A typical American family unit in the early 80’s is actually a front for a couple of Soviet spies embedded in suburban idyll, living the American Dream. The premise of The Americans is straightforward enough – it is, after all, a spy show set at the height of the Cold War – and maybe doesn’t sound like much more than a cool idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it keeps running just slightly below most people’s radars even after four seasons – just like its central characters try to do. Personally, I find it to be the best drama show currently on television.
As Emily Nussbaum correctly pointed out in The New Yorker, The Americans is a show driven by sexual tension. That said, there isn’t a single scene of gratuitous nudity in all its four seasons (yes, I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Instead, the show writers make sure that every sex scene counts, because it needs to demonstrate that sex is power. The power to gain purchase in negotiations, to subdue a strong character and make them vulnerable, to weaken a psychological advantage, or simply to balance trust/domination issues between spouses.
Mostly, however, it’s a show about the slow unraveling of lives built around a lie, but sustained by bonds of love and a struggle for genuine intimacy. This paradox at the core of the show is what creates the suspense and propels the action. It also keeps circling back to the same questions: where do the lies stop, and where does the real person begin? Are they getting close to someone because they crave genuine human contact and warmth, or are they working to convert them into “assets”? How can you trust anything that comes out of their mouths?
This is Game of Spies. The basic issue explored in the show is the unreliability of the characters’ narratives, both in what they tell others and what they tell themselves. The viewer is drawn into this guessing game almost unconsciously, trying to read poker faces and guess at motivation. Both the Soviet and the American spies find themselves in the same position, which is impossible to defend, or sustain, for long: they lie and fight to keep their secrets, but they also lie and fight to protect those they love. And slowly but inexorably, their loved ones become collateral damage. Strung out between love and duty, there is no win-win situation for anyone on this show.
As I already mentioned in a brief note a few months ago, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, as the married spy couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, are a revelation. I used to watch Felicity religiously in my college days, and always found Russell’s acting good, but nothing that I saw there hinted that she could deliver this taut performance of fierce single-mindedness. Rhys, whose face seems to be set in a permanent mask of pain by season three, is a study in emotions.
Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship anchors the show and is an emotional masterpiece unmatched by any other show in current running. Russell and Rhys have a strong chemistry that somehow deepens from season to season. As Elizabeth and Philip slowly crack under the pressure of guilt and fear, they still fight through to find a way to communicate and to support each other. By season four, they are both so exhausted and weighed down by the increasingly futile nature of their work that their communication is often wordless, yet clues in the viewers seamlessly.
In an interesting subversion of typical masculine and feminine roles, Elizabeth has the stronger will of the two. Already in season one, Philip starts to question their mission and his unraveling begins. She seems more guarded in her emotions. There is a coldness about her, visible in the grim set of her jaw. It’s her determined focus and ideological conviction that keep Philip on track. Elizabeth doesn’t waver until season three, when their family is threatened and her past is dragged into the present.
Philip’s strength is gradually revealed in the gentle way he cares for Elizabeth; a role typically reserved for female characters on similar shows. Viewers come to realize that he’s only staying in the job so that he can look after her and their family. When she is weakened, he steps in to shield her and give her some breathing space. In any other show, the emotional and psychological strain these two labor under would exact a heavy toll on the relationship, but hardship seems to solidify Philip and Elizabeth’s bond. In their line of work, they are quite literally the only two people they can trust.
In season three, the couple’s elder daughter, Page, turns 15 and finds out that her parents are Soviet spies. Her life becomes confusion and turmoil beyond typical teenage wasteland. And yet, in a show that doesn’t lack strong female characters, it’s Page who takes you by surprise. Sweet and docile in the first two seasons, she reveals enormous willpower and unexpected strength in seasons three and four when she shoulders the burden of sharing her parents’ secret. Drawn into the arena of lies and subterfuge, her struggle to maintain a sense of integrity and self-respect becomes a major plot point in season four.
Season four is about parenting as much as it is about spy-work. As she processes and adjusts, Page starts to serve both as a mirror to her parents and a mouthpiece for the viewers. Her questions echo those posed by the show itself: who are you people? How can I trust anything you say? Are you telling me something because you’re trying to recruit me to your cause, or is this something you genuinely believe? Do you realize how crazy and overwrought this all looks to an outside observer? In a show centered around the exchange of information, words suddenly lose meaning, and an ‘I love you,’ or ‘Everything will be all right,’ are simply not enough.
There is a permanent feeling of doom about The Americans. Season four ended with Philip and Elizabeth’s whole mission on the verge of collapse as they face a difficult choice – stay or run? But history also looms large on the show’s horizon: it’s late 1983 and everyone is glued to their television sets watching the movie The Day After, which fictionalized an escalation of nuclear war on U.S. soil to show its possible aftermath. In the larger picture, the end of the Soviet Union is nigh, and the spies on both sides are weary and frightened. How, and when, will it end for Elizabeth and Philip?
Maybe Sting captured the sentiment best of all: