The Americans: Review
With the conclusion of the third season of “The Americans” behind us it seems like a perfect time to do a review of this thrilling Cold War-era espionage series. I must confess I have deeply enjoyed the show’s run so far and eagerly am anticipated season four, whenever it may come, both for its plot and its underlying message, which is skillfully presented in a subtle yet very demonstrative way.
The basic premise of the show is straight forward. It follows the adventures of Philip and Elizabeth, two seemingly normal middle-class Americans who in secret are deep cover Soviet spies who clandestinely work on behalf of the USSR in the 1980s during the Regan presidency. The idea itself admittedly requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Whether or not such a feat of subterfuge could ever have been achieved in real life is questionable, but then again we are talking about a television show.
At first glance, “The Americans” could be read as your typical piece of liberal entertainment. There is no shortage of speeches and scenes of condemnation of both America and the western way of life spouted off by our erstwhile Soviet moles and their fellows. Regan has more than a few jabs made against him. The plight of the poor, and minorities, and all other usual subjects of sympathy for the left are often highlighted in the show. This especially comes from the character of Elizabeth, who is very much the true believer in our spy couple who is totally dedicated to the mission. Her husband Philip is less noticeably enthusiastic, but he never really offers much in the way of a counterpoint, more often coming across as vaguely dissatisfied and sad. The US intelligent services, most visibly Philip and Elizabeth’s next door neighbor Stan Beeman (an FBI agent), also offer little in the way of overt opposition to the ideology of the USSR. They want to catch spies because it is their job to catch spies. One could just as easily imagine them chasing back robbers or serial killers with the same resolution.
But as one watches “The Americans” one realizes that the show actually is doing something quite cleaver. There are no speeches extolling the virtues of “truth, justice, and the American way”, instead we see a million subtle little moments that simply show us the superiority of America and the West. Philip, our reluctant Soviet spy, toils every day in the service of communism, but he visibly enjoys the comforts he can afford as an upper middle-class American capitalist (he and Elizabeth run a successful travel agency as their cover….a very dated concept I know) such as buying a new sports car or taking his children on trips to amusement parks. The Soviet embassy is staffed mostly by the sons of high ranking Soviet officials, who use their parents’ influence to get them posted in America where they can enjoy jazz music and nightclubs and five-star hotels, delights simply impossible back in the jolly old workers’ paradise of Russia. In one poignant episode that covers the fallout of the attempted Regan assassination, the Soviets are in full on alert mode thinking this is a set up for a coup by the US military to start a war against Russia (because that’s exactly what something like this would be back home). When Stan Beeman has the possibility shared with him by an FBI double-agent his reaction is hilarity at the absurdity of such an idea.
In later seasons the show gives us even more condemning examples of the truly odious nature of the USSR. We see the lover of a dead undercover agent brutally murdered by Soviet intelligence so their love child can be spirited away to Russia to be raised there. A defector is forcibly kidnapped and separated from his wife and son so he can be expatriated back to the USSR where his scientific knowledge can be used in the service of Mother Russia. A South African nationalist burns alive an Afrikaner intelligence agent. A student activist recruited as an intelligence asset murders one of his fellow students in cold blood because he becomes aware of his double identity and this threatens the assets ability to continue spying. We’re given a first hand view of the KGB run prisons, which makes (the admittedly valid) criticisms of the American penal system seem quite trivial in comparison. The son of another pair of deep cover spies murders his parents and little sister because they object to the idea of him following in their footsteps and becoming a Soviet spy in his own right. Each of these moments is a far greater condemnation of communism, and the horrors committed in its name, than any number of grand speeches given by Elizabeth on the inequality of American capitalism. It shows the true vile nature of the USSR, who justified the use of absolutely unspeakable methods to further their idea of “the greater good”.
This message is further reinforced by “The Americans” willingness to admit to the dirty laundry of America in their covert war against the USSR. We see America’s support for the aforementioned Afrikaner regime in South Africa that instituted apartheid. We encounter US agents that worked to prop up Latin American dictators who helped weed out communist activists in their own countries. Mujahedeen rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan are seen being given support by the American government. Fair play is all I can say to this. The West did do these things, and “The Americans” leaves it up to the viewer to determine if this was justified or not. I happen to be of the opinion that it was, after all in World War Two we allied with “Uncle Joe” Stalin, who committed absolutely heinous crimes, because it was necessary to defeat the Nazis, who committed even more heinous crimes. Real life sometimes demands that we turn a blind eye to evil to prevent even greater evil.
Possibly one of the most damning condemnations of communism comes in the form of Philip and Elizabeth’s teenage daughter, Paige. The Soviet Union’s plans to recruit her as a future agent (who would be an American citizen in reality and not just in illusion) run into the unexpected roadblock of her finding religion. Elizabeth, being the staunch atheist that communism dictates she be, is none too pleased about this. In one scene she scoffs that the church and then synagogue are what keeps America running, and worries that her daughter will become a “Jesus freak”. Ironically enough, though, Paige’s newfound faith inspires her to begin doing such good deeds as helping the poor, and volunteering for charity. She even starts protesting nuclear weapons. Christianity, far from being Marx’s “opium of the people” instead is seen as being a vehicle for alleviating the very injustices that communism so opposes, but does so without bloodshed and oppression that communism created.
“The Americans” is definitely one of the most enjoyable and cleaver television shows I have seen in a long while. It is an excellent example of how a message can be delivered not by banging the viewer relentlessly over the head with words, but instead showed simply by the mere act of being. There is no one single dramatic moment where communism is denounced. Instead it shows in a million single small moments that “forcing our brothers to be free” is in fact the road to serfdom.