Saturday, February 22, 2014

Once Upon a Time: FX’s The Americans

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in FX's The Americans.

The last piece Critics at Large’s David Churchill was working on before he died was a post on the TV show The Americans. His ill health prevented him from finishing his post and I never did find out what he thought of the series. I’m sorry he never got to write on The Americans as I’m sure he would have had some interesting, provocative things to say about it. This post is dedicated to his memory. - ss

Note: this post also contains some spoilers.

When I first heard of the new FX series, The Americans, about a married couple, posing as Americans who are actually Soviet sleeper agents living undercover in the United States, I was worried. I thought that the series would traffic in moral equivalence, implying or stating outright that the two major opponents in the Cold War were somehow one and the same. I also remembered the outcry from the myopic left, back in 1987, when ABC aired the mini-series Amerika, detailing a future scenario wherein the Soviet Union took over the U.S. Their concerns were that the show would foment hatred against the Soviet Union, though of course, they would never have protested a Soviet TV show suggesting the reverse. This occurred during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and, of course, he was considered much more the villain than they were, though I know fear of a nuclear war between the Soviets and the U.S. also played a part in protesters’ worries that Amerika could somehow make the already tense situation between the two sides worse. In any case, the creatively uneven mini-series aired to mixed reviews and so-so ratings and pretty much vanished from the cultural radar (it’s never been released on DVD.) Fortunately, The Americans, from cable channel FX, which begins its second season on Feb. 26 – its first season is now out on DVD – is a much superior production and, equally as gratifying, functions as a timely reminder of how vicious and dangerous the Soviets actually were. (They weren’t far off the ‘evil empire’ mark Reagan said they were.) That’s not to say, The Americans is a black and white simplistic affair. It’s certainly not that. At its best, it is one of the better, more compelling cable shows of recent years.

Created by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, the show is set in 1981 and revolves around Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), Russian sleeper agents who, with their two kids live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and work in a travel agency as a cover. That’s their innocuous public face but outside the office, guided by their handler, they engage in all manner of skullduggery, seduction and even murder, in order to advance the Soviet Communist cause and undermine the United States. The end game for the Jennings, however, has become more uncertain as Philip becomes more enamoured of his adopted country and his wife wonders if their marriage is not, in fact, a sham like their identities. Meanwhile, newly elected President Ronald Reagan’s strong anti-Soviet rhetoric and belligerent attitude is spooking the Russians, at home and in the U.S. The other key character in The Americans is a workaholic FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), newly extracted from a life threatening undercover assignment infiltrating white supremacist groups, who is seconded to the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence unit, tracking down enemies of the U.S., including, of course, Soviet spies like the KGB officers Elizabeth and Philip Jennings.Coincidentally, they are also his new neighbours.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in The Americans.

That particular detail seemed farfetched to me at the series’ outset but when you consider that in racially divided Washington, there are only so many neighbourhoods for the white middle class to live in, it’s actually believable. In any case, Weisberg and his team of writers, who include Joshua Brand, creator of St. Elsewhere and Northern Exposure, two of Network TV’s greatest accomplishments, never push that coincidence, too far. (Steve and Philip become casual friends but never more than that for a long while, until their respective marriages hit a rocky patch.) I’m not the first writer to postulate that The Americans is first and foremost a domestic drama, about the enormous difficulties of married life, with children and all the attendant worries, complicated in the Jennings’s case by why they live and act as they do. I’d argue, however, that this is not the most interesting element of the show, perhaps, because the Jennings’ marriage is so inconsistently and wobbly depicted. Philip frequently disappoints Elizabeth, as she’s much more of a communist true believer then he is, but then turns around and acts more mercilessly then she does. It’s the weakest link in the show’s many (strong) strands. Much more fascinating to my mind is what The Americans says about the respective societies it portrays.

Truth to tell, in this cold war of deception and secrecy, the United States is at a distinct disadvantage vis a vis the Soviets. It’s a free, porous society open to sleeper agents who can easily infiltrate it and go where they will. (As one agent puts it, referring to possible sleepers, ‘they speak better English then we do'.) Even if the Americans managed to place some sleeper agents inside the repressive Soviet Union, they would hardly be able to go where they wanted to, or do what they want without coming under the scrutiny of the KGB or the authorities. It’s a dictatorship, after all, and one which routinely spies on its citizens. Similarly, there’s a naiveté among the Americans, even within the FBI, as to the actual extent of Soviet subterfuge and infiltration in their country, a process which seems more like the stuff of paranoid spy fiction than real life possibilities. (In the masterful film adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, set around the same time as The Americans, only unfolding in Britain, there’s a similar incredulity that England’s security services have a Soviet mole deep within their bowels.) As Agent Beeman and his compatriots start to unravel the sleeper cell, their core beliefs about their enemy’s strengths begin to seriously erode. The flip side of all this is that the Soviet Union, insular and paranoid as it is, is seriously weak in one key aspect; it fails to fully understand how its enemy’s democratic society actually functions. When President Reagan is shot by John Hinckley, and Secretary of State Al Haig makes his ill advised and inaccurate comments about being "in control here,” which he wasn’t, their assumption is that it’s obviously a coup attempt. It’s a mark of their overwhelming insecurity and suspicions that they never stop to ask themselves why anyone as right-wing as Haig would want to topple an anti-Communist President.

