FX has officially picked up The Americans, the spy show it announced it was developing last fall that stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as KGB agents whose cover involves living as a married couple with two children in the suburbs of Washington, DC in the early 1980s. I wrote last winter that I was excited for the prospect of a show that was about tradecraft, given that the main characters, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, would be practicing it both at home and in the real world. And the more I think about this, the better idea I think the show is.
Most Washington movies are very into the Halls of Power, which makes for soaring visuals that convey the immediate sense that the characters are Very Important People. But they ignore the potential of the relatively mundane suburbs, the prospect of scary people playing with power in the non-descript ranch houses and ring suburb parks far away from the National Mall. Breach, the tremendously underrated Billy Ray movie about Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who turned out to be spying for the Soviet Union and Russia, did a fantastic job of turning Hanssen’s house (he was played by Chris Cooper), his church, his indescribably bland office, and the park where he made drops horror movie locations. One of the tensest scenes in recent movies involves Ryan Phillipe, playing Eric O’Neill, the agent who was assigned to work with Hanssen and report on him, trying to sneak a Blackberry back into Hanssen’s briefcase without getting caught. The utter ordinariness of Hanssen’s settings became repugnant over the course of the movie because of the profound lie it represented.
Homeland‘s done something similar with returned prisoner of war Nicholas Brody’s family home. It’s a modest, light-flooded dwelling, a symbol of tranquil suburban domesticity that turns out to be full of secrets, privy only to Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent who’s conducting an unauthorized operation to spy on him, and to us. Brody and his wife struggle to resurrect their sex life on his return, he prays clandestinely in the garage, and he’s hidden a suicide vest in the closet. Instead of a familiar family dynamic, Brody’s return means his family home is suddenly full of secrets, something that show continues to explore in its second season.
It sounds like The Americans may have some levity to ease the tension—Phillip and Elizabeth are fake married, but one of the show’s conceits is that they’re falling in love for real. But FX would be smart to look to both Breach and to Homeland for their sense of how to play out quiet, hugely high-stakes dramas in suburban Washington.