Making the World a Better Place, by Bob Connally

3 Jun

When it premiered on FX in January of 2013, The Americans entered a TV landscape that already featured an embarrassment of quality riches. After 5 seasons and 65 episodes though, it has emerged as some of the most absorbing storytelling in any medium in a very long time.

As someone with a strong fascination with the Cold War, I had great excitement for the pilot episode which introduced us to Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings, two Soviet “illegals” in 1981 who had been living in the suburbs of Washington, DC for the better part of two decades. Having been placed in the United States by the KGB, Elizabeth and Philip have a cover marriage, cover jobs as travel agents with cover histories and even two cover children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), neither of whom have any idea of their parents’ true identities. Elizabeth and Philip’s real job involves honey traps and murders in the name of the Soviet cause. After all of these years and missions, the life is wearing on Philip and he has begun to question if America is really as bad as the Soviet government would have their people believe. Elizabeth meanwhile is as committed as ever, firmly believing that every life she takes is justifiable in the effort to “make the world a better place.”

Season 1 sees Elizabeth and Philip’s fake marriage starting to slowly become something real while the 13-year old Paige begins to start piecing together that her family isn’t like other families. Meanwhile, things intensify for the two Russian spies as FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in across the street with his wife Sandra (Susan Misner) and their son Matthew (Danny Flaherty). Elizabeth and Philip question if the FBI is on to them while Philip starts to consider defection. This is just in the pilot.

While the first season is largely mission of the week, honey traps and a fair amount of action, its primary focus is firmly on its characters and the ratcheting up of Cold War tensions after the inauguration of President Reagan. From season 2 on, creator Joe Weisberg (a former CIA agent who drew on many true stories as inspiration for plotlines on the show) and executive producer Joel Fields de-emphasized the action elements of the show while deepening the focus on its characters and their stories, while the plotlines became more overarching throughout entire seasons and beyond. In that sense it’s closer to John Le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) than Ian Fleming (James Bond). This went a long way towards the show progressing from very good to great to extraordinary. While this style of storytelling may have hurt its ratings (viewership has never been high), it has made it something really special that its fans have come to love it for.

Over its five seasons, Weisberg and Fields (or “the J’s” as they have come to be known) have taken full advantage of television’s uniqueness as a platform for long-form storytelling and character development. Every episode of The Americans is so packed that it’s that rare show where the ending sneaks up on me. It never fails. That feeling of, “Oh wait, that’s it?” I should just be expecting that by now but it always gets me. This works as well as it does because each episode is one more piece of the story building to the next and every moment packed into it is there for a reason, even if we aren’t going to realize its full significance until later- sometimes much later- in the series. Like Mad Men before it, The Americans has earned its core audience’s trust in this regard. Every so often a scene may seem out of place or puzzling within the context of that particular episode but we have enough experience with the show by now to know that it’s going to be important. Weisberg and Fields put a lot of trust in the audience’s intelligence and just as essentially, in its memory.

The show’s exceptional ability to produce satisfying episode after satisfying episode while keeping its handle on the bigger picture keeps us fully absorbed in the lives of characters we don’t always (or maybe ever) truly like. I don’t need to like characters to care about them but I do need to be invested in them and find some shred of humanity to latch on to. This is what separates Philip and Elizabeth Jennings from Frank and Claire Underwood on House of Cards. After struggling through its first season and a half I finally gave up on that well-made series simply because I could find nothing redeeming in its two leads or really, in anyone else (which I understand and accept may be the point). It’s not that House of Cards isn’t good, it’s that there was no one for me to invest in which makes watching that many hours of TV a chore. The Americans doesn’t have that problem.

As Philip, Rhys (a Welsh actor with a flawless American accent playing a Russian with a flawless American accent) has given a performance that really ought to be studied by any actor who wants to work steadily in television. He shows us Philip’s soul breaking down piece by piece as he struggles with the killing and truly questioning within himself if the ends justify the means and after all this time in America, if he even agrees with those ends anymore. A belief in the cause has given way to simply being a good solider or if nothing else, purely just devotion to Elizabeth. Of the two he is the character more of the audience is able to sympathize with. America and its world view have seeped into his mindset in a way that it never has for Elizabeth, who rejects everything about the country fully. Though for her cover she has to be subtle about that in regards to raising Paige and Henry.