Annet Mahendru & Noah Emmerich
More frightening is the dangerous lack of communication between the KGB agents, like the Jennings’ handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), and her bosses in the Soviet Union. Asked by Elizabeth whether the KGB had anything to do with the attempt on Reagan’s life (a more logical assumption than an American coup, considering Reagan’s stance on the USSR), Claudia says no, then adds that she hopes they weren’t. This is only a decade or so before the Soviet Union collapsed but already there is the sense that it’s an unstable entity, prone to serious miscommunications that could lead to nuclear war. That’s very scary. And when the Jennings plot to bug the study of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, hoping to get an idea of what he will be discussing with bellicose British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, you get an idea of how far these sleepers will go to attain their aims. (The Americans occasionally act the same way, as when they assassinate some KGB agents in Moscow, to avenge the murder of one of their own. And their own ranks are light on minority representation, with only one Hispanic agent who bemoans the fact that he can rise so high in the agency; that’s the legacy of the late racist FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man who would have felt perfectly at home in Stalin’s Russia. )

And while some of the Jennings’ brutal actions make (some) moral sense; the killing of a KGB defector whom they’ve captured is prompted by the rape committed by him against Elizabeth back in the USSR – the flashbacks to Philip and Elizabeth’s prior lives are judiciously and effectively revealed throughout the season – other murders, such as Elizabeth’s casual dispatch of a security guard, who need only have been disabled, are startling in their sheer ferocity and, amoral, evil, intent. Her character (and performance) is riveting, not least because Keri Russell has done a sharp 360 degree turn from the nice girl she played in the Felicity TV series (1998-2002), whether she’s seducing a man in a bar, dolled up in a sexy, flamboyant disguise or threatening to kill Philip when she contemplates the possibly of his defecting to the other side. (He’s put that thought in her head when he extols the U.S. for having pretty decent food and a lack of line-ups for necessities of life, the dour reality back home.) Yet, one also sympathizes with Elizabeth as she’s been given a life she never planned for and basically had no choice but to accept. Under her murderous veneer, there’s also a vulnerable woman. Rhys, a Welsh actor, is superb, too, as Philip; as is Margo Martindale, as the matronly Claudia, a diehard Communist who, nonetheless, fears Elizabeth, who goes much further than she ever could. Elizabeth is something of a liability to the cause, too, because she’s so unpredictable in her actions. Claudia also doesn’t trust the couple, a revelation played out in one of the series’ most disturbing, intense scenes. Noah Emmerich’s Agent Beeman is compelling, but never more so as when he blackmails Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Soviet embassy employee, into spying for the Americans, and then becomes romantically involved with her. Clearly, in addition to being more than a little burned out from his previous assignment, he’s lost his moral bearings, too. It’s a mark of the generally strong writing and plotting of The Americans that their relationship doesn’t play out as expected. If it had trod a more predictable path, it still would have packed an emotional punch. Richard Thomas, as Agent Frank Gaad, Beeman’s callous superior (he doesn’t care too much that Nina is risking her life photographing classified documents for him) is the other actor bursting out of his ‘decent’ shell in the show. The near saintly John Boy Walton (The Waltons (1972-83), he isn’t.

Noah Emmerich & Matthew Rhys
There are other arresting story arcs, from Philip’s arduous wooing, in vaguely hippieish disguise, of Gaad’s vulnerable secretary Martha (Alison Wright), which appals because of how false he is to the ‘Americans,’ natives and sleepers who aid the cause, including Gregory (Derek Luke), a former African American militant and lover of Elizabeth, and a Communist posing as a pompous conservative TV talk show host (that could explain Rush Limbaugh!). Some things don’t work – the Jennings’ kids, who are in the dark about their parents, don’t seem believable as American teenagers, they’re amorphous characters at best – and season one was too hastily wrapped up, as Beeman seemed to be getting closer to blowing open the Jennings’ cover. (That can’t happen too soon or where will the show go?) It made me wonder if Weisberg, like The X-Files’ Chris Carter, was making it up as he went along. We’ll know soon enough if he is.

Everything else in The Americans is spot on, from the pitch perfect period details to the old fashioned spying apparatus – in 30 plus years, technology, including spy craft, has advanced further than the Jennings could ever have imagined – to the simple pleasures of cat and mouse espionage games, albeit with a significant component of innocents, on both sides, caught in the crossfire and a persistent sense of vertigo as we endeavour to discern what’s what. As with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there is almost a quaint sense of nostalgia inherent in The Americans – today’s nihilistic jihadists are a whole different kettle of fish in terms of their not adhering to any rules of civility as 24 showed us not too long ago. But there is also an alluring peeling back of a secret spy world – here a mix of fact and fiction - that never gets old dramatically. Hopefully, season two will continue in that irresistible, alluring vein.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor.

1 comment:

  1. I like this series, because as you said it isn't promoting moral equivalence. You get an insiders view of their motivations and reasons to dislike the US society they live in, but you also get to see the elephant in the room as well, their own seeming complete lack of awareness of the huge double standard they live by - their own amoral actions being for the most part worse than anything the American Government (or other Western Governments they oppose) is doing to the Soviets. Although in series 3, you get to see Elizabeth (in trying to justify why she is putting to death (by pills) an old woman they disturbed late one night in an operation) seemingly get close to the emotional breaking point just after the old woman has expired. She had tried to tell the woman that ultimately, her death (to avoid the woman being a witness) was ultimately "to make the world a better place". But before dying the woman retorts back "that is what evil people say to attempt to justify what they are doing". I am interested to see where this series is going, especially the storyline to do with the idea to recruit Paige their daughter, into being a Soviet agent herself. Especially interesting given that Paige has just been baptised into a Christian (although fairly left of centre) Church.