Set in the 1980s, in the final decade of the Cold War, the protagonists are a pair of KGB agents operating in the United States. By putting the focus on the Russians, the series is taking the unusual step of asking its American viewers to root against their own country.
The spies are Phillip (Matthew Rhy) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). (They have Russian names too, but the audience will have to wait to find out what they are.) They are long-term, deep-cover KGB operatives posing as ordinary Americans. And I do mean long-term: when the series begins, Phillip and Elizabeth have been “married” for 15 years. They have regular jobs and a house in the suburbs. They speak perfect English and never utter a word of Russian. Most disturbingly, they have two children who have been raised as Americans and who have no idea that they are living in a Truman Show-esque artificial reality.
Did Soviet spies actually live like this, I wonder? Apparently so. Joe Weisberg, the creator of the series, worked for the CIA before becoming a television writer. He has said that The Americans was inspired by a real-life Russian spy ring uncovered in 2010, some of whose members spent 10 years pretending to be American citizens. During the Cold War, the KGB was notorious for its willingness to use “illegals” — spies who attempted to blend in and infiltrate target nations without the protection of diplomatic immunity.
In any case, this is such a bizarre way for human beings to live that the family drama ends up being at least as compelling as the spy stuff. Despite their arranged marriage and double life, Phillip and Elizabeth are oddly functional as a couple. Phillip is protective of his family and genuinely loves his wife, though he is pained by the way she uses her sexuality to extract information. Elizabeth is the more inscrutable of the pair, initially coming across as an ideological fanatic who has only lukewarm feelings towards her husband. But she cares for her children, even though she is troubled by their upbringing in a capitalist Western society.
The espionage plotline is handled less adroitly than the family drama. In the pilot episode, the couple faces a conundrum over whether to murder a Russian defector. It turns out that the defector is a rapist and he had sexually assaulted Elizabeth in Russia. This almost feels like a cop-out on the part of writers, as if they were afraid that making the defector too nice would alienate the audience. It later emerges that Phillip and Elizabeth’s new neighbour is an FBI counterintelligence agent, a development that even the on-screen characters admit is a strange coincidence. The narrative succeeds in maintaining tension, however, and it seems ungenerous to complain too much about the details.
One of the pleasures of The Americans is the way it shines a light on Western culture by showing it through the eyes of outsiders. Something as prosaic as a shopping mall takes on a poignant significance when visited by Phillip and his daughter, and we witness flickers of admiration for the system he has vowed to destroy. Later, a speech by an astronaut at a school is received with enthusiastic flag-waving from the audience and it’s easy to see how, from the Russian perspective, this might seem scary and jingoistic rather than a harmless display of patriotism.
In the end, The Americans succeeds in its goal of getting the audience to sympathise with the losing side of the Cold War. The spy plotline will hopefully become deeper and more complex as the season progresses. But, for now, the series is already a mesmerising portrait of an unusual family living in some of the strangest circumstances imaginable.
The Americans airs on Thursdays at 9.30pm on M-Net