author – activist – faculty – mom
Tonight, Season 3 of FX Network’s The Americans premieres, and I can’t wait. The brilliant original series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a pair of deep cover KGB operatives living as a married couple in 1980s suburbia, impersonating US-born citizens. They secretly undertake dangerous spy missions unbeknownst to their friends, neighbors, coworkers, and children. There’s nothing like it on TV. As I waited impatiently for the third season, I began watching other spy shows, including ABC’s “The Assets,” based on the true story of 1980s CIA mole Adrich Ames, and the two female CIA analysts who took him down. It has the same Reagan-era Cold War setting, and I wanted to like it, but it completely falls flat.
I would argue that this is because The Americans raises deeply compelling questions about the nature of being married, being family, and being American. As Rolling Stone puts it, part of what makes the series “gripping” is that “the lines between the clichéd “good guys” and “bad guys” have been so expertly blurred. Finally, the protagonists of The Americans are politically passionate and skilled operatives. Their talents range from clandestine communication to seduction of the enemy to hand-to-hand combat.
Leigh Alanna, in her brilliant article in Tits and Sass, “Support Hos: The Americans,” describes succinctly how “the show opens in 1981, just after Reagan’s election, as the two of them struggle to raise two children who have no idea that their parents are deep-cover Soviet spies.” Further, she names that a large part of what makes the show so good is the exploration of sex work. She argues compellingly that for “the lead couple, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (née Nadezhda and Mischa)….a huge portion of their work is emotional and intimate labor, as they manufacture both long and short term sexual and romantic connections in service to their calling.” This is true for those two characters, as well as another young Russian woman who works for the KBG. When Alanna calls the characters “our intrepid band of sexually laboring heroes,” it rings true. And while their sexual labor is embedded in their commitment to a larger cause, it still makes for compelling storytelling, particularly the complication and contrast with the sexual and emotional relationships they choose out of love and desire.
And if the sexy intrigue weren’t enough, I’m awash with nostalgia for the dial phones, the cassette recorders, the boxy cars, the 80s hairstyles, the synthetic blouses with Margaret Thatcher bows. The visual images alone practically make the show worth watching. Not to mention the wigs, makeup, false mustaches, and costumes that they wear, transforming themselves in each show.
Another fascinating angle of the show is that the pair of protagonists are ultimately immigrants. Their deep cover is simply the most deadly game of cultural assimilation imaginable. The tension between the immigrant parents and their children growing up in US privilege resonates for any family in which migration or class mobility has created that type of intergenerational tension. We get occasional glimpses into the lives they’ve left behind, the names they no longer use, the language they no longer speak, the families, sweethearts, with whom they have no contact. They are allegories for all of us, except Native Americans, who are ultimately spies here, part of a conspiracy to destroy the original America. I was also fascinated by the inclusion of an African American KGB asset character. It is understood that he, as a black man, sees his cause for black freedom to be more aligned with the KGB than the US. This is the first time I have ever seen on US television any serious critique of capitalism from the perspective of a sympathetic main character. Elizabeth, the female spy says of the US, “There’s a weakness in the people. I can feel it.”A hardcore communist, she participates in US culture only as drag, but her husband Phillip, enjoys the comforts of US society, even as he works to undermine it. Their differences significantly impact both their work and personal relationship.
While the series is deeply critical of US Reagan-era politics, it also skewers the Soviet system. From corruption and nepotism in the supposedly classless society to sanctioned sexual exploitation of women in military and government. The Americans series creator Joe Weisberg is a former CIA officer who refers to working at the CIA as “a mistake.” Because the series is on a smaller network, I wonder if he pitched it to larger networks, but they passed because it was too controversial. Regardless, I’m hooked, and can’t wait for tonight’s premiere to see what’s next for my favorite 1980s KGB operatives.
I usually blog on Fridays, but I’m posting early because I love this show!