionage operations. As Philip and Elizabeth become friends with counterintelligence FBI agent Stan Beeman, Cold War tensions bring anxiety to all those involved in FBI and KGB operations.
The Americans is a first-rate espionage show that powerfully captures the paranoia and uncertainty of the late Cold War. Considering that the show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, was a CIA officer, it is no surprise that the show features a high degree of authenticity in its presentation of 1980s intelligence operations. Central to the show are Keri Russell’s and Matthew Rhys’s powerful performances as the married spy couple: while managing to make their extraordinary espionage skills believable, Russell and Rhys allow their characters’ emotions to bring depth to both their personal and patriotic pursuits. Other standout performances in this wonderfully cast show include Taylor’s thoughtfully anxious Paige, Costa Ronin’s confidently skeptical agent Oleg Burov, and Annet Mahendru’s emotionally conflicted agent Nina Krilova. The show is particularly successful in compelling you to witness the Cold War through both Russian and American eyes. By devoting significant space to the lives and work of Russian-speaking agents, and through carefully managed flashbacks to Elizabeth’s and Philip’s pasts, The Americans humanizes the Cold War by placing Soviet desires and fears right alongside American hopes and anxieties.