The best modern film about American politics is Oliver Stone’s Nixon, the merits of which can be appreciated only once you have divested yourself of any suspicion that it has anything more to do with the life and career of Richard Milhous Nixon than Antony and Cleopatra has to do with the biographies of its eponymous heroes. The Americans, an FX espionage drama now in its second season, treats the Cold War the way Shakespeare treated Plutarch — a rich source of character and incident used as scaffolding to tell stories that are really about something else.
The Americans is a little like the first season of Mad Men in that it considers the possibility that a picture-perfect suburban couple with two well-scrubbed children (a boy and a girl, of course) might be something other than, and entirely less wholesome than, it seems. In the case of Mad Men, that meant that the remarkably successful husband was in fact a fraud, a man raised in poverty in a whorehouse who as a terrified soldier seized upon the death of a superior to get himself out of combat and into a new life under a new name. The Americans goes that one better: Our happy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, is in fact composed of two illegal deep-cover KGB agents joined together by their masters in Moscow and inserted into the United States in the 1960s.
The domestic conceit is a clever one: The early Reagan years, during which the series is set, coincided with the climax of the orgy of divorce that began in the Mad Men era before the graph went nearly vertical in the 1970s. Like many unhappy couples in 1981, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are trapped in a sham marriage — with real children. All that which was implicit in that period’s therapeutic-culture divorce rhetoric — that they didn’t know what they were getting into, that they are victims of forces beyond their control, that they made choices before they were experienced enough to fully appreciate the consequences, that the relationship is loveless — is made literal.
Mr. Jennings is open. Early on, he is on the verge of proposing to his wife that they defect, fearing for his family and having heard of multimillion-dollar payouts to high-level turncoats. His wife, on the other hand, rats to her handlers that he has become too accustomed to Western comforts, that he “likes it here too much.” What’s not to like? During a flashback to the couple’s arrival in the United States, they check into a motel room during a sweltering Virginia summer, and he introduces her to air conditioning, her face overcome by wonder. When he broaches defection, he insists: “America’s not so bad. We’ve been here a long time — what’s so bad about it? The electricity works all the time, the food’s pretty great, the closet space . . .”
But the lady of the house is having none of that.
The irony is that his sympathy for the American way makes him the superior operator. In the immediate wake of John Hinckley Jr.’s attempted assassination of President Reagan and Alexander Haig’s bungled press briefing — “As of now, I am in control here in the White House” — Mrs. Jennings concludes, as a hostage of her ideology would, that a coup d’état is under way, and starts digging up arms caches on the assumption that her cell will be called upon for guerrilla warfare. She also begins plotting to assassinate Caspar Weinberger. Her husband, partly bemused but mostly alarmed, explains to her that “the Americans” do things differently from the Soviets. She takes a great deal of convincing.
The show’s opening credits suggest a cheap moral equivalency at work — American commercials juxtaposed against Soviet propaganda, Russian folk dancers juxtaposed against 1980s aerobics videos — but the series itself does not suffer from that defect. The Russians are both fully human and fully monsters. Philip, in his unguarded moments, is a casual anti-Semite, asking a captured Mossad agent: “Is that what you Jews do? Spy on your friends?” The Israeli agent’s answer is perfect: “America is not our friend. America is our father, and he thinks that we are not yet ready to drive his fast car, so, sometimes, when he is not looking, we take the wheel.” He also tells the KGB man who is ready to do him in that if he wants to see real Communism, he should visit a kibbutz. “It works better for us.”
Philip’s monstrosity is confirmed later in the same episode when he is preparing to hand over to the Soviets a kidnapped Jewish refusenik, a scientist who had been working in the United States. The man begs for his life, wailing, pleading on behalf of his wife and his son, who is about to have his bar mitzvah. He offers everything he can think of — even to work as a Soviet agent if they will allow him to stay in the United States rather than be returned to rot in the Gulag. Philip proceeds mechanically. “You’re not a man,” the refusenik tells him, insisting that whatever manhood he might have had and whatever humanity he might have enjoyed have been trained out of him by the KGB.
Philip does not dispute that, though we in the audience know it to be untrue. He is a man in full, one who loves his children and tries to be a husband to his sham wife, a patriot who loves his country while appreciating the virtues of his enemy. But he is also a fiend, casually killing innocents, exploiting vulnerable women, and putting his own children in the line of fire to complete a mission he knows almost nothing about.
There is a great deal of sex in the show, another funny little irony. Though they have the characteristically puritanical attitudes toward the instrumentalization of sex in a consumer society — Mrs. Jennings insistently wipes excessive lip gloss off of her daughter’s lips, a prim little grimace on her face — she and her husband both consistently rely upon sex to achieve their missions. He grimaces when he listens to a particularly racy tape of one of her seductions; she resents that he is in fact married to one of his unwitting sources, part of an elaborate effort to penetrate the FBI’s counterintelligence directorate.
The most prominent agent of that directive happens to move in next door and become Philip’s beer buddy. That isn’t even close to the most implausible development in the show, but espionage thrillers demand the implausible, in no small part because running spies is among the world’s most boring occupations. Unlikely as its plots often are and domestic as its real dramatic concerns may be, The Americans does capture the terror of the age, the sense that while the nation’s economy and its confidence were at highs not seen since the Eisenhower years, everything — everything — could be over in a flash of light at any moment. Keri Russell makes those tragic 1980s fashions look terrific, but there is real fear behind her butterfly-lens glasses.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review. This article originally appeared in the April 21, 2014 issue of National Review.