This post discusses basic premise details of The Americans.
In the post-Tony Soprano world, television’s so obsessed with creating successful anti-heroes that it’s corrupted the word beyond its original meaning, applying it to all manner of dark characters. If a hero is someone we want to and should, within the structure of the story, root for, a villain is someone we want to and should root against, and an anti-hero is someone a show succeeds in making you want to root for, even though, by all the conventions of morality, we know we shouldn’t. Characteristically, the way we’ve known we shouldn’t cheer for an anti-hero is because they employ violence, either for reasons we know to be wrong, or to be ridiculous, be it Tony living out the terminal decline of the fantasy that is The Godfather in suburban New Jersey, Omar Little robbing drug dealers in Baltimore (both he and Maurice Levy are absolutely correct about each other), or Walter White cooking meth to live out a fantasy of his own genius and dominance that he failed to achieve in legal life.
Elizabeth Jennings (Kerri Russell), the KGB spy living under cover in the United States of 1980 in the Cold War drama The Americans, which premieres on FX tonight, represents a major break from this anti-hero tradition for two reasons. First, she’s a woman. As much as television has tried to create female anti-heroes, it’s often succeeded in doing something rather different. On Damages, for example, super-lawyer Patty Hewes was more of an anti-villain, a character we might have wanted to root for, given her work going after amoral corporations, but who the show succeeded in making chilly and repulsive, just as Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison is a conventional hero complicated by mental illness and fanaticism. In The Mob Doctor, Grace Devil, who the show’s creators billed as an anti-hero, was really a conflicted, dark hero. Elizabeth may be the first female character who truly fits that definition.
And the reasons she’s an anti-hero represent a significant break with the intellectual tradition of that trope on television. Elizabeth isn’t greedy, or myopic, or casually violent. She’s a deep and true believer in an ideology that will be alien to almost everyone who tunes in to The Americans, a devoted KGB agent who is working as hard as she can for the downfall of the United States. In one of the show’s nicest twists, Elizabeth is actually much more ideologically dedicated than her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys), who feels the lure of American prosperity, and with whom Elizabeth runs that most bourgeois of business as their cover, a Dupont Circle travel agency. When we see them arrive in the United States in a flashback, both Elizabeth and Phillip marvel over the availability of air conditioning, but while Phillip says that America exceeds his expectations, Elizabeth tightens her lips and declares “There’s a weakness in the people.” As Phillip begins to consider defecting, Elizabeth snaps at him that she would never follow him, “Because I am a KGB officer. Don’t you understand that? After all these years, I would go to jail, I would die, I would lose everything before I would betray my country.” And to hammer home her commitment, she tells Phillip in a subsequent episode that if their options are to be “Tortured, locked away, forced to betray everything we believe in if we ever want to see our kids again? I’m not going to make that choice.”
It’s a great source of pain to Elizabeth that keeping her cover means allowing her children with Phillip, Paige and Henry, to grow up to be Americans, with all the appreciation for capitalist consumer culture that entails. “I’m not finished with them yet. They don’t have to be regular Americans, they can be socialists, they can be trade unionists,” Elizabeth protests, in an argument that suggests she still believes that there’s some flexibility in the society she’s trying to take down. Phillip, more in love with the country they’re hiding out in, is less optimistic. “This place doesn’t turn out socialists,” he tells her.
Not only is the reason Elizabeth is someone we shouldn’t root for different than normal anti-hero convention, the reasons she’s tremendously compelling are as well. She’s competent, but it’s not that her badassdom overrides our moral qualms (though it seems that Margo Martindale, who arrives in the series by its third episode, could fill that role). It’s that her personal experience makes us question the extent to which we’re different from someone who’s on the other side of the Cold War, and who’s working for the downfall of capitalism. In their parenting of Paige, Phillip and Elizabeth’s anti-capitalist and parenting tendencies converge with feminist ones: Phillip’s repulsed by a man who propositions Paige, just 13, at the mall. Elizabeth is concerned when Paige begins sporting a bright red bra. And seeing Paige read Girl’s World magazine over breakfast, Phillip remarks “Bath to babe in under a minute? Now I know why your mom hates those magazines.”
And unlike the domestic nightmares of complicity in The Sopranos, Walter White’s rape and threatening of Skyler in Breaking Bad, or Don Draper’s fantastical reinvention of himself, The Americans uses its central conceit, that Elizabeth and Phillip were set up by the KGB, to make their marriage more like an everyday one, not less. When we see them introduced to each other, the Colonel who runs the program they’re part of, known as Directorate S, tells them to acquaint each other with “Phillip and Elizabeth’s lives. Not the other ones. Those should never be discussed,” because it will make it easier for them to blow each other’s cover. But the necessity of keeping secrets from each other means that Elizabeth and Phillip don’t have critical information about each other’s pasts, and keep making mistakes and pushing old buttons around each other. That—and the fact that their work routinely involves seducing other people—might have only been an operational problem for their partnership, but after years pretending to be husband and wife, Phillip and Elizabeth have developed a genuine emotional bond, but lack many of the tools and resources to develop it. If marriage is, as Curtis Sittenfeld put it in American Wife, “the slow process of getting to know another individual far better than was advisable,” Elizabeth and Phillip know the worst, most dangerous parts of each other, but are only now beginning to reveal their best and truest selves. At its best, it’s a heart-cracking, sexy process.
All of which is to say that The Americans, in addition to being potentially significant and emotionally well-constructed, is a tremendously fun show. Rather than using a premise made of chicken wire and fairy dust to try to say something important about policy as we enact it today, which is what Homeland has increasingly and erratically done, it’s a show that takes a myth of our policy past, the idea that the U.S. was full of Russian sleeper agents, and builds out from that to get us to think about sex, romance, honesty, and the other ingredients of healthy parents, what it takes to raise centered kids in a capitalist culture, and what it means to be loyal to institutions that aren’t always loyal to us, really, what it means to believe in anything at all. The clothes are a better and more restrained argument for a return to eighties style than The Carrie Diaries, and the use of music, from Fleetwood Mack’s “Tusk,” to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” has a wicked and highly ongoing flirtation with self-indulgence. And The Americans is the rare television show that has a sense of what a sense of what sex actually looks and feels like.
In addition to fine turns by Martindale and Derek Luke, Noah Emmerich is giving an absolutely crackerjack performance as Stan, an FBI agent just back from a deep undercover assignment investigating bank robberies by Arkansas white supremacist groups, who’s moved in across the street from Elizabeth and Phillip, and while he doesn’t know it, turns out to be on their tails. “Were you, like, burning crosses with those guys, and Heil Hitler?” one of the few Latino FBI agents in the bureau asks Stan when they’re paired together. “It was a little deeper than that,” Stan says, not elaborating further. “They shouldn’t ask us to do impossible things,” Elizabeth tells Phillip at one point. The Americans makes the point that “they” constituted both sides. And it’s about the people who lost before the Cold War was won.