thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“The Americans” & the Personal Politics of the Cold War

In F/X, Spies, Television, The Americans on March 18, 2013 at 8:03 am

Phoebe B.

Alert: Quite a few spoilers ahead

My mom still tells stories about desk drills during elementary school. She remembers how students were told to hide under their desks in order to protect them from nuclear war. These drills were part of living with the ever-present (yet invisible) threat of communism and in a nation seemingly always—and perhaps already—on the verge of the nuclear war.

I was born in the early 1980s, as Reagan considered programs like “Star Wars,” but my memories of the Cold War, communism, and nuclear terror are few and far between. Mostly, all I remember is the thaw, the end, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I even had a former classmate who had a piece of the wall, something she got when she visited the place where it once stood.


F/X’s new period drama The Americans, which premiered a few weeks ago, begins in 1981 shortly before Reagan is shot. The series follows the lives of two married Soviet spies, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Kerri Russell), living in the suburbs of D.C. and working as travel agents by day and spies by night. The series opens as an attempt to kidnap a defected spy goes awry. After Philip and Elizabeth miss dropping the spy on a boat set for Russia, the duo must keep him in their car in their garage with two kids at home. To make matters worse an FBI agent moves in across the street.


From the outset of the series, the personal and political are inextricably and terrifyingly intertwined. Indeed, even though Philip prefers to keep the defected spy alive, once he learns that the spy raped Elizabeth when she was in training, Philip immediately kills him. It is the first moment in their marriage where Elizabeth seems to sense that he loves her. It is also a telling moment for their relationship: Philip will betray his country to protect her. However, this moment also foreshadows Philip’s desire to be Elizabeth’s knight in shining armor, to fight her battles, and it seems a quality Philip picked up in America–a vision of marriage designed by decades of film and television. However, their marriage, at least for her, has always been political: a cover and Elizabeth, as the more ruthless of the two, certainly does not need any knight-like protection. But for Philip, it is and has been more than just another job. As the drama unfolds, so too does the marriage between the two spies become increasingly complicated, confused, and real.

Few representations of spy craft—especially on television, save perhaps for the short-lived Rubicon—have embraced the small details, discomfort, and daily life of spies and the tolls of living a lie. Safe to say, Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage is not a typical one. Yet it feels amazingly real in its complications and confusions (perhaps without the murderous bent). For instance, Philip’s sense of betrayal at Elizabeth’s long-term affair with Gregory or his desire to protect her, even though she is beyond capable of protecting herself. Even their decision to take the day off and have sex in a hotel, rather than at home, seems like a long-term couple maintaining adventure in their romance and relationship.

But unlike a typical married couple, Philip and Elizabeth’s differences have potentially dire consequences for themselves, the Soviet Union, and the United States. From the outset of the show, the key difference between the two has been their relationship towards America: Philip “likes it too much” whereas Elizabeth holds on to her communist values. She witnesses him becoming American, whereas she is merely playing the part. This division is most apparent is Elizabeth’s dislike of the mall as emblem of 1980s capitalism, while Philip revels in taking his daughter shopping; in the pilot Philip even considers a pair of cowboy boots. This distinction proves dangerous as Elizabeth’s remark to a superior about Philip’s American proclivities gets him tortured by his own people, as their handler attempts to root out a Soviet mole. Elizabeth’s betrayal of Philip is tremendous, not just because of the physical consequences, but because it reveals that he mistook their partnership for a marriage, a strange brand of office romance. Last week’s betrayal was heartbreaking both for Philip but also because of Elizabeth’s changing feelings towards her husband, which are transitioning from job and cover to romance.


It is strange to think now about the piece of wall the girl I knew brought back with her from Berlin. As the wall came down, the sign of socialism became a piece of the capitalist economy to be traded back and forth between American school children. It was sign that you had traveled and that you got to be, and hold, part of history, even if we were too young and too far away from that history to truly understand what it was, or that the war—cool or not—was very much still afoot during our lifetime. Even as I think now about the Cold War, my mind goes to McCarthy, the Red Scare, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as if it ended in the 1960s. For me, growing up in California, the Cold War was political and so distant from my personal and everyday life. Instead, it was an academic subject and one that intrigued me (and still does). Later generations could disassociate the Cold War from the present; we didn’t grow up, like my mother, hiding under our desks.


The Americans reveals and revels in the nature of the Cold War during its last decade. But it does so in ways that suggest that neither side is in the right. When Reagan is shot, The Americans suggests the event could have started World War III if the Soviets had been accused. Had Philip and Elizabeth sent their intended communication alerting the Soviets that there was to be a coup, for instance, the result could have been explosive, nuclear even. If so, the show implies, the Soviet Union might have made the first move on the United States. In this exchange, Philip persuades the more militant Elizabeth to hold off. The resulting argument unfolds one of the more frank discussions of American politics and foreign policy I’ve ever seen on TV (which I don’t want to spoil).

The Americans lacks–thankfully in many ways–the idealism of The West Wing and the glamour of James Bond. Through Philip and Elizabeth, we see how each side in the Cold War has been taught, trained, and told to hate the other from Elizabeth’s training sequences to what her children are learning in the American school system: we see Elizabeth consistently disappointed in her children’s education. She is confused when her daughter suggests that Poland is in Russia, a lesson she learned at her American school and she is disturbed by her family’s love of the mall. Further, the neighborly FBI agent orchestrates a complex takedown of the Russian ambassador in order to protect his asset (whom he has blackmailed into helping the FBI). Yet, as Philip points out, while Americans may be corrupt, so too are the Soviets from torturing their own, to failing to tell citizens when a leader has died, or the horror of Elizabeth’s rape, which was condoned by the KGB higher-ups (which we learn from her rapist before Philip kills him). Nothing about their spy life is glamorous or romanticized, from the often awkward disguises to work-condoned affairs and the extraordinary everyday violence.

To steal a Scandal term, there are no “white hats” in this 1980s spy world. Rather, we see the personal and political costs of constant tension, escalation, and fear. Indeed, the violent, paranoid, and fraught climate of The Americans suggests the ways in which both sides were taught to hate and fear—emotions that discourage critical thought and analysis of one’s opponent.


The Americans is perfectly timed. At a moment when our politics discourage critical thinking, where too often the enemy is still figured as Middle Eastern, we need more shows that explicitly argue against Americans always wearing the white hat and ask questions about how we understand both our past and present. Socialism and communism remain bad words in the present-day U.S. and democracy is still the catch-all term for all that’s right and good. While socialism and communism may no longer ignite the same fear and paranoia that they once did, after 9/11 terrorism and its threatening invisibility, inherited their coercive and paranoid power. The Americans asks us to consider our own perspectives, what we value, and where we learned our political lessons (not to mention who taught them to us). A piece of the Berlin Wall seemingly would mean something very different to Elizabeth or even Philip, than to their children, born and raised in the U.S. The Americans doesn’t focus on the terror of spies living next door on American soil or on Americans fearing the threat of nuclear war. Instead, we see and are forced to consider the stakes the other side has in this political game and that American democracy might not be a catch-all for good to everyone.

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