Monday, May 6, 2013

Spies Like Us

The First Season of The Americans Proved That All's Fair in Love and Cold War

by Kemper

The KGB has determined that this portion of the report on the television program called The Americans does not reveal any state secrets and may be safely read by anyone wishing to learn more about how the brave operatives of the Soviet Union will eventually defeat the capitalist pigs led by the fascist maniac Ronald Reagan.  (In other words, no spoilers in this section.)

The Soviets may have lost the Cold War but per FX’s The Americans it’s a good thing for the US that it was an arms race and not a disguise contest because apparently the Russians had taken wig technology to levels that we never could have matched. They managed to develop hairpieces that would stay on and undetected even when having sex.  There was definitely a wig gap between the two superpowers, and the communists even managed to find some capable agents to wear them.

In this first season we were introduced to Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings who appear to be a typical upper middle class couple with two kids and a nice house in the suburbs of Washington DC in 1981.  In reality, they’re undercover KGB agents who have been in America posing as husband and wife since the early ‘60s.

The election of Ronald Reagan as president has the Soviet leadership in a panic since they believe he’s a madman who intends to destroy them.  The Cold War is heating up, and the Jennings have an added complication with their new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counter-intelligence agent who is part of a team that is hunting Soviet spies under the leadership of their committed boss Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas).

The Jennings also get a new handler that they’re not sure they can trust.  Claudia (Margo Martindale), or Granny as they nicknamed her, is a veteran of the KGB who seems to want to undermine their partnership and does her best to drive wedges between them.

A marriage counselor could make a fortune off these two.
The set-up of doing a spy show during the ‘80s was a great idea, and the twist of making the main characters undercover Russians during the Reagan administration was inspired. If The Americans was just trying to be espionage thriller, it would have succeeded completely with exciting action and a tense cat-and-mouse game between the FBI and the Soviets.  What  made the show special is that the spy games are secondary to the complicated relationships between the characters that raise questions about the nature of love, loyalty and betrayal.

It’s shocking how little Philip and Elizabeth actually know each other when the show begins.  When they were assigned together they were ordered not to reveal any of the Russian background to each other as part of cementing their cover by only knowing each other as Americans. Even after living together for years and having children, they apparently kept a professional distance, but somewhere along the line Philip fell in love with his fake wife while Elizabeth is still somewhat resentful toward him since she got shoved into what is essentially an arranged marriage.

After almost two decades in the US, Philip is starting to question orders and increasingly worried about what would happen to the kids if they’re caught.  He begins the season hinting to Elizabeth that they should consider turning themselves in to the FBI because the knowledge they possess would allow them to cut a deal and probably be given new identities and a small fortune.

On the other hand, Elizabeth is still a staunch believer who would rather die than betray her country, and she’s worried that Philip may have been seduced by the American lifestyle. However, she too genuinely loves their children and after she discovers the depths of Philips true feelings towards her when he goes above and beyond the call of duty to avenge an old wrong she suffered, Elizabeth finds herself falling for the man she’s supposed to be married to.

The constant demands of their spy work make it hard for the two to become closer. Both of them regularly have sex with other people as part of honey-pot operations.  The whole situation makes for an intriguing dynamic that the two of them routinely trust each other with their lives, but they’re far less certain of counting on each other in a budding real romantic relationship.

Marriage isn’t just tough in the Jennings household.  The Beemans across the street are also having problems.  Stan spent a long time undercover while infiltrating a white supremacist movement, and there are strong indications that he may have done some ugly things during that assignment.  He’s having a hard time adjusting to life in the suburbs and is slightly suspicious of the Jennings even as his wife dismisses it as paranoia.  Stan’s intelligence work has him blackmailing a Russian embassy staffer named Nina (Annet Mahendru) into working as a mole for the FBI, but his attraction to her puts more strain on his marriage.

Philip is such a good spy that he drinks beer instead of
vodka in front of Stan.

