One almost-entirely-unguilty pleasure of watching The Americans — the strong new FX thriller that follows a “married” pair of KGB sleeper agents hiding in the Washington suburbs at the dawn of the Reagan era — is the frequent and mostly pathetic attempts of Mrs. Elizabeth Jennings (née Nadezhda, from Smolensk) to talk up the sclerotic USSR to her two American-born children, who have no idea that Mommy works for Directorate S.
When little Henry brags about meeting an Apollo astronaut at a school assembly, for example, Mrs. Jennings reminds him that the moon isn’t everything — just getting into space is a big deal! When daughter Paige relates her eighth-grade history teacher’s knocks on the Warsaw Pact, Mrs. Jennings wonders aloud how she can look at the geezer all day, what with his hare-lip.
They say the most interesting thing about The Americans is that it makes you root for the Soviets. And that’s true, insofar as you can’t help but like Keri Russell’s Elizabeth — who, though a dedicated Marxist-Leninist, a sworn enemy of the United States, and a murderer, is also impossibly compelling (and improbably beautiful), a kind of ur Tiger Mom, as relentlessly maternal as she is lethal.
Perhaps even more fun to watch is Phillip Jennings, who is at turns Elizabeth’s sham husband and her real lover, her superior officer and her wavering, Americanizing antagonist. Philip fully inhabits both the schleppy, polyestered travel agent that is his cover and the Jason Bourne–level badass beneath, both the able lothario who plies lonely secretaries for state secrets and the suffering romantic who tortures himself over Elizabeth’s own frequent infidelities. The fact that Phillip is played by Matthew Rhys, a Welshman, adds a minor but cool layer of verisimilitude — he speaks like a foreigner doing an aaaalmost perfect American accent.
But though the viewer is dragged into ambivalence over these two spies, there is no ambivalence about the cause to which they’re joined. As enjoyable as it is, the show never puts one in serious danger of “wanting the Soviets to win the Cold War,” which is how executive producer Joel Fields pitched it to TV critics (before bizarrely implying that maybe in a few years we’ll be ready to root for al-Qaeda).
This is because in the world of The Americans, the Soviets are not only frequently malevolent but also blindingly paranoid and hopelessly afraid and riven by internal factions. And even the sleeper agents — who’ve lived among us lo, so many years — so poorly understand the American psyche that the show could be a farce if it didn’t instead have tragedy in mind. To wit, the third episode of the season centers on the shooting of President Reagan. The Soviets, not insensibly, are worried that they will be blamed. So our protagonists’ overlords inform them, insensibly, that their number-one priority in the chaotic 24 hours that follow is to determine who is likeliest to “seize control of the U.S. government” should Reagan die. And an entire cell of crack KGB operatives sets to planning for guerrilla warfare in the event of the Alexander Haig coup d’état they consider as likely as it is not.
Nor is there much sympathetic about the spy network Phillip and Elizabeth have built in America, peopled as it is by scoundrels who are also, by definition, traitors. Among them is an aging black nationalist and SCLC volunteer who now runs surveillance for the Motherland and a Communist-turned-conservative journalist, in the mold of Whittaker Chambers or Christopher Hitchens, who in reality never left the Vanguard and leverages his cultural cachet to cozy up to Eastern-bloc dissidents before feeding them to his masters in Moscow.
And while there is plenty of sex in this world, little of it is sexy. Its mostly sad, sweaty bureaucrats living lives of quiet desperation, more than willing to leverage their meager particles of power into one-night stands and shabby affairs, and to — wittingly or unwittingly — trade sex for secrets. In a flashback to a grimy, sepia Soviet past, a would-be stepfather attempts to woo young Elizabeth’s widow mother by bringing her a crate full of coffee, sugar, and other staples “from the Committee storehouse.” The creepy, implied quid pro quo — Elizabeth’s mother refuses the offer and teaches her daughter a lesson about trusting men — captures the dreary relationship between sex and power in The Americans.
I don’t know the politics of the show’s creator — a former CIA officer named Joe Weisberg — and I don’t particularly care, either. Lefty viewers might read something into the fact that it’s the KGB’s discovery of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that ratchets up the bloodshed in the first season’s high-stakes game of spy-versus-spy. They might chuckle at the occasional Reagan crack, or indeed, at the occasional over-the-top Reagan praise. But if The Americans is supposed to have set up a moral equivalence between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., it has failed miserably.
In a tense conversation in the first episode, Phillip finally admits to Elizabeth that he has thought about defecting, for the sake of their children, who know nothing but the United States. Right after she slaps him, Elizabeth tells Phillip that she’s not finished educating the kids yet, that if not Communists, she can still make socialists out of them.
Phillip shakes his head, though we can’t tell whether in sadness or pride. “This place doesn’t turn out socialists,” he says.
Beyond all the international intrigue, what makes the show work is the internal battle between the skin the Jenningses had the poor moral luck of being born into, and the American skin that is becoming harder and harder to slip off. And what makes The Americans not just a thriller but a tragedy is the dramatic irony that we can see all the way from the cheap seats, but that the Jenningses won’t comprehend until it’s too late: that they have consecrated their lives to a doomed struggle for a perverted idea. That Mother Russia is doomed to lose. And to deserve to.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of NRO.