Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Homeland, and now The Americans. What do they have in common? They all ask us to identify with imposters, phonies, and anti-heros of varying degrees. Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, an army deserter, who succeeds by selling pretty lies. Mild-mannered, Walter White has an alter-ego called Heisenberg, who in a little more than a year (in the show’s timeline) has established an international drug empire. Dexter is single-dad and a serial killer, hiding in plain sight at the Miami Metro police department. Then there’s Brody, war-hero and congressman, whose family was just getting a taste of the good-life when his treachery was revealed. Now, add Elizabeth and Philip, the Soviet sleeper agents next door, in Reagan’s America.
Holden Caulfield may have hated “phonies,” but we love them. It’s a common fantasy; as children we imagine someday our “real” parents — millionaires, royalty or magical beings — will find us, and we will become our true selves. As adults, some of us are more alienated from real life than others, but all of us have had moments wishing we could dispose of our enemies, or run off and start over. Everyone longs for a secret super-power.
And so I came to The Americans filled with hope. The premise of two spies, living in the ‘burbs, in the era of shoulder pads, and big hair, their kids unaware of their true identities, sounded like it could be fun.
The first episode was promising. We’re introduced to Elizabeth “playing” hooker in a blonde wig, giving a blow job while extracting information from a government official. If you think about it, it’s unlikely the bureaucrat would be so talkative, and so specific to a pro, but never mind. The scene is fairly explicit for basic cable, and Keri Russell looks hot. In forty-something minutes, we learn that Elizabeth and Philip were trained as teenagers to look, sound, and be American. They aren’t even allowed to speak Russian. Their marriage is an arrangement, and they’ve been living undercover in the USA since 1960. Now it’s 1980. Reagan is about to be inaugurated, and a high-ranking Soviet spy is defecting, endangering not only their mission, but their lives, at a time when their work may be more important than ever. They get a hold of a ticking time bomb in the form of the the defector, hidden in the trunk of their car tied up tight with a special gag that allows him to drink, but not make a sound. They are supposed to wait till it’s safe to pass him along to someone else, but something has gone wrong and its taking too long. In a flashback, we see that twenty years earlier when Elizabeth was being trained, the defector raped her. Philip doesn’t know that, and suggests to Elizabeth that instead of giving the defector to the Soviets, they should let him go and turn themselves in. He’s worried about his children. He doesn’t think America is so bad, but when he finds out about the assault, he becomes enraged and kills their prisoner. A pretty good little piece of drama.
There is a sub-plot involving an FBI agent who happens to be on a task-force searching for Soviet spies. He moves in across the street. Coincidence or plot? As far as the viewers know, coincidence. But Philip and Elizabeth can’t be sure, and the FBI-agent gets a funny feeling when he meets Philip. The nosy neighbor, it’s a stale concept, a trope, going back at least to Gladys Kravitz. Here it reminds us immediately of a much better show, Breaking Bad, where Walter White’s DEA agent brother-in-law is about to crack things wide open.
The myth of Soviet sleeper agents disguised as natural-born Americans has been around long before any “real” such beings were ever discovered. In 2010, when twelve Russian spies were apprehended, the truth proved to be much less dramatic than the myth. Some were in arranged spy marriages, had had children, and had been living in the United States for several years – like Elizabeth and Philip. But very few were trying to pass themselves off as born-in-the-USA, and those that did, didn’t do a good job and weren’t effective. But on television, the premise is certainly more likely than there being a serial-killer-with-a-code working for the police, or a middle-aged science teacher moonlighting as a drug-lord while battling cancer, or a brilliant bi-polar CIA agent, who falls for an even more damaged Al Queda operative.
The deal is you suspend disbelief in return for entertainment, at least up to a point. However, by the third episode, The Americans not only crossed that point, but did it while leaping over a large predatory fish.
You could see where it was going in the pilot when Elizabeth meets with an old trainer and mentor. She’s told that their work is going to become more dangerous and more important because the Americans have “elected a madman.” In Episode II – The Clock, we open with Philip now being the one engaged in sexy-times as part of his duties. His source knows something is going on in the military. Because this Reagan fella has plans to build a missile defense shield, which could force the Soviets into a new arms race, the spies must put a listening device in the house of the Secretary of Defense. They choose to do this by having the cleaning lady steal a clock, and then put it back with a bug in it. They coerce the cleaning lady by poisoning her son and threatening to withhold the antidote if she doesn’t do their bidding. The show is now committed to the narrative that Reagan’s arm race was what caused the Soviet Union to collapse, that Ronald Raygunz brought down the Evil Empire.
Sorry folks, but there are few problems with this. I’m sure those in the Soviet spy business were concerned about Reagan’s bluster, but this was also at point when both the US and the USSR could blow each other up real good many times over, and the pursuit of a magical defense shield sounded like the pipe-dream it was. The Soviet Union imploded for many reasons. Given that their nuclear power plants were built without containment and not maintained, it was only a matter of time before one of them melted down. The consequences were catastrophic. Also catastrophic was the decision to keep fighting in Afghanistan, especially with the United States arming the Mujaheddin. As Abu Nazir pointed out, those guys never give up. It was a classic blunder.
Not to mention that the USSR was completely inefficient, unable to compete economically with the West, and beset by ethnic conflict. Reform was going to happen no matter what Reagan did.
