The Americans just started its fifth season in the USA, but its UK broadcaster is currently repeating Season 4 in the run-up to showing it here (I trust). Season 4 has also appeared on Amazon Prime in the UK. This has been good for me, because I missed the end of that season through being out of the country.
Although Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter has been consistent in saying that The Americans, give or take Fargo, is the best show currently on TV, I know nobody who watches it. There isn’t even anyone in my household who watches it with me.
It’s a puzzle. From the opening dramatic sequence of episode 1, which played out to the soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, to the last scene of Season 4, this show has been consistently excellent: tightly plotted, brilliantly paced, and full of convincing performances. It’s hard to understand why people aren’t watching. Perhaps its the series’ slow burn, which notwithstanding the dramatic opening referred to above, means that it is willing to wait (and wait) for plot points and twists to pay off, and not spend them too cheaply. Or perhaps it’s the scheduling: late at night in the UK, in the graveyard slot, though it’s hard to get your head round anyone being affected by that. More likely, the show hasn’t gained traction because not enough people are watching it and talking about it. So the real puzzle is why nobody is fascinated with a story about Russian illegals living in the USA in the Reagan era, as the Soviet Union wheezed to its end.
It’s the US equivalent of something like Smiley’s People, a story of spies and the people whose lives they destroy, of the cumulative effect of living inside the mirror maze of espionage. And it’s based on truth: there were people living in the States for years, pretending to be Americans, raised in fake American towns in the Soviet Union, educated in English, married to each other as part of the mission and not through any decadent Western notion of romantic love.
The series began with an obvious schism between Matthew Rhys’ Phillip and Keri Russell’s Elizabeth. She’s a true believer, committed to the cause and the mission, while he is wavering, not so much thinking of defecting as questioning the whole premise of their mission and quite enjoying his suburban American life. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is as desperately lonely as, say, Betty Draper in Season 1 of Mad Men, trapped in suburbia without a friend in the world.
Behind their 2+2 children facade is a brutal reality of deception, honey traps, false friendships and murder. One minute, a friendly chat with a neighbour over coffee or beer, the next: disposing of a body. And behind their all-American nuclear family lies a reality of sleeping around (for the mission) and adopting various personae as they go about the real job behind their fake job as travel agents. But isn’t that the case for all of us? That our lives are compartmentalised, and we have different selves that we present to the different people we interact with? So The Americans, more than being a drama about spies, is a drama about the way we all feel inauthentic all the time: the postmodern condition, if you insist. Or, as I prefer it, we’re all pod people.
As dramatic and interesting all this is, The Americans has layers and textures that make it far more than a run of the mill drama. It’s a period piece, for a start. Period dramas set in the 19th century are one thing; but to evoke the early 1980s in terms of hair, fashion, cars, home decor, and so on is in many ways much more challenging. A couple of cultural moments stood out in Season 4. The first was the occasion when David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty “disappear” on live TV. (It was on April 8, 1983, fact fans.) The reactions of the characters watching are on the surface typical of a suburban family of four; but under the surface, the tensions in the marriage are bubbling over, and disasters afflicting various operations lead to a bold 7-month elision of time and one character desperately faking it on a mini golf course.
The next cultural moment is another TV broadcast, this one of the TV movie The Day After, which portrays a fictional nuclear attack (20 November 1983, fact fans) on the town of Lawrence, Kansas. 100 million Americans watched the broadcast, and The Americans portrays all the main characters watching it, KGB and FBI alike. It’s a superb moment, and the ramifications, while subtle, are clear in the decisions some of them make afterwards.
1983 was probably the year, in recent memory, that the world came closest to armageddon. Apart from Reagan’s sabre-rattling, there were intense NATO and Warsaw Pact manoeuvres, and at least one nuclear false alert on the Russian side (when their missile detection system mistook sunlight reflecting off clouds for an attack) which took us within minutes of a missile launch. (1983 was the year in which I chose to set my novel The Obald, for all of these reasons.)
In The Americans, storylines that started in Season 1 pay off in Season 4 in various and devastating ways. The ability of the show to pace itself, to burn slowly, and to strip away cast members and storylines to the final dilemma is unprecedented.
There are wider and more subtle themes, too. The teenage daughter of Phillip and Elizabeth, Paige, comes under the influence of an evangelical Christian church, and her engagement with her religion causes tension between her committed Marxist parents, and (again) comes to a head in Season 4. The parallels between Christian evangelicals recruiting church members and spies recruiting agents are non-accidental. But there’s more: in Season 4, Phillip starts attending Est therapy, which makes him focus on his life, the brutality of his childhood in Russia and the way he is always required to please other people, including his KGB masters. All of this has the effect of re-igniting the doubts he was already expressing in Season 1, and to see Phillip standing at a meeting complaining about how he doesn’t want to be a travel agent any more even as he is being encouraged to give up his life in America and return to Moscow “a hero” is just one of the complex and beautiful knots that the show ties. And again: the cult-like nature of Est links to the cult-like Christian group, and the cult-like behaviour of KGB.
We are all pod people, is the message.
And now me: I am testifying now, to you, dear reader, that you really ought to watch The Americans.