With so many elements in play it would have been easy for The Americans to screw up a few of them, but it showed remarkably sure footing in it’s first season with very few missteps.  The ‘80s setting could have been used for easy jokes or nostalgic references, but it’s treated as a serious period backdrop to the story.  Even when Claudia plays a Ms. Pac-Man game while meeting Elizabeth, it’s used more to tell us something about her character rather than just a wink-n-nudge to the audience.  “I enjoy the maze part and the eating without eating part.  Pac-dots are calorie free.”

The show also showed a deft hand in choosing it’s music.  They passed on the temptation of simply loading up on tons of ‘80s pops songs in favor of picking their spots. (Or perhaps the licensing was too expensive.)   Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is used incredibly well to build tension during a chase sequence in the pilot, and Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers was perfect for the wrap-up in the finale.  Juice Newton’s Queen of Hearts helps provide a great touch of humor in which Philip is trying on a pair of cowboy boots at the mall and does a country-n-western dance step in front of a mirror much to the embarrassment of his daughter.  (Like many other immigrants to America, Philip has dreams of being a cowboy.)  The Cure, April Wine, Pete Townsend and Phil Collins also make The Americans' play-list.

The era also lends itself to more tension in a show with spy thriller elements.  With no Internet, cell phones or other modern devices, it means that all the characters have to do a lot more than type on keyboards. Physical messages have to be left at dead-drops and decoded by hand. Cameras and tape recorders are bulky and hard to hide. The low tech aspect gives the whole thing a kind of vintage charm while not letting it devolve into nostalgia porn.

Another aspect that works well is that the plot never depends on people behaving stupidly. Philip and Elizabeth are bad-ass agents who are very good at their jobs, and the FBI is also shown as smart and diligent.  Any wrong assumptions that anyone makes are portrayed as reasonable with the information they have at that point.  The smartness helps keep the basic premise viable. The Jennings are skilled enough at deception and covering their tracks to keep Stan from discovering what’s right under his nose, but Stan made significant and steady progress towards locating them throughout the year so that he seems very much like a threat and not some buffoon they can outwit easily.

Elizabeth uses her top secret red penlight to defeat the FBI.
The only person that could be accused of showing signs of ignorance is a secretary in Stan’s office.  Philip has been getting information from Martha (Alison Wright) by posing as a government agent named Clark who is supposedly secretly auditing the security of the FBI.  As Clark, Philip has subtly gotten Martha feeling attracted towards him and circumstances force him to play up that angle.  It’s hard to see how Martha can make love to Philip while he’s wearing one of his wigs and not know something is up, but the character is played with just the right amount of lonely desperation that we get the impression that Martha is just in denial, not stupid.

One of the things the show plays with is how much can go wrong through just random chance or misunderstanding brought on by the paranoia on both sides.  After the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in the fourth episode In Control, both sides are frantic in the aftermath.  The Feds worry that the Russians were behind it.  The Soviets are terrified that it’s a military coup led by Alexander Haig after his ill-advised comments about being in charge after the shooting.

The constant fear of what the other guy is doing puts everyone on such  a  level of alertness that any innocent mistake or miscalculation can result in disaster. One character’s personal jealously leads to an altercation that results in a vast escalation in the conflict between the KGB and FBI. Even random minor accidents such as someone burning their hand on a potato in a microwave kicks off a chain of unintended consequences.

It's like Mags Bennett joined the KGB.
The Americans extends the murky ethics of espionage to the viewers because we’re not entirely sure what kind of outcome we should be hoping for.  Philip and Elizabeth are obviously the main characters and you can’t help but root for them to some extent, but they’re still trying to subvert  the US.  They’re not psychos, but they are trained killers, and both are willing to do heinous things including murdering innocent people in the service of their mission.  The flip side is that the FBI agents have gotten a wink from the Reagan administration to escalate their actions against the KGB, and spilling blood isn‘t out of the questions so nobody’s hands are clean in this.

Still it’s Philip and Elizabeth that seem to want to do what they think of as the right thing as they continue to watch out for each other. We all know how the real Cold War ended, but with The Americans you may find yourself hoping that at least two Russians get a happier ending than history provided.

