A story of relevance and urgency
When The Americans premiered in 2013, relations between Russia and the U.S. were fairly neutral, but now, five years later, the warping of that relationship is daily front-page news
Given its 1980s setting, The Americans delivers plenty of retro pleasures: synth-pop on the soundtrack, outrageous amounts of hairspray, Atari. But those touches are faint brushstrokes compared with the show's true distinguishing trait: the lens through which it views Cold War hostilities between the United States and Russia.
It centres on a sleeper-cell family in suburban Washington, headed by two KGB operatives, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys). They speak fluent, accent-less English and face serious work-life balance issues with their careers and two teenaged children.
Watching the show this season, of course, promises to be an entirely different – and more unsettling – proposition. That's especially true in my case, as I live within a few miles of Trump Tower and watch the show with my wife, Stella, who grew up in the Soviet Union. Through the first three episodes made available by FX, the experience has had me consistently (though gently) elbowing her in the ribs about any number of things major and minor. Why do they stir jam into hot tea? (A shrug.) Does that look like the kind of communal apartment you remember? (A smile.) Would Oleg Igorevich Burov, the tall, kind-faced KGB officer played by Costa Ronin who traded secrets with FBI agent and next-door neighbour of the Jenningses, Stan Beeman, really be stalked by his bosses outside his mother's apartment? (A slow nod.)
When The Americans premiered in 2013, relations between Russia and the United States were fairly neutral, so the pleasures for viewers lay mainly in the spy drama and period details. Five years on, the warping of that relationship – to the extreme that multiple U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian hackers colluded with Donald Trump to interfere in the presidential election in his favour – is now daily front-page news.
The Americans has become one of those cultural works that, by equal parts inspiration and serendipity, is presenting a world whose relevance could hardly be more urgent. What other scripted TV shows have been so propitiously timed? The Man in the High Castle and Black-ish come to mind, but both operate in fantasy/sitcom realms that are a layer removed from The Americans' realism. Movies such as The Hurt Locker or Up in the Air or books such as Philip Roth's The Plot Against America seem as if they are the closest cultural analogs.
The less the "illegals" are vilified or portrayed as cartoon villains a la Rocky IV's Ivan Drago, the more uneasy we feel. The moments in the new season that resonate most are human-scaled, which was the intent of the show's creator, Joe Weisberg (a onetime CIA agent). That approach seems all the wiser as the media reports of Russian misdeeds proliferate. "Who would do such a thing?" we Americans wonder. The answer, the show seems to say, is the collection of characters raised in a complicated country. Many believe they are doing the right thing even as they use violence and treachery to achieve it. "This season, we have a chance to really go into the Soviet Union with the idea of the family and really get to tell some of their stories there," Weisberg said. "It's a real story about life inside the Soviet Union and something you don't see much of on American television."
The show's anchor, the family at its centre, unavoidably grows more shaded the more it is set against contemporary Russia and its incursion into American political life. Initially, Weisberg said, Philip and Elizabeth were conceived of as "not really heroes or anti-heroes, but heroes for the other side." But he concedes that even the word "hero" is problematic, and that usually the acts of valour that prompt that label are freighted with all kinds of complexities. Even so, by staying true to its initial idea of offering a lived-in sense of Cold War Russia, The Americans could wind up being a window into today's world. "We feel shifting," Weisberg conceded. "But we're not shifting our storytelling."
The overarching plot driver, after past seasons' biological and nuclear weapons, concerns agriculture. Philip and Elizabeth are tasked this season with foiling a U.S. plot to breed pests that will attack Russian wheat fields and destroy acres of crops. Without their intervention, their minder, Gabriel (Frank Langella) warns, "People will starve."
More than in any previous season, this macro mission of the KGB is built upon the micro details of daily life. Even when Brooklyn locations stand in for Moscow (with help from Russia-based researchers and production designers), the verisimilitude can be striking. In one scene, Oleg is shown visiting a food market. The desultory, fluorescent-lit space is lined with shelves, but each contain only scattered handfuls of food being picked over by shoppers who have no other choices, no gleaming supermarket just around the corner. In another scene, Philip muses on periods of starvation when he was a boy growing up in Russia. Later, he and Elizabeth adopt aliases and go bowling with another Russian couple bitter about their homeland. To the sound of bowling balls rolling and crashing into pins, the man recalls as a child seeing police drag his father off to a labour camp full of "prisoners outside for everybody to see, with lice, starving to death. … That is the Soviet Union I know." Seen in 2017, the vignette begs the question: When will today's whistle-blowers go bowling?
Weisberg and fellow executive producer Joel Fields both profess astonishment at how dramatically the political and cultural context has changed since the show first aired. They are in the midst of weighing how world events could influence reception of the show's denouement, having scripted the end of this season and with just one more season in store for 2018. (Unlike Mad Men or other period shows that have zoomed through the years, The Americans has taken place only between 1980 and 1984, so it is quite possible that the Berlin Wall will still be standing when the finale airs.)
"It's very disconcerting," Weisberg said of the sea change for viewers. "We had planned to do this show in an atmosphere where the relationship with Russia was benign. And in a way, that seemed to be what created the opening for the show. You could see KGB officers in a positive light and relate to them. To have it twist back now, you're watching it in a different light, and we didn't craft these stories with an idea that people would be watching in a different light."
Fields said the show is written "very much in a bubble of the eighties," so the writers and producers are not reacting to every update about Vladimir Putin's game of footsie with Trump. Still, he added, "We're aware that it's changing how the audience is experiencing the show. In addition to it being a bummer for there to be conflict in the world and conflict between these two great nations, it's also ironic for us. One of the cores of the show is the theme that we're all human and part of being human is to have an enemy and to create and dehumanize the enemy. It's pretty ironic to see that human, universal truth coming to life again right in the middle of us doing a show about that theme."
To me, that's a good thing. The Americans doesn't need to wink or nod at the present day, but just keep doing its thing. That thing may be a fictional TV universe, but one founded on the reality of the Cold War, experienced by Weisberg, who once personally responded to President Reagan's "Evil Empire" call to action. In continuing to show the quotidian and the granular, it can say more about the soul of Russia than a million dossiers ever could.