I am an espionage enthusiast. My first love was Get Smart as a kid and then I got hooked ABC’s Alias in high school and college. USA’s Covert Affairs and of course James Bond himself are also favorites of mine. FX’s The Americans is another great addition to prime time spy thrillers. But unlike its predecessors and contemporary Covert Affairs, the events it portrays are not entirely fictional. The show’s Cold War setting and Russian spies posing as Americans actually happened which puts it at the intersection of realism and great television.
The Cold War is a significant period in American history and not that far removed from the present day relatively speaking. What this show does so wonderfully is that it brings the Cold War into focus on a very human level through the lives of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.) We’re not supposed to like them because they are the enemy. They represent communism and the Soviet Union after all which is diametrically opposed to American capitalist society. But inevitably we do like them because we can relate to their struggle of trying to juggle work, marriage and family. And even though we cannot personally relate to the reality of being secret soviet spies, we can still identify with that aspect of these characters lives because they are faced with the common human experience of being put in a strange situation and having to make the best of it in the long term.
In this past week’s episode COMINT, we’re introduced to another level of Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage. As you might recall, Elizabeth recently admitted in episode 3 that she was just now starting to fall in love with her husband. But all of that had to go on the back burner because President Reagan was shot and Russia was on the verge of taking over the United States in the following episode. Now that tensions have abated relatively speaking, this aspect of their fake yet undeniably real marriage reasserts itself once more. Phillip becomes so enraged when he sees that Elizabeth has been beaten by a belt during mission, where she eventually learns that the FBI has communication devices in the back of their cars, that he is ready to go out and kill the guy himself. This is an understandable instinct for a man whose wife is beaten at the hands of another.
However Elizabeth points out to Phillip that he is not her father and she’s right; he’s not. But whether either character will admit it or not, there are real feelings between them and that makes something like this incident more complex. Handler Claudia (Margo Martindale) also brings up the salient point that women in this business always have to work a lot harder, which is true. Phillip is in the position of most power when he is with other women and Elizabeth is not when she is with other men. I’m certain that there will be a time where she decides to show some unlucky schmuck whose really in charge. But alas, doing so all the time as in the tradition of Annie Walker or Sydney Bristow, would most certainly blow her cover in 198o’s Washington DC. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about this show, you don’t want to become a problem lest you end up like the secret wife of their partner in episode 3. Being overdosed on drugs and having your baby sent to Russia is not a good way to go.
On the other side of the fence so to speak, it does amuse me to no end that Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has been pumped for information a few times by Phillip and doesn’t have the tiniest inkling something is afoot. Add to that, he’s using Nina (Annet Mahendru) as a source as to Russian movements and you’ve got a very interesting dichotomy. Since Nina works for the Russian embassy, of course her movements are monitored and her boss already knows she’s up to something. But she also proves Claudia’s comment about women working harder because she has to blow her boss in order to pick up intelligence and possibly keep him from picking up her trail.
The Cold War provides a great canvas for all of these characters to play on and whether you have a penchant for spies or just appreciate good TV, The Americans is certainly a great show to start watching. FX has already invested in the freshman drama renewing it for season 2 just 4 weeks into its season 1 run according to a report from Deadline.
The Americans is airing now on Wednesdays at 10PM. Check your local listings for details!
Image Credits: Craig Blankenhorn, FX