You’ve seen it before, in a million family dramas, both the kind you see on TV and the ones in your living room. The 13-year-old daughter wants to leave the house dressed one way; her mother is adamant that it will be another. “Mom, things are different than when you grew up,” the teenager sighs in weary exasperation. “People are freer.” She has no idea how dreadfully correct she is: Her mother is no suburban soccer mom peering across a generation gap but a Soviet mole who has spent nearly two decades burrowing her way into a cover story so deep that her own children have never penetrated it.
FX’s ironically named new espionage drama The Americans is full of such moments, ambiguous yet revealing, mundane yet intense. It’s a fervid spy thriller, but also a searching examination of the nature of the ties of ideology and tribe and blood, of how they bind and when they break. Most of all, it’s a show you just don’t want to miss.
Set in 1981, just after the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, The Americans stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, whose neighbors in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., believe to be a happily married couple running a travel agency while juggling the typical troubles that come with two young kids.
In reality, Philip and Elizabeth are Russian-born spies who’ve been stealing secrets for Soviet intelligence since they slipped into the United States 16 years earlier. Their marriage is a sham of KGB convenience, though their children — and their love for the kids — are real enough.
But their espionage is getting more complicated and more dangerous as Soviet-American detente frays at the edges. The newly elected Reagan has denounced Soviet adventures in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, and Moscow leaders regard him as a lunatic cowboy. “Our war is not so cold any more,” one of Elizabeth’s KGB superiors warns her. “The orders are going to change now. There are going to be more risks.”
The spymaster’s words seem prophetic when an FBI counterintelligence agent (Noah Emmerich, Super 8) moves in next door to the Jennings family. Coincidence, or a closing net? Even more threatening is the subversion inside their home: Philip has been seduced, not by one of the enemy’s spies but by its department stores. “What’s so bad about it?” he says of America. “The electricity works all the time. The food’s pretty great. The closet space!” The news that Washington is paying a bounty of $3 million to KGB turncoats nudges Philip into open rebellion.
The Americans was created and written by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer, and its authenticity is striking. The show is not without the occasional car chase, but its real strength is in its evocation of the schizoid paranoia of the double life of intelligence. Even a trip to the park is fraught with sinister overtones. That woman — a mommy out for a stroll, or part of an FBI surveillance team? That cop — is he looking for purse-snatchers, or for you? The concealment cuts both ways: As Freud might have said if he were a spook instead of a shrink, sometimes an umbrella is just an umbrella, and sometimes it’s a KGB assassination weapon.
Even the show’s domestic moments are laden with subterfuge and suspicion. Philip has fallen in love with the wife issued him by the KGB, but Elizabeth still regards their marriage as an operation rather than a relationship. When he makes a bold gesture to prove his love, her eyes gleam with something. But it is affection? Or calculation of her chances of exploiting a weakness?
The confusion of role-playing and real life is most apparent in the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth and their children. The kids have been kept in the dark to protect them. But the result is that they’re growing up as little Americans, unwittingly alienated from everything their parents believe. As her 10-year-old son exults over a visit to his school by a U.S. astronaut who talked on the moon, he’s oblivious to his mother’s inexplicable wounded retort: “The moon isn’t everything. Sometimes just getting into space is an accomplishment.” And when her daughter announces she’s writing a school report on Soviet cheating on arms-limitations treaties, Elizabeth looks as if she’s been kicked in the stomach.
The kids are played with winning panache by TV newcomers Keidrich Sellati and Holly Taylor. And Rhys and Russell, both known mostly for cloying roles in dippy soaps (Rhys was the theatrically tortured homosexual son on Brothers & Sisters, Russell the idiotically self-dramatizing title character of the teeny-bopper Felicity), are shockingly good as the multifaceted Philip and Elizabeth, who shed identities like snakes shed skins.
Six decades ago, TV’s first excursion into the world of spies was a drama about an FBI informant in the Communist Party called I Led Three Lives (which, knowingly or not, The Americans often echoes in tone and style). The performances of Russell and Rhys might be titled We Led 300 Lives. They play not only their two primary roles — loving suburban parents, ruthless KGB spies — but countless others as they pretend to be wide-eyed Beltway secretaries and oversexed congressional investigators to steal Washington’s secrets. If the Russians had agents this convincing, the Cold War might have turned out differently.