The KGB has determined the remainder of this report may only be viewed by those who are already familiar with the daring exploits of it’s brave operatives.   Those who don’t know their glorious history but continue reading will be sent to a Siberian gulag.  (In other words, spoilers follow.)

Some bonus random thoughts:

  • It shows how much more The Americans is about the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth than the spy stuff that in a finale packed with tension and action, the biggest story pay-off came when the wounded Elizabeth simply asks Philip to come home in Russian.
  • In the early episodes, it was much easier to sympathize with Philip than Elizabeth since he was the one pushing for the idea of family first and questioning dangerous orders while Elizabeth appears to put blind loyalty to Soviet Union above all. The show verged on making her an unlikable shrew at some points, but as the story progressed we slowly came to understand that Elizabeth was far from a heartless and her conflicts between duty and people she cared about made her almost tragic at times.
  • One sub-plot that seemed weird and completely out of place was when the Jennings kids hitch a ride with a creepy stranger after Elizabeth fails to pick them up from the mall.  We know that it was spy shenanigans that prevented Elizabeth from picking up the children.  Maybe the point was to show that the parents don’t even realize how their work can endanger the kids, but it just came across as odd.
  • I had a personal problem with the show’s use of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight during the scene where Philip and Elizabeth dispose of a body and then have sex.  That song is so linked to Miami Vice’s first episode in my mind that it instantly took me out of the story and made me very aware that I was watching TV in what should have been a critical point for the episode.
  • Despite the fact that both of them have frequently have sex with others as part of their spying duties, it was a nice touch that Philip was devastated when he learned that Elizabeth had carried on a long-standing affair of the heart, and likewise Elizabeth was crushed when she found out that Philip had slept with someone else that wasn't part of a mission.  
  • The show is filled with excellent performances, but Noah Emmerich as Stan really stood out.  The scene where he tells Vlad a story about bird dogs to scare him was simply chilling, and the subsequent  murder of the Russian was shocking and horrifying.
  • One of the great twists  was when Nina turned herself into the KGB after realizing that Stan killed Vlad.  A women who appeared to have no control over her own fate made a brave decision and has taken charge of her life in a way that will probably cost the FBI dearly.
  • Mathew Rhys does a incredible job of conveying Philip’s unhappiness at having to seduce Martha with subtle disgusted facial expressions during their romantic moments. 
  • Margo Martindale's availability for next season is in question, and the writers came up with a clever way to either not have her around if Claudia is recalled to Moscow or to bring her back by having Philip and Elizabeth revoke the request for her transfer.
  • Hard to believe Felicity beat the snot out of Mags Bennett.
  • The Colonel in the finale was in the middle of telling Philip that the Star Wars SDI initiative was a fantasy and even brought up the notion that it was being done to force the Soviets into going bankrupt trying to compete when they’re interrupted by Claudia who thinks she‘s saving Philip from a trap. It’ll be interesting to see if that comes up again in the second season or if the Jennings will continue being sent out on extremely dangerous operations to gather intelligence on a project that doesn’t work.
  • Philip’s fake wedding to Martha as Clark highlights how complex his relationship to Elizabeth is with her there pretending to be his sister, and then her later noting that they never had any kind of ceremony to start their relationship.  So even though it’s not legal due to the fake identity, one could argue that Philip is actually married to Martha and not Elizabeth.
  • Every episode next season should have at least one scene of Elizabeth kicking a guy’s head through a wall.  That’s never getting old.


  1. Fantastic write up! You've certainly convinced me to give this a try. I didn't have proper authorization to view bonus material, so I'll be back to take a look at those.

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you avoided the bonus material. I'd hate to see you shipped off to the gulag.

  2. Great review! I have to admit that I didn't stick with the series (mainly because the Cold War era is one that I don't enjoy), but it was very well done. Really enjoyed your observations on the music.

    1. Thanks. Not sure when you dropped out, but they had several twists late in he season that really bumped it up a level.