Friendly Fire

Ronald Reagan rose to power by exploiting fears of Communist subversion and infiltration. The Americans takes this fantasy literally. Its protagonists, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, are Soviet spies infiltrated into the United States under false identities to pose as the typical white suburban family of the 1980s. (“Couple kids. American dream. Never suspect them,” says one of their allies as he dies in the fourth-season finale.) Together they defend Soviet interests and dodge the FBI agent who lives across the street. In the actual 1980s, this scenario would have been presented as a suspense thriller in which the villainous Communists are caught and eliminated. In the 2010s it is an antihero narrative.

Keri Russell asElizabeth Jennings in a promotional image for The Americans, season 2.
Keri Russell asElizabeth Jennings in a promotional image for The Americans, season 2. Frank Ockenfels/FX

Just as we egg on Walter White in Breaking Bad, the Jenningses’ on-screen charisma makes us sympathize with them as they shoot and stab their way through Reagan-era Washington, DC. The show’s twist on the now familiar prestige-cable formula is that the antiheroes are also the moral center. Unlike the flabby consumerists around them, Philip and Elizabeth believe in something. They make alliances with the ghosts of America’s foreign policy: Vietnamese war orphans, desperate civil rights militants, Nicaraguan revolutionaries. The Jenningses’ fight is frequently misguided or quixotic, and always fraught with collateral damage; neither does it ever get very specific in ideological terms. Yet their enemies are never given any plausible rebuttal. Reaganite America has nothing to offer except anticommunist paranoia and middle-class contentment. Philip is occasionally prone to such temptations. Elizabeth remains as steely-eyed as she was when she came to the United States.

The actual Russian Illegals Program was different from the glamorous left-wing strug-gle depicted on The Americans. Though the program began just before the collapse of the USSR, the vast majority of participants began their activities in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the SVR, the KGB’s successor organization, was trying to maintain its privileged position in a disintegrating country while making as much money as possible. The real versions of undercover agents like Philip and Elizabeth weren’t fighting to defend the embattled legacy of socialism; they were working for a state whose leader routinely chatted on the phone with Bill Clinton. And far from ruthlessly hunting human rights violators, they were content to build comfortable middle-class lives away from the maelstrom of starvation and suicide into which post-Soviet Russia was descending. As spies, they didn’t accomplish much.

The Americans, in short, is a show about the secret enemies we wish we had: opponents who would confirm our deepest suspicions about the spiritual void at the heart of our society, and hence validate our opposition to it. Rather than an aggressive and ideologically triumphant superpower, the United States is portrayed as a weak and passive regime easily outfoxed by people wearing a series of slightly different wigs and glasses. They have this power because their firm grasp on what truly matters in life—loyalty and justice—supersedes the technical competence of their G-man rivals. Like other TV antiheroes, Philip and Elizabeth don’t achieve their ends because of the organization that supports them; instead, they’re heroic individualists whose superior drive overcomes the system’s inertia. It may be satisfying to see Contra thugs and South African reactionaries get their comeuppance, but the show never escapes the theater of American morality. The Americans is American to the bone.

Greg Afinogenov is an assistant professor of Russian history at Georgetown University.