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The Americans and the cold reality of the old Cold War

What would Ronald Reagan do? Oh, probably make a speech about "liberty," issue an ultimatum that could be retracted later and take a nap.

The question, "What would Reagan do?" is a risible, recurring theme that emerges from right-wing American commentary about a lot of issues. It is heavily promoted as a sort-of measuring tool by the Heritage Foundation; you can buy T-shirts emblazoned with the question and, these days, the question is mocked on a regular basis by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

In one of those coincidences for which we can thank the smart people writing the current and outstanding crop of American cable-TV dramas, we can actually ponder the Reagan question in an enlightening manner. All the while being entertained, too.

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The Americans (FX Canada, 10 p.m.) is back for a second season. And, if it seemed a clever oddity last year, it seems uniquely eloquent now. Last year, when it emerged as one the best new series, the show was anchored in an intriguing concept. And, at first, just that. The setting and concept made it irresistible. Now it seems more cogent.

It's 1981, Ronald Reagan is the new president of the United States. As his new administration gets tough on multiple fronts, in Washington we find Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), a couple with two kids who live in the leafy suburbs. To others they're ordinary, unremarkable people. They own a travel agency and work long hours.

As we learned, they are KGB spies. Part of a sleeper cell planted in the U.S. years before, they steal, manipulate and kill for their Soviet masters. It took a while to find its focus but when it did, The Americans became fabulous. Elizabeth was the tougher one, more emphatically loyal to the Soviet Union than her husband. They aroused the suspicion of a neighbour, an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich, who is wonderful) but dodged his trap for them as he, meanwhile, became inordinately involved with Soviet embassy worker Nina (Annet Mahendru). Such lies, deceit and depravity run amok.

There were complex twists, action scenes, bloody intrigue among the Soviet spies and much bed-hopping, as Phillip wooed a naive, lonely FBI assistant (Alison Wright) and even married her, while Elizabeth put on a blond wig, tight skirt and heels, and seduced powerful men into giving away intelligence secrets in their pillow talk.

In its second season (it returned last week, you can find the opening episode on demand) the focus is on family, loyalty and horror. Elizabeth and Phillip are newly committed to each other. Family is their concern, even as teenage daughter Paige (Canadian Holly Taylor, who is excellent) suspects her parents are not what they seem.

But the truly striking aspect this season is cultivation of the view that death and horror were the underpinnings of Cold War espionage and spy games. In a remarkable scene in the opening episode, Phillip portrays himself as a friendly U.S. agent willing to help Afghan Muslim rebels trying to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. It all ends in a bloodbath, in which the viciousness of the larger geopolitical situation is pithily and ferociously encapsulated in one room where three men go to war with each other. And then there is another bloodbath, one that occurs after a seemingly innocent day out at an amusement park.

There is much to admire in The Americans. There is the skill of the storytelling – the blistering pace, the nuanced invitation to feel sympathy for these ruthless spies. But there is more to it now – the piquancy of the concept is sharper given the weird nostalgia for the Reagan era, in some quarters, and the wild talk of a "new" Cold War, given events in Ukraine.

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What we see is a distillation of a war over values. We see that even when ideology is the torque that drives events, human frailty can override everything. It's not just that there is an overlap between the political and the personal. It's that in the heightened atmosphere of posturing about Soviets and the West, about capitalism and communism, people die horribly for their beliefs. They also betray with abandon, seduce and exploit, and all for what? For what in the end is the peaceful triumph of civility and tolerance.

The Americans doesn't answer the absurd question, "What would Reagan do?" It shows what was done in his name and in the name of the Soviet Union. And none of it is pretty or easily explained by platitudes about "liberty."

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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