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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
The Americans, on FX, is a brilliant period drama that recreates the 1980s with only minimal anachronisms but plenty of tension, plot twists, double-dealing and moral relativism.
The basic premise is that Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are Soviet illegals living in America – just outside DC – posing as a married couple that runs a travel agency (which must be doing well, because they are never there). They have assumedly been brought up in a secret training program that Americanizes them, because they have no accent or affectations. They are fully assimilated Americans (having been in the country well over a decade) and even have two pre-teen children (yet who is caring for and watching for the children when they are caught up in missions is something of an offscreen mystery – "I'll call the sites Philip says before one meeting").
Meanwhile, early in the series an FBI agent, who happens to be working in counterintelligence (spy hunting and countering KGB activities in the US) moves in across the street with his family. Improbable yes, but the whole premise is improbable if you look too closely (so don't!), and the coincidence does make for more interesting plot developments. So, why not?
Over eight episodes, several story arcs have developed, most revolving around the shades and varieties of loyalty – to state, to spouses, to agencies – and how they intersect and conflict with one another. The FBI agent falls for his mole in the Soviet embassy. The KGB learns about their mole and for a time even the Jennings are suspected, and tortured. Meanwhile, the Jennings try for a time to make their sham marriage into something real, only to realize they are both just too wrapped up in lies and deceit to know what is true any longer.
"We have to deal with all sorts of things in our work," Elizabeth says at one point, "and it requires that we be a certain way." Exactly.
Of course the line comes off better on screen than it does here in writing. Add to that some stylish filming and superb musical choices – Fleetwood Mac's Tusk during the first episode's chase scene was a brilliant choice, and David Bowie's Under Pressure at, well, you know, a tense moment – and it makes for excellent viewing. But for "mature audiences" only, because, you know, there's lots of sex in the world of espionage...
Certain facts had to be manipulated to make the plots work (not the least of which the fact that, to public knowledge, there were no illegals caught in the US during the 80s), but they are magnifications of the strange political realities of the Reagan era (and who remembers what really happend 30 years ago anyway), so they work.
A few episodes in, Star Wars and the effort to create a missile shield becomes the main focus of concern and operations for both sides, and there is plenty of fodder there. But mostly it is great fun to watch these agents struggling to crack conspiracies without the use of cell phones and the internet, or to watch a lovestruck mole drop a needle on an LP. Good stuff.
Now, eight episodes in, the plot lines are sufficiently developed and the characters well enough fleshed out that the main spy vs. spy tension is more of a set decoration than the main driver of events. Increasingly, it is tensions within each service – FBI agents suspecting other agents, KGB controllers setting one agent off against the other ("I know you'd throw yourself on a fire for the Motherland. Him… I'm not so sure."), wife and husband suspecting one another – that is moving things along.
And it all works: the too-perfect chameleonic disguises of the Jennings, the mostly native Russian of the KGB actors (a breath of fresh air), and even the tough-talking John Boy (er, Richard Thomas) as an FBI boss.
How long it can last is hard to say. After all, Star Wars was announced in 1983 and Gorbachev arrived two years later, and serious lessening of tensions was not far behind. But then, there will always be spies. As the KGB mole says to her FBI controller (played by Noah Emmerich, who one senses is going to have even bigger moral quandaries facing him soon – I mean, c'mon the safe house has got to be bugged, right?), pointing out that, while the FBI are basically cops who think like cops (catching bad guys and locking them up), spies think differently. For them, it is about keeping assets in place and milking them for everything they can get.
Here's hoping The Americans has plenty more to give.
Ambassador Jack Matlock had a front row seat for the final days of the US-Soviet Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. While working on his article, 1983: The Scariest Year (Mar/Apr 2013), Russian Life Publisher Paul Richardson conducted an email interview with Matlock, which is produced here in its entirety.