Film & Television

‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels

By Matthew Clayfield
Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms

From the very first episode of FX’s The Americans, the sixth and final season of which began airing last month, it was clear that the show was going to be something special. Perhaps it was seeing Keri Russell, who once seemed destined to be known forever as Felicity Porter, going down on an FBI bureaucrat to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, destroying any preconceived notions we had about her in the process. (Re-watching the episode recently, I was surprised when she got in her car and immediately removed her wig. Her character, Elizabeth Jennings, would never discard her disguises so publicly these days.) Or perhaps the realisation dawned later, when Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” kicked in and Russell’s Elizabeth and Matthew Rhys’s Philip doused the corpse of a KGB defector with acid and disposed of it in a wastewater pool.

Whatever the case, the show made an impression. As it progressed, it lived up to its early promise and then began to surpass it. It boasts a lot: the most nuanced portrayal of marriage on television, an awareness of space that eludes so many post-Bourne action films, a soundtrack that bears us back ceaselessly into the ’80s, and an FBI mail robot that has become an unlikely breakout star. It’s the best drama currently on television.

When the show premiered back in 2013, it was seen by some as a period piece in the vein of Mad Men or Masters of Sex. A show about Soviet sleeper agents working in the shadows of Reagan’s America, it capitalised on a certain ’80s nostalgia, which later shows like Stranger Things would also go on to mine. A family drama masquerading as a paranoid thriller, its handling of relationships was deft and affecting, while its air of geopolitical intrigue was a novel, if seemingly irrelevant, frame on which to hang them.

It is true that the Anna Chapman affair had made headlines a few years earlier, but even that seemed more like a throwback than a clear and present danger, the whole idea of the honeytrap somehow woefully out of date, even camp. (The Americans has embraced a degree of camp from the beginning. All those wigs! Those oversized glasses!)

What a difference five years make. The world and its views on Russian intelligence operations have changed a lot since The Americans first aired. Indeed, the world has become increasingly like the show, even as the show has inched closer towards us in time. The Americans, like House of Cards before it, finds itself in the unenviable position of having been outpaced by the old chestnut that is reality: Donald Trump is president, former spies and their daughters are slumped over in parks, there are reports that Russian hackers have targeted the US power grid and other critical infrastructure sectors. The show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, has responded in the only level-headed and artistically sound way he could have: by ignoring the parallels, focusing on his characters, and attempting to stick the landing on his own terms.

Death hangs over season six like a pall. It does so on multiple levels, including the obvious meta one that is the fact that we’ve only got a handful of episodes left. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power and Perestroika under way. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the so-called “end of history” await. The Jennings’ marriage is on thinner ice than it has been at any time since the show began, the result of the couple’s decision, at the end of last season, to stay in America rather than return to Russia, and for Philip to cease working alongside Elizabeth in the field.

Elizabeth is now overworked, emotionally isolated, and fast approaching her breaking point. She’s killed three people in as many episodes, with uncharacteristic recklessness. She’s chain-smoking like a champion. Watching her one extended scene with Philip in the season premiere – the tone she adopts, the way he stands there and takes it, the obvious lack of connection between them – one could be forgiven for feeling that we’re back where we started five years ago. If it’s harder to take this time around, it’s because we’ve seen them at their best since then. (Hell, last season they made their sham marriage official.) To return now and find them all but estranged cuts the long-time viewer deeply.

To top it all off, there are countless suggestions that someone might bite the bullet as well, which is to say the cyanide pill that’s currently hanging around Elizabeth’s neck. It’s a Chekhov’s gun – or ricin cigarette – if ever there was one.

Indeed, I can’t recall a final season of television opening with this many intimations of death since The Sopranos pulled onto the home stretch a decade ago – “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens” – and we all remember, or at least are still arguing about, how that one ended for everybody.

The final episode of The Americans’ fifth season was titled “The Soviet Division”, referring not only to the CIA unit dedicated to Cold War shenanigans, but also to the new division of labour that the couple agreed upon in the episode’s final moments. When the new season opens, that division has widened, and the first three episodes all but ensure that it’s going to grow wider still. Gorbachev is on his way to the US for the 1987 Washington Summit and members of the Russian military and KGB are worried he’s going to sell the farm. Others, who rather like Gorby’s reformist zeal, have learned that the hardliners are planning to derail the summit with the help of a certain sleeper agent. Perhaps the agent’s husband might be coaxed out of retirement to keep her in check?

