End of Season Report: The Americans

29 May

Two Americans, Two Soviets

The Americans has been one of the most rewarding new shows of the year, cementing the very solid FX brand name by putting a season together more than worthy of the promise shown in the first episode.

A quick caveat before I begin:  I understand this show could potentially pose a problem for people who prefer likeable protagonists, and even for some that can tolerate somewhat unlikable protagonists, but have a limit.  While main characters Elizabeth and Philip are not necessarily unlikable personality-wise or in their behavior towards their family, they are agents working for the Soviet government against the United States, and they not only spy but commit violent acts, sometimes against innocent victims.  Unless you’re a hardcore ol’ Commie, you’re not going to be rooting for them to succeed.  That said, if you can get used to having a complicated relationship with the protagonists, rooting for them in limited circumstances, while against them in others, you’ll do just fine, and I think that attitude is necessary to fully enjoy several excellent TV shows that have appeared over the last decade.

Elizabeth and Philip were sent to America as mere teenagers to build a fake life as a cover story so that they could spy for the USSR and commit all sorts of espionage without being discovered.  Of course, it’s hard to build a really convincing fake life without building somewhat of a real one in the process, a new problem created by the existence of longterm undercover agents.  Elizabeth and Philip love their kids, and their kids, a responsible teenage girl and a younger boy, love them back. They don’t at all, as far as we know, suspect anything about their parents true work (the parents claim to work together as travel agents), which if they ever found out, would probably drive them to decades of psychiatry or violence or, well, who can know just yet, and maybe we’ll find out.  Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage is tested over the course of the season, but their mutual devotion to their kids remains constant.  This devotion tests their loyalties to their country.  They, or at least, Philip, kind of like it in America, and as much as they feel a responsibility towards their jobs, there may be limits in how far they’re willing to go for work, in order to keep their kids safe and in the dark.

Next door neighbor Stan Beeman is an FBI agent with a background in counter intelligence, having gone undercover as an Aryan radical before relocating to DC to help fight Commies.  He’s undeniably skilled at his job, and his instincts often prove correct, including when he suspected Elizabeth and Phillip as possible agents right away, before cooling on them when they were able to diffuse his suspicions just in time.  However, his abilities are compromised by his emotional vulnerabilities and damaged family life.  His wife, tired of his late work hours and endless devotion to the job over his family, turns away from him, and at the same time, he begins an affair with his charge, a Russian agent he was able to turn.  The joke’s on him later in the season when the Russian agent turns back and becomes a double agent, using Stan for information, but he’s too emotionally compromised and invested to see it.  She may have turned against him due to finding out he killed an innocent, or as innocent a Soviet agent who works for their spy agency can be, Soviet in cold-hearted revenge and frustration from the death of his FBI partner.  The spy game is an endless cycle of people using one another and it’s very difficult to develop genuine emotional bonds when they’re formed out of manipulation and the mutual need for information.

The Americans pays close attention to the value of loyalty, to both family, and to country, and to what happens when they collide.  Loyalties more than directly conflict, they get tangled up in complicated webs.  When Elizabeth and Phillip were assigned to be a couple as teens in the USSR, they didn’t love each other, it was part of the job.  Years later, they have kids.  Is their loyalty to their kids more important than country?  It seems to go back and forth a couple of times during the season.  Historically, eunuchs were highly trusted by leaders because they could never have kids, their loyalty to whom would preempt their loyalty to the state.  The USSR had no such plan.  Early in the season, it seems as if Philip is ready to defect, and the only factor preventing him is his love of his wife, who is far more devoted to the cause.  Her devotion is tested throughout, most explicitly, when Soviet agents kidnap and torture Philip as a test, but also when she feels like she is frequently being used her handlers for missions which present an unreasonable level of risk, potentially endangering her children.

The Americans is packed with layer upon layer of deception. Philip and Elizabeth are constantly disguising themselves for their job, but correspondingly separating themselves from their identities as well, offering them a chance to play different roles.  When your primary identity is based on a lie, maybe it’s not necessarily truer than any other disguise.  Is Philip more real than Clark, the guise he takes in order to seduce and later even marry a lonely FBI employee who proves an important source? Neither is his actual name.  The source loves him, for real, and more or less unconditionally, compared to Elizabeth, with whom his relationship is far more complicated, but more honest as well. Halfway through the season, Phillip meets up with an old flame from the homeland in New York, and has a brief affair with her.  This is the last straw that drives him and Elizabeth apart for the remainder of the season, especially when he lies about it.  Between the deceptions and the lies, it’s not hard to see where both parties are coming from.  Philip has been far more devoted to the relationship for years and, after learning that Elizabeth may have been more in love with American left-wing convert Gregory for years, he feels like he’s tired of giving too much.  Elizabeth in her own time, is finally coming around to have genuine feelings for Philip, and just when these feelings are starting to coalesce, her belief is broken by not just his affair, but by his lying to her face about it.  It’s hard to have trust in a marriage between spies whose job is to lie for a living, not to mention have sex with other people, or even longer-term affairs, as Philip does as Clark.  They’re also constantly subject to manipulation by their superiors – it was their handler that let Elizabeth know that Phillip was cheating, and it becomes ever more difficult for everyone in the show to tell what’s true and what’s not.  Constantly at issue is who can be trusted, and why, and not just among the main characters.  There’s Gregory, a true believer, whom Elizabeth believes is trustworthy because of their relationship, but about which others disagree. The spies rely on men in gambling debts and other misfortune, with whom they have leverage to prevent them from going to the authorities.  Elizabeth’s devotion, as mentioned earlier is absolute at the beginning, but begins to waiver.

There’s plenty of action and suspense as well.  This is a spy show, after all.  There’s plenty of chases, lots of cool spy gadgetry and some exchanges and secret rendezvous.  Of course, the majority of these are on behalf of the red menace against the United States, but that doesn’t make them any less cool.  There’s more wigs and costume changes than a Nicki Minaj concert (Hey oh!).  Some borrow from some of the famous spy operations of the past (the poison umbrella tip borrows from a famous assassination of a Bulgarian journalist), and some are wholly invented by the writers, which can detract from the story in some instances, but in this instance I’m willing to grant some leeway from exact reality for the purposes of plot.  Also, I’d like to give a shout out to the solid period soundtrack, which doesn’t simply overuse the songs from the time which are most well known now, picking solid second tier hits like “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash.

I think the first season of The Americans accomplished a lot.  I look forward to see what Joe Weisberg and crew can do with the second.  I think there’s plenty of places to go both plotwise, and exploring a lot of the issues and characters that have made the first season such a fun ride.

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