Aaron Yap celebrates the superb Cold War spy drama The Americans.
The Americans is currently the best spy show on TV. Scratch that. It’s the best show on TV, period. I’m saying this as a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Homeland, a show that its most avid followers have to admit is awfully patchy, even at its best. In comparison, The Americans is astoundingly consistent and drum-tight across the board. It feels like the real thing.
It probably doesn’t hurt that creator Joe Weisberg was an actual spy. With the help of co-showrunner Joel Fields, he’s managed to funnel his four-year experience as a CIA case officer and love of John le Carré novels into an impeccably acted, dramatically compelling espionage series that balances its realistic, grounded depictions of tradecraft with the one of most fascinating, complex portraits of marriage on TV.
Plenty of current shows revolve around relatable relationship arcs, whether it’s a couple starting out (Catastrophe), losing their spark (Togetherness), or contending with the fallout from adultery (The Affair). The Americans features an altogether rarer union: the arranged marriage.
For Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), there was never any meet-cute. No dates, no one night stands that blossomed into romance. They were cadets of the KGB, trained then shipped off to Washington, D.C. to assume secret identities as husband-and-wife travel agents. They don goofy disguises, carry out covert missions – usually involving a lot of sex – and dutifully feed intelligence back to the Soviets. All this while maintaining the appearance of an all-American nuclear family during the Reagan administration in the early ‘80s.
The premise seems far-fetched, but Weisberg was inspired to create the show by an actual Russian spy ring that was busted by the FBI in 2010. Over the course of three solid seasons, this has proven fertile creative ground for some bloody great bingey television. From a dramatic perspective, The Americans contains multiple psychological and ideological layers, challenging the viewer to identify with a morally grey subset of society in the same manner those Golden-Age-of-TV provocateurs HBO have mastered (The Sopranos, Big Love). You kind of forget that you’re rooting for “the enemy”.
Enjoyed purely as a thriller, it has set-pieces that are as back-snappingly tense and violent as anything from Breaking Bad. Walter White and the Jennings share a similar predicament: the constant threat of being exposed. It just so happens that their new neighbour, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), is part of the FBI’s counterintelligence task force; meanwhile the Jennings’ 13-year-old daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) begins snooping around, increasingly suspicious of her parents’ strange behaviour.
If the FBI-agent-next-door subplot seems a bit contrived, Weisberg makes it work by driving it back to the show’s core family themes. The Beemans represent a version of the rosy American dream the Jennings are trying hard to emulate – but in reality, the Beemans’ picture-perfect life is as illusive as the Jennings’ own.
Stan Beeman’s son Matthew (Danny Flaherty) is moody and withdrawn as a result of his father’s absenteeism, while wife Sandra (Susan Misner) senses there’s more than a busy work schedule keeping Stan away from home. The crumbling Beeman household is one of several reminders of the high stakes the Jennings are faced with. Between The Job, where allegiance to the country is paramount, and protecting and nurturing the family, which do you choose?
The Americans is particularly smart and subversive in its handling of gender roles. Of the two, Philip is the more sensitive parent. At ease in his American skin, he even harbours thoughts of defecting (“What’s so bad about America? The food is pretty great. Electricity works all the time.”) Elizabeth’s ties with her motherland are stronger. She dreads the thought of her children developing beliefs antithetical to her own. Rarely does she look comfortable with domesticity.
As much as they need to give Oscar-calibre performances in their prescribed parts as husband and wife, their spy training means they’re essentially equals as officers. When Philip discovers that Elizabeth was raped by one of her KGB mentors, his first instinct as a husband is to step up and take revenge – something that Elizabeth, as we see in the show’s brutal fight sequences, can feasibly do on her own.
The Americans is full of scenes like these, which subtly negotiate the roles of the husband/wife/mother/father on an unusual case-by-case basis. It makes their gradual romantic longing, played with smoldering chemistry by the perfectly paired Rhys and Russell, richer and more affecting to watch. After pretending to be in love for some 20 odd years, the Jennings are only starting to figure it out for real.
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