The stage is thus set for The Americans’ take on Spy vs. Spy, or perhaps Mr & Mrs Smith, only watchable. This suggests a return to the high-stakes espionage of earlier seasons, which will come as a relief to those who found the fifth comparatively contemplative and domestic. I was among those who appreciated the slower approach and believe it will be vindicated once the dust has settled on the series. By bringing things down a notch for thirteen episodes, and methodically surveying the lay of the land, Weisberg allowed us to catch our breath before plunging us headlong into the endgame. Now he can force us to hold it again as the threads inevitably begin to unravel. One thread in particular – speaking of Chekhov’s gun – comes immediately to mind: the Jennings’ FBI agent neighbour, Stan, who must, by international law, learn the truth about his squash partner and his wife before the final credits roll.

Focusing on the last days of the Cold War may make sense for the show and its characters, but that hasn’t prevented Weisberg from having to field numerous irrelevant questions about current geopolitical crises in recent weeks. “We would like to pretend that we are geniuses who could tell the future,” he told the AP at the New York premiere in February, “but the fact is a lot of this show is just based on research about the past. All the storylines that seem so prescient are really about things that happened during the Soviet period, and it’s just happening again.” Russell and Rhys were also asked about the state of the world, as was executive producer Graham Yost, and doubtless every other person in attendance, whether they were involved with the show or not.

It is becoming all too easy to look at art – particularly popular art like television – through the prism of the events of the day. As a critical strategy, it’s a reliable, highly clickable go-to, albeit one that critics and reporters should be wary of employing too frequently. But it’s also hard to avoid. The events of the day seem always to be pressing in on us, colouring everything their noxious hue, making it difficult to disconnect for even an hour to take succour from entertainment, and rendering even the most minor fare a potential statement on our state of emergency.

Of course, the approach is occasionally warranted. The first season of American Crime Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson, was very clearly intended as a commentary on race and gender relations and how little they’ve changed in America since the mid 1990s, drawing a direct line between Rodney King and Ferguson, between the treatment of Marcia Clark and contemporary gender politics. The recent reboot of Roseanne makes it plain from the outset that depicting the white working class today – the show was always a trailblazer on that front – means depicting the political disaffection and resentment that led to the election of Donald Trump. (The television reboot is fast becoming the equivalent of the Hollywood remake. We’ve already had The X-Files and Will & Grace, with others – including, for some reason, Mad About You – currently in the pipeline. Given the tenor of the times, Roseanne is among the very few that seem justified by more than mere nostalgia, even if Roseanne Barr herself is a conspiracy-minded crank who believes that the federal government is run by lizard people.)

But these are the exceptions. Drawing too many parallels, or seeing everything as an op-ed in disguise, can very easily get in the way of a clear-eyed assessment of the work: by refusing to engage with it on its own terms, or by trying to shoehorn it one way or the other into the contours of the current moment – a moment that had not yet arrived when the scripts were being written and the episodes shot and edited – one runs the risk of not seeing it at all.

I am not immune to this. When I look back over my recent output – indeed, when I look back at the beginning of this piece – it strikes me that everything I’ve written over the past two years has eventually come back to Donald Trump, #MeToo or something similarly plucked from the headlines. Creators themselves aren’t immune to it, either. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year, South Park’s co-creator Trey Parker admitted that he and Matt Stone had fallen into the same trap. “[We were] becoming: ‘Tune in to see what we’re going to say about Trump.’ Matt and I hated it, but we got stuck in it somehow,” he said. (The pair famously had to rejig their first post-election episode at the last minute having all but completed another version that assumed Hillary Clinton would become America’s next president.) The pair promised to avoid current affairs from then on – the 21st season aired late last year – and to get back to basics, to scatology and curse words. By the season’s second episode, however, every other child in South Park was getting mowed down by distracted drivers reading presidential tweets on their smartphones. The preoccupation – ours and theirs – is real. They clearly empathise.

All of this makes The Americans’ restraint – this show that has had more room to manoeuvre and capitalise on the present than almost any other – all the more notable. It has entered its final season with the same cool-headed precision that its characters exhibit when the wigs come out and the silencers are affixed. We owe it to the show to approach it with this same cool-headedness: not as some weirdly prescient missive, or a finger pressed down hard on the pulse, but rather as the affecting family drama and perfectly executed thriller it is. For an hour each week – we don’t have too many of them left – the only question we should be asking about the Russians is whether Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are going to make it out of this alive.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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