While Reagan is a hero to some folks, to many he was a monster who stood by when the AIDs epidemic was beginning to take hold, who callously declared ‘ketchup’ a vegetable in poor kids’ school lunches, who spoke of “welfare queens” and sowed racial division, who oversaw a foreign policy that included not only supporting brutal regimes in Latin America, but actually training torturers, and who traded arms to Iran and used the proceeds to support right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua.
But on The Americans, we don’t get a feel for any of this. This isn’t John le Carré’s cold war, where both sides were awful. If there are grays, we’re not seeing them yet, and after the third episode, it’s unlikely we ever will
In Episode 3 – Gregory, we find out that Elizabeth once turned an African-American man whom she met in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – the civil rights group headed by Dr. King — the group that not only believed in peaceful change and non-violent resistance, but whose actions made it possible for Americans to someday elect an African American president, twice.
Was there communist infiltration in the SCLC? J. Edgar Hoover certainly thought so, but he was a paranoid despot. He labeled them a black nationalist hate group, and continued to investigate both the organization and Dr. King for years, but even they weren’t looking for Soviet spies, just old-timey American commies. Per the Wikipedia, by 1976 the FBI gave up and admitted that neither Dr. King or the SCLC were ever under communist influence.
This is just so offensive, on so many levels. Here we have an American-born black man turned commie-spy after being seduced by a white KGB-agent, while working at the SCLC, not even the Black Panthers or another actually radical organization. Oh you wily communists! Oh you white-devil females! Maybe the Nation of Islam really did have your number.
Gregory’s cover is that he’s a drug-dealer, and his crew unknowingly helps his spy activities, believing they are related to the drug business. Where do I start? Maybe with the fact that during the 1980’s, the Reagan administration really did funnel money from secret arms sales to IRAN(!) to the right-wing Contras fighting an elected left-wing government in Nicaragua. Some of those Contras were big time drug dealers. The drug they were dealing was cocaine, mostly made into crack and sold on the streets of black neighborhoods. And that’s the proven stuff! Let’s not even get into some of the of unproven theories regarding the CIA and the drug-trade.
But back to our program where it gets worse!
It turns out that a sleeper spy killed in the first episode (while trying to kidnap the defector) had a secret young wife and baby. He’d left her instructions, for no good reason, to send a coded message in the form of a newspaper classified if he didn’t come home. She didn’t know about the spy stuff. She was but a simple lass, of Puerto Rican extraction. Receiving the coded message from a dead man, Philip is stunned. Not knowing what the wife knows, they kidnap her and the baby with the help of Gregory. Now she can identify all of them, and she figures out (a bit too easily) what the deal is.
Gregory wants to kill her and the baby, not seeing any other way. Philip disagrees. He feels their comrade somehow entrusted her to them, and they need to protect her. Elizabeth, who sort of agrees with Gregory, goes along with Philip. Once Elizabeth assures her they are not going to kill her, the widow never tries to escape. They never question her about her own allegiances, or try to get to know her in any way that might be interesting, like in The Crying Game, or when Walter White held the drug-dealer prisoner in Jesse’s basement. For all we know, her family could be strongly pro-independista, unrepentant Marxists, who’d be happy to help out Mother Russia.
Finally, their new handler, an older woman who also speaks perfectly unaccented English, picks mother and baby up. She seems all warm and friendly, much more so than when we’d first met her. She tells the widow she’ll be starting a new life in Cuba, white-sand beaches and everyone speaks Spanish. She takes the younger woman’s hand and leads her to black, windowless van.
In the next scene Philip and Elizabeth return home before dawn. If anyone was wondering what they do with the kids when they’re out involved in these shenanigans, the answer is they leave them asleep and unsupervised. Maybe they give them a shot of vodka first? Too bad Dexter’s magical nanny won’t be born for another few years.
Then we are in Russia. An elderly couple, the dead spy’s parents, though they look old enough to be his grandparents, are presented with his infant son, and told about their son’s death and how he died a hero of the Soviet Union.
Finally, we see the young widow dead in the van, a heroin overdose presumably. There’s a band around her arm and the needle nearby, but her eyes are open and filled with fear.
This just sets up the Soviets as being, not just evil, but Dr. Evil evil. Sadistic even, given the matronly handler’s handling of the frightened mother. Was it realistic? When the whole show is that ridiculous, who can say? I was trying to imagine a similar scenario if three CIA operatives under deep cover in 1980-Cuba had been exposed to a woman whose loyalties they couldn’t be sure of. Would they settle her in the USA and hope she enjoyed “freedom” enough to give up everything else, or would they kill her? The CIA did a lot worse, so am I going to hold the KGB to a higher-standard?
But here’s the thing, we don’t see what the CIA is doing. We only see the KGB. This is fiction; a little ambiguity might have been a good thing. Granted, the Cuba option would be risky, but so is murder. Keeping an eye on her, setting her up with a nice life, and threatening to take away the nice part and her son if she got out of line, might have been a reasonable plan. Her husband was after all a hero of the Soviet Union.
We could have drawn our own conclusions about what happened after she got into the van. Maybe Philip and Elizabeth could have done some personal debriefing — each imagining a different version, allowing us insight into what they thought was going on.
Even Homeland offers more political nuance, enough to allow people of any political persuasion to enjoy the show. So far The Americans hasn’t introduced us to a “good” Russian. Even the defector was a raping creep, motivated by greed. The FBI can do no wrong. Reagan is going to “win” the cold war, and oh yeah, the Ruskies were turning idealistic pacifists from the SCLC into drug-dealing, murdering spies. This view of history is idiotic, insulting and offensive. It’s also not even good television.