Russell is every bit as great as Rhys, portraying Elizabeth’s commitment with unflagging intensity. Being a few years younger than Philip when joining the KGB, Elizabeth is the more fully indoctrinated of the two. Far less hesitant to take a life than her husband, she does not as readily see the separation between a nation’s government and its people the way that Philip does. Her mindset remains utterly Soviet but the occasional crack comes through that even she cannot help after all these years. Elizabeth is not as complicated as Philip is on the surface, but deep down there is a glimmer of humanity. Russell’s ability to show this intricate internal development is extraordinary.

The shades and depths provided by the excellent writing are most beautifully realized by Rhys and Russell in their work together through the show’s first five seasons. There aren’t just two great character arcs here but an outstanding relationship arc.

The rest of the ensemble has not been ignored by the writers in any way. Recurring characters on The Americans are better developed than the leads of many series. Noah Emmerich, Richard Thomas (The Waltons), and Brandon Dirden have done wonderful work as FBI agents on the front lines of counterintelligence while Annet Mahendru, Lev Gorn, and most notably Costa Ronin have provided their KGB officers with as much depth as anyone else on the show. Ronin and Alison Wright as “poor” Martha Hansen, a mark of Philip’s working as an FBI secretary have been the stealth MVP’s of the series to date. The journeys the characters have taken and the incredible work done by the actors playing them have been jaw-dropping. There have been unforgettable turns by Margo Martindale, Kelly AuCoin, Dylan Baker, and Frank Langella as well, just to name a few.

As the show has taken us through the final but often very tense years of the Cold War, The Americans has kept its audience riveted despite obviously knowing the way that the Cold War ends. What matters to us is how this story will end for its characters and wisely the J’s have used real-life events sparingly. Like every other element of the show, major historical events are only a part of the show if they’re for a good storytelling reason. Even then, moments such as the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981 or the premiere of the 1983 TV movie The Day After are shown through the prism of the characters. It is only the significance to them and how they experience those events that we are presented with. The show doesn’t fall into the trap of nodding to the audience that, “We know what’s going to happen in a few years,” and despite many articles written about it in the last several months, there was no forced reference made to Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin during the show’s fifth season nor will there be in its sixth and final year in 2018 based on statements made by Weisberg and Fields. They want the show to be present in the lives of its characters, not straining to make allusions to current events.

What this show may do best ultimately is repeatedly surprise the audience in ways that always feel honest. There are no surprises or shocks for their own sake. The choices characters make and the way things turn out always make sense and feel consistent for those characters even though they usually end up in a place we never expected. That is truly storytelling at its very best. It has long seemed that Weisberg and Fields know TV, know what audiences expect a TV series to typically do, and find a way to turn in a direction that other shows would not. This could have been a more conventional spy show that played up its ‘80s setting to 11 (I knew I could find a way to get in a Spinal Tap reference). There’s a version of this show that would have had more fistfights, gunfights, knife fights, car chases, and foot chases. A version that uses four ‘80s pop hits per episode rather than one ‘80s pop hit every four episodes. That show would probably have higher ratings and it would no doubt be highly entertaining. I know I would watch it. But I wouldn’t love it. It wouldn’t be a show that would inspire the kind of thought and discussion that this does.

This way of playing with audience expectations has perhaps been nowhere more evident than in the overarching storyline introduced in season 2 of teenager Paige joining a local church and getting baptized. Ardent atheists Philip and Elizabeth are outraged by the thought of her praying or wearing a cross necklace. For them it is a teenage rebellion in the same way that most parents would see joining a gang or taking drugs. Of course not knowing who her parents really are, Paige can’t possibly understand their objection. They also question the real motivations of the church’s Pastor Tim (AuCoin). Audiences have become conditioned over the years not to trust characters like Pastor Tim (whose last name we still don’t know). He must be a huckster or maybe even a pedophile. Upon his introduction, much of the audience believed he must be a plant of the FBI or CIA. Anything but the person he presents himself to be. But even on a show so steeped in espionage, maybe Pastor Tim is exactly who he says he is.

This storyline has in many ways provided The Americans with its heart. Ultimately this is a drama about marriage and parenting. The stakes are higher because Philip and Elizabeth are spies in an enemy land, but it’s the story of the Jennings family that has kept the audience so absorbed. Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati have been true finds as young actors, each able to more than carry the weight they’ve been asked to carry at their ages.

It’s not that TV doesn’t get any better than The Americans or even that The Americans is better than most movies. It’s that The Americans is the best kind of storytelling anywhere. There are a lot of great TV shows out there but this one is something really special.

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