Now, it’s possible you may be someone whose not yet found the FX political thriller. If so, heed the following counsel: DVR Wednesday night’s premiere. Sign on to Amazon Prime or iTunes and get caught up. The Americans is not a show to jump in midstream and things, at this juncture are, well… complicated.
On the surface, it seems a straightforward story about a family living the American dream. The Jennings, Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys
, Keri Russell
), own a nice suburban home in a nice suburban neighborhood. Two cars in the garage; one of which is a sports car. Two kids: Paige and Henry. Mom and dad work hard in the travel agency which they own. And at night, they never get bored, cuz they’ve always got a little spyin’ to do. A little Russian spyin’. In fact, they often have spy tasks to handle during daylight hours; handlers to meet, dead drops to execute, new spies to train, government secrets to steal and pass and supper to get.
Of the parents it’s been Philip, whose bond with Mother Russia has been malleable. Season 1, he made it clear to Elizabeth, he would not be adverse to grabbing the kids with her, changing their names and disappearing into the vastness of the United States. His first allegiance has always been to his family. Elizabeth says the same is true for her, but her issues with family are so intertwined with Mother Russia, she probably isn’t aware there is a difference. The two, in her mind it seems, have always been intrinsically linked. Her main concern for the children centers around them being too comfortable, to used to having things… too Americanized. Elizabeth doesn’t appear happy unless there’s a little bit of angst around her; that is her normal. Furthermore it’s as if pain and hardship should be everyone’s true north. To want or to desire ‘things’ is evil and makes one ‘soft.’
This then is also part of the show’s brilliance. Creator/executive producer/writer Joseph Weisberg has developed, with co-exec producer/writer Joel Fields, complex, fully-charged human beings. They are not paint by number characters; even Elizabeth with her razor-blade, no nonsense, “this is for the greater good,” pat-line.
We feel for them because we are brought into their family reality. They are—at the end of each mission—two parents trying to do right by their kids, each other and they’re original commitment: spying for Mother Russia, which they still believe is all about making the world a better place for all.
This is no mean feat to accomplish, for we really like the Jennings. We remain wholly invested in Philip and Elizabeth remaining uncaught… even as they execute horrific assignments and carry on the next day as if nothing has happened. Even as they consciously lie, creating layers of mist around their patterns of behavior, so that their children, or neighbor, who happens to work for FBI Counterintelligence, doesn’t get wise to their true goings-on.
To create this empathy, the casting of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip was genius. Russell, who has always been well-liked and a solid talent was, nonetheless, unexpected as this efficient, kick-butt espionagette. Rhys, who takes to dialects and foreign languages like one takes to one’s own bed, slips in and out of his various disguises with aplomb and, for us, a certain amount of glee. They’re both exceptional and their chemistry the same.
Charisma not withstanding, how did our anti hero/heroine arrive at this juncture in their lives?
A tangential, but quick, summary:
World War II had more than one ending in 1945: May 8, VE-Day, the official end of the deadly turmoil in Europe and VJ day, which came some months later, August 15, when Japan’s Emperor Hirohito surrenders, unconditionally, to General MacArthur and the US forces.
In less that a year, the beginnings of a different sort of war—a very cold war—spanning the entirety of forty years, plus three—began to take shape.
February 9, 1946, Stalin delivered a close to chest thumping speech (the Bolshoi speech) which praised communism and the Soviet’s role in winning the war. However, the proletariats’ leader, went further… blaming the start of the war on the inherent conflict that exists when countries are polar opposite in their approach to living. In essence he declared capitalism and communism as being utterly incompatible. He also stated:
“World capitalism proceeds through crisis and the catastrophes of war”
The West took it as a none-too-thinly veiled hint of hostility towards them, their allies and their chosen way of governing and living. There was also indication that Stalin’s grasp would start to extend, beyond those territories currently under Soviet regime, in order to build world dominance.
Britain’s response was pretty much immediate, coming less than a month later (March 6, 1946) in the form of another speech—known as the Fulton speech—by then Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill didn’t wrap his words in batting either; as he accused the Soviets of, essentially, imprisoning their people behind “an iron curtain.” (a phrase which stuck) He called for all of the “imperialistic” nations to join with him in the fight against the spread of communism
Here’s part of Stalin’s response to Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech:
“Mr. Churchill now stands in the position of a firebrand of war. And Mr. Churchill is not alone here. He has friends not only in England but also in the United States of America. In this respect, one is reminded remarkably of Hitler and his friends. Hitler began to set war loose by announcing his racial theory, declaring that only people speaking the German language represent a fully valuable nation. Mr. Churchill begins to set war loose, also by a racial theory, maintaining that only nations speaking the English language are fully valuable nations, called upon to decide the destinies of the entire world….
“As a result of the German invasion, the Soviet Union has irrevocably lost in battles with the Germans, and also during the German occupation and through the expulsion of Soviet citizens to German slave labor camps, about 7,000,000 people. In other words, the Soviet Union has lost in men several times more than Britain and the United States together. It may be that some quarters are trying to push into oblivion these sacrifices of the Soviet people which insured the liberation of Europe from the Hitlerite yoke. But the Soviet Union cannot forget them.”
He also is quoted as saying that by ensuring the other western nations were allied with him, Churchill (and thus Britain) was ultimately responsible for the start of the Cold War: a war which began just six months after the official end of World War II. It lasted for 43 years.
It is into this political atmosphere Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (their American names) are born and bred. They came from working class towns, lived working class lives and were recruited and trained in their early teens. Theirs is the strangest of all arranged marriages. Although expected to bear children, in order to protect their American cover story, it was never part of the deal that they actually fall in love and form a true family unit. That they might come to have wants and desires having nothing to do with their espionage assignment only exists, in degrees of importance, to Moscow and the KGB if those wishes appear to put the mission at risk.
The Americans, Season 4 begins March 1983. There was a sequence of events which occurred that caused some extreme anxiety at the time. There are historians who say
The most dangerous period of the Cold War happened during 1983.
Of course we, United States civilians, were kept, blissfully, unaware, but this is what our hero and heroine (anti though they may be) have to look forward to this year. This and navigating their home and family life.
At the end of Season 3, Philip’s growing unease deepens, as the hard choices he’s forced to make in support of his country also force him to examine exactly how his commitment to the cause is affecting his family. There is also a deep hurt that seeps out of him with every violent deed or questionable assignment issued from the Directive. One wonders, with each blow, when does one become the very monster from which one is protecting the children.
To this point, last year, also, saw an underlying issue grow from a bubble to a boil as their teen daughter finally confronts them head on and they are forced to tell her the truth about who they are and what they do.
This isn’t a show about easy fixes, however. Paige doesn’t fall in line after a couple of beats. There are consequences to the lying that have become so natural to them. It’s uncomfortable to watch as it plays out so realistically.
Last season we saw Paige confide in her minister, Pastor Tim, about her parent’s true identities:
We also have seen from FX’s released tease that Paige is about to set a trap for her parents; actually work against them.
Martha, Matthew’s compromised “inside woman” in the FBI is about to face a reality she never asked for and has no idea how to get out of without spending some jail time. All because she fell in love. New York magazine has called her “the saddest character on TV.” They’re not wrong. Agent Beeman has also screwed his life up royally and, ironically, has formed an odd bond with the Jenning’s youngest son Henry, but these are topics worthy of their own analysis in a separate post.
An old fashioned spy tale, with a tough edge, The Americans is wrapped in patriotism for both sides; infused with issues of trust, honor, loyalty, betrayal, paranoia and suspicion, danger and fear.
We’re excited for tonight and for this season of The Americans. An FX show that gets better and better