Friday, January 19, 2018

'The Americans': Love and duplicity in the Cold War

People like to joke that it's not fair when someone extraordinarily beautiful also has a great personality. Life's gifts should be handed out more equitably: The pimply faced loser should not also have to bear the burden of being a total drip, the supermodel should not be blessed with razor-sharp mind.

A similar sort of thought wandered through my head as I devoured the first five episodes of the new, second season of FX's The Americans, but instead of decrying the unequal allotment of resources, I was too busy enjoying them.

The Americans is a spy series, an action show, a romance, a period piece, and a love story with plot that would be fun to watch if it had not one thought in its badly bewigged yet still extremely pretty little head — but instead of no thoughts it has many. It is a kicky, swift-moving ride that uses its double agent protagonists to explore the divided loyalties and self-delusions that plague all humans, not just extremely attractive and bad-ass Soviet spies. The extremely attractive and bad-ass Soviet spies do, of course, help make the show's headier messages go down very easy.

In the first season, we were introduced to Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), two double agents seemingly enjoying a comfortable life in Reagan-era America (living outside D.C., working at a travel agency). Moscow had placed them in an arranged, fraught, long-term marriage that time, children, and enforced intimacy had rendered almost indistinguishable from a real one. Over the course of the season, Phillip and Elizabeth made their marriage, for the first time, entirely real to each other. They finally fell in love. The cover became the truth.

The new season tackles another cover that has never been just a pretense for Phillip and Elizabeth: parenthood. The show picks up a few months after it left off, with Elizabeth returning home to her husband and two children, fully recovered from the gunshot wound she sustained in the season finale. Almost immediately, Elizabeth and Phillip are forced to confront the extent to which their spy duties conflict with their parental responsibilities, the extent to which they have already, unthinkingly, put Mother Russia before their American children.

Meanwhile, Philip and Elizabeth's daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is increasingly suspicious of her parents, both because she is intuitive (there's a lot to be suspicious of) and because she is adolescent (parents are strange!).

Just about every character on The Americans is some kind of double agent, whether they know it or not. Martha (Alison Wright), Phillip's other wife — Elizabeth and Phillip's marriage is solid, but not uncomplicated — thinks she's just helping her government-employee husband do his job by sneaking a microphone into the head of FBI-counterintelligence's office. FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) may be doing everything he can to catch Russian spies, but he lies endlessly at home. He's cheating on his wife with a Soviet attaché Nina (Annet Mahendru), whom he only thinks he is running, but is actually running him — she's the show's first triple agent.

One of my favorite scenes from the new season has Martha and Elizabeth, in disguise as Phillip's sister, talking about Phillip as a lover: It's quintessential Americans, psychologically astute, pleasingly tawdry, and fundamentally twisted.

All of these characters — however flawed, however Russian — are presented sympathetically. The Americans is not particularly interested in telegraphing a judgment of its protagonists to the audience. Elizabeth and Phillips really are ruthlessly waging war on America, but the show treats them with understanding, as people motivated not by psychosis but principle and family. Watching, it is almost impossible not to root for these two Communists.

In this regard, The Americans works its American audience as effectively as its heroes work their marks: It makes double agents of us all.

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