If you think your life is complicated because everyday you struggle to balance work, family and quality time with your partner, then find an extra hour per week to take a look at The Americans and you’ll think it twice.
The TV series, whose fourth season premieres today on FX, transports us back in the eighties to follow the life of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, two undercover Soviet spies trained and paired by KGB to live in Washington DC and play the role of the perfect suburban American family. They work as travel agents by day and secret agents by night. They even had two kids together, now in their teens, who offer the perfect cover. Nobody suspects that when mum and dad leave them with a babysitter for the evening, usually it’s not for dinner and a movie but for some dangerous secret mission to collect strategic government datas and transmit them to their motherland. Phillip and Elizabeth’s worst enemy is Stan Beeman, a FBI agent dedicated to find the Russian spies living on US soil and arrest them. Coincidence, he’s also their neighbor. And seems determined to become their best friend.
Now that is a complicated life.
It is also the intriguing beginning of a complex, sophisticated series, one that defies our expectations of the genre and captures us with its peculiar mix of spy story and family drama. Created by a former CIA officer, Joe Weisberg, it benefits from impeccable, heartfelt performances by Keri Russel and Matthew Rhys. Despite being critically acclaimed from its debut as the best new drama on TV, it’s still struggling with the ratings… so let’s enjoy it while it lasts, it may not be for long.
Right from the pilot, we realize The Americans is different from any other espionage show we’ve seen on TV. Despite its subject, it doesn’t count on shocking revelations and cliffhangers that make other series so “tweetable”. It prefers characters over plot twists, psychology over politics, suspense over surprises.
Maybe the best way to define it, to capture its essence, is to specify what it’s not.
The Americans is not a show that bets on the oh-my-god-they-are-amongst-us fear like Homeland, even if it is about Russian spies masquerading as ordinary American citizens.
Unlike Alias, it doesn’t depict KGB sleeping agents as cold blooded killers incapable of affection for their own children, because Phillip and Elizabeth are complex human beings who love their kids with all their heart and try to balance a very demanding job with their personal life.
It doesn’t exploit the viewers’ patriotism and xenophobia like 24 and Homeland, because the action is set during the Cold War and that gives the audience some emotional distance from the events and the ability to put themselves in the enemy shoes. And, yes, from the beginning we root for the “bad guys”.
It is not entirely focused on thrilling secret missions like Alias, even if there is a lot of action and tension, the occasional fistfight and car chase, the mandatory ridiculous wigs and costumes.
It doesn’t indulge in gratuitous violence as 24 or Scandal and even if KGB and FBI agents interrogate people for information every episode, they show us that there are many other techniques to make them talk beside torture (some of these very pleasurable…).
It’s about people doing extraordinary, dangerous jobs, but it doesn’t depend on extreme emotional situations as being held captive, tortured and turned by a secret government or terrorist organization; it focuses on more familiar sentiments any viewer could relate to… even the ones amongst us who happen not to be spies.
It is set in the eighties and has a killer soundtrack from that era but it doesn’t rely on trendy nostalgia, just on a time without cell phones and internet, when spies, and spy movies, had to be creative because they needed to come up with something more than typing fast in front of a screen to gain access to enemies’ secrets.
The Americans is about spies and two nations fighting for world supremacy but has a strong focus on a more intimate war, the one between sexes and the many struggles of human relationships.
It’s about cold war, KGB and FBI, undercover missions, missile shields, double and triple agents, but most of all it’s about how in life people play roles, get mislead by other people’s role playing and hurt each other. About how they all find something to believe in, even if it’s a lie, and go on.
Everybody plays different parts for different people. This is what the role theory says about our social life. Everyday we are required to play many, sometimes conflicting, roles determined by our gender, family status, profession and switch from one to another according to where we are. The Americans pushes this concept very far and the result is fascinating: a window on a tangle of lives connected by lies.
Since they were very young, Phillip and Elizabeth have played for the outside world the role of a married couple, and they’re used to fake it at home too for the kids. But now, after 20 years together, they’re really falling in love with each other. Still, as part of their undercover missions they often seduce and bed occasional partners: no problem, they do it for the motherland, everything’s ok… or isn’t it? Granted that every marriage works in its own peculiar way, the Jenningses’ ménage is quite unique.
On a typical work week, Philip will, under as many different false identities, divide himself between his Russian coconspirator wife (speaking only American and using their fake American names), his long term lover (an informer in the diplomats circle), his teenager flirt (an FBI agent’s daughter who has the same age as his daughter) and his secret second wife Martha (an FBI secretary who loves him madly). He will be a different, made-up person for each one of them. Trying to get what he needs without breaking his cover, nor their hearts.
Similarly, Phillip’s friendship with Stan is getting stronger but is built on lies. The FBI agent is new in the neighborhood and soon finds a confident in Mr. Jennings who accepts to befriend him for obvious strategical reasons. They both desperately need a buddy to share their problems over a beer but will never be sincere about what really troubles them.
Stan is no stranger to role playing and lies himself: he is recovering from a long undercover mission with the white supremacist and still carries spiritual wounds that can’t share with anybody; trained by his profession to give only partial truths, he is unable to find any real connection with his wife and kid anymore and ends up losing his family. On top of that, he falls badly for a young unpredictable KGB triple agent and starts hiding secrets to his colleagues at FBI as well.
Last but not least, Phillip and Elizabeth lie everyday to their kids about their true identity and scopes. The two little Jenningses live the typical western teenager life, speak only English, they are truly Americans: it will be shocking to discover that mum and dad are working to destroy their life as they know it. And that they are not the fruit of love but of KGB orders.
In The Americans everybody lies and betrays each other: friends, enemies, lovers, colleagues, neighbors, parents. But maybe the biggest lies are the ones these characters tell to themselves.
The Jenningses lie when they swear their job will never affect the kids, because every mission can jeopardize their family life, simply exposing their identities or, worst, leaving their little ones orphans or putting them in direct danger.
They are delusional about their children not growing up to be like all the other Americans, when in fact they already are, and year after year they get further from the ideals their parents are fighting for. As another sleeping agent tells them: “Nothing prepares you for your kids growing up… here”.
Stan pretends his affair with the KGB source will not influence his judgement when in reality his loyalty has dangerously shifted from his country to his protégé.
Stan’s wife tells herself for too long that her man is only stressed by his job and they can still make it together.
Martha convinces herself that she’s contented with a part-time husband whom she can never show or even mention to the outside world.
Elizabeth tells herself that her husband’s sexual encounters with Martha and other occasional partners are just part of the job and don’t affect her at all, when in fact she is jealous.
Phillip acts as a loyal KGB agent but he fits in quite effortlessly in the American lifestyle and would turn himself in and cooperate with the enemy if only his wife agreed.
But these lies are precisely what makes them going on.
After all, in a world where everyone fakes, everyone lies, who can say what is real and what is not? When you play a part, when you tell your rehearsed lies everyday, you start believing it, you become that person you interpret… does it mean it’s real?
It reminds me of a thing Woody Allen says at the end of Annie Hall:
“A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says ‘Hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken‘. Then the doc says ‘Why don’t you turn him in?‘. Then the guy says ‘I would, but I need the eggs‘. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs”.
Now I know how to best define the series.
The Americans is about people telling lies and playing roles: they do it for their country but, mostly, they do it for the eggs.
And that second layer is what makes this spy story feel so true.