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By Ericmetro (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

May 9, 2014

Loyalty, Deception, and “The Americans”

Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are your typical suburban couple: they have two teenage children, Paige and Henry, they run a small travel agency together, they show up with brownies when their new neighbors, the Beemans, move in across the street. As it happens, Stan Beeman is an FBI counterintelligence agent, and this is of some concern to the Jenningses who are, in fact, Soviet agents living deep under cover in 1980s Virginia. That is how The Americans, a spy drama on the FX channel, begins. Now in its second, brilliant season, The Americans has taken the Jenningses (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) on some hair-raising missions and shown them grappling with the immense pressures of life as both covert intelligence agents and the parents of teenage American children. Parallel to their story, the viewers have also gotten to know Stan (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent next door, who is possibly closing in on our (anti)heroes while engaging in questionable behavior of his own.

One of the motifs running through the series is the different personae that the Jenningses inhabit (and most other characters, really, but the Jenningses dramatize this most clearly). They are never truly out of character; indeed, they are in character while making toast in the morning, their real, Russian names, never spoken (except in a couple of flashback sequences in the first season), and we see them in various disguises, wearing a variety of wigs and costumes on their missions. With rare exceptions (such as when Elizabeth tells Phillip to “come home” – in Russian – or in intimate moments between the two of them) they are always mid-lie. Yet even more striking than the fact that they live a life of lies are the many scenes throughout the current season in which it’s not immediately clear (to the viewers) if what we are seeing is an honest and spontaneous emotional reaction or another put-on. Thus, Elizabeth abruptly breaking off an encounter with a potential mark on grounds of emotional fragility feels potentially honest, but turns out to be part of her plan to ensnare the young man. And the reason that we believe it to be honest is that we know that she is indeed more emotionally fragile than she would like to be.

In large part the tension in the show is the result of competing loyalties. Phillip and Elizabeth are working for their country, they are loyal Soviet citizens (Phillip has some doubts here and there, while Elizabeth is more of a true believer, but they do tend to believe in the rightness of their cause). Yet they know that every day they put their own children at risk, a fact brought brutally home at the beginning of the second season. Thus their loyalty to the cause and the homeland is always in conflict with their loyalty to their family, a tension that often leads them into even more danger. Stan Beeman, too, is caught between his loyalty to his country and his love for his source, Nina, a relationship that in itself constitutes both a breach of protocol and a breaking of his marital vows. And in the process of staying loyal to their country and/or each-other, Phillip and Elizabeth have killed innocent bystanders and engaged in complicatedly deceptive relationships that sure will lead, sooner or later, to the destruction of other lives (Martha!). “Let me assure you, agent Beeman, I would never betray my country,” says Fred (whom we already know to be a Soviet spy). “No one ever imagines they will,” replies Stan, who knows something about betrayal.

But the original sleight of hand is perpetrated by the series itself, which shows us the world primarily through the eyes of Soviet spies, presenting them in, if not a sympathetic, then a complicated light which allows us to feel for them and to be concerned for their safety. In the end, this is made possible by the fact that we know how the Cold War ended; we know that Phillip and Elizabeth lost, and the USSR is no more, and it is therefore possible, in the safety of historical distance, to root for the enemy. If espionage is your thing, you could do a lot worse than this dark, complex, beautifully acted, and intensely suspenseful series.

(Fun fact: books on the shelf in a spy’s home include novels by John LeCarré and the collected “Sherlock Holmes”)

(Image By Ericmetro (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

 

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