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Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

“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.

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