Editor’s Note: The following essay includes spoilers through Season 3 of The Americans.
In the first episode of The Americans, a pretty woman seduces a State Department bureaucrat. “You know,” he says to her, his voice thick with bluster, “most people, they get into their warm beds at night, they have no idea what really goes on out here. The sheer number of people working to destroy our way of life.”
He’s too distracted to finish the thought—and this may be a good place to mention that The Americans, which begins its fourth season on FX on March 16, is as graphically sexual and violent as you’d expect a cable show about spies to be. But by the time we see the woman drive away, tearing a wig from her head in disgust, we’ve figured out what he never will: that she is among those “working to destroy our way of life.”
In fact, she’s one of a pair of married Soviet spies hiding behind the respectably bland identities of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, suburban travel agents. And both the ease with which the bureaucrat falls into Elizabeth’s trap and the machine-like efficiency with which she manipulates him (and herself) sets up exactly the Cold War conflict viewers expect to see: inhumanly efficient Communists versus freedom-weakened Americans.
The Americans is a great show for many reasons, but one of them is surely that it keeps its viewers off balance. Its conflicts are again and again refracted and transformed; like the many-pseudonymed, oft-bewigged Jennings themselves, it is always more than it appears to be. (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, as the couple, make each transformation utterly believable; as you watch their targets convince themselves to trust them, you become a target yourself.)
The family’s new neighbor, Stan Beeman, turns out to be an FBI man whose past career—as a sleeper agent who infiltrated a white-supremacist group—eerily mirrors theirs. Philip Jennings has meanwhile started to weaken in his hatred of America; he spends much of the pilot arguing the advantages of defection. Elizabeth’s militant patriotism, in turn, makes her not wholly unlike some of her Beltway neighbors. (Nor does Philip’s relative openness make him a less formidable enemy to national security than his wife: in future episodes, his greater insight into American mindsets often saves the Soviets from potentially disastrous overreaches. Nothing on this show is simple.)
The various sides are shown to be, as often happens to the various sides in a war, also at war with themselves. The Soviets jockey for position (mostly each other’s). Entrenched sexism at the FBI leads them to overlook a strategic vulnerability—her name is Martha, and she’s played brilliantly by Alison Wright. Philip and Elizabeth bicker over defection, over tactics, over which of them will be first to admit that their sham marriage is no longer really a sham. (The chemistry between Rhys and Jennings is so intense that the actors themselves have succumbed to it. This writer wishes them every happiness.)
Many writers have already, and rightly, pointed out that this spy show is “really about marriage” or, as the unsuspecting Jennings children took center stage in the second and third seasons, “really about family.” The US-Soviet conflict has never really gone away—some of the show’s most suspenseful moments coincided with President Reagan’s assassination, and Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech put the exclamation point on last season’s cliffhanger.