I’ve been a fan of fiction set during the Cold War era since reading The Company by Robert Littell during one summer break. Before that, I’d been a fan of James Bond, but The Company really turned me on to the danger of realistic spycraft.
I first learned of the FX show The Americans during what seemed an abnormally large advertising campaign on cable during the winter months of this year. Obviously, I was drawn to the main characters-two deep, deep, deep cover Soviet agents living as a middle-class family in the United States in the 1980s-and the actors, especially Keri Russell. I ended up loving the show. It has a little bit of everything: dealing with marriage and kids, martial arts, disguises, betrayal.
The first six episodes have aired, and I find myself in a weird position. I’m really pulling for the bad guys. Let’s not ignore this fact; the main characters of The Americans are Russian spies that have to kill, bribe, manipulate, and have sex with people in order to keep tabs on the US government.
For example, there is an episode where they inject poison into the son of the maid for the Secretary of Defense in order to get her to plant a listening device in his study. They DO cure the guy once the maid does as they ask, and they don’t seem very happy about doing it, but the fact is, the spy’s job is to do terrible things.
How does the show balance this out? Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are intensely scarred. They feel remorse for their actions. You know how James Bond can shoot a person without batting an eye? The Jennings don’t do that. Yes, they know ultimately what their actions might lead to, and they still do the job, but they also feel it.
Phillip and Elizabeth are in, for all intents and purposes, a sham marriage. He loves her more than the USSR, and has even talked about defecting to the US. She is KGB through-and-through, though she is finally starting to love him after 15 years or so.
Throw into the mix their two kids. Their kids are American citizens and have no idea about the clandestine activities of their parents. So part of the conflict rises from the relationship with their children. They must lie to protect them, and they must keep lying in order to keep them safe, healthy, and happy while still in enemy territory.
The third protagonist is directly opposed to the Jennings. Stan Beeman is an FBI agent who just happens to move in across the street from Elizabeth and Phillip (The DRAMA). He is part of a unit that deals with Russian spies, and he has just gotten out of a deep cover assignment himself. He was undercover with white supremacists for a number of years. His years of undercover service have affected his marriage. While he seems alive and brilliant at work, he is portrayed as almost dead inside when he is at home. He never seems to be able to shut his brain off from work-related problems.
Of course, Phil and Stan are beginning to becoming pretty good friends. You know early on where this conflict is going. (It’s reminiscent of Hank and Walt on Breaking Bad. You know that those two characters can’t coexist.)
All three characters are both likeable and pitiable. All three are strong and capable, with differing sets of problems and goals. And you root for both of them. You want Agent Beeman to take down the dirty commies. Then you remember that those same dirty commies are the ones you want to see succeed, especially in their married life.
The real villains of the series, though, seem to be the governments. You see a lot more of the US government in the form of the FBI. Agent Beeman, as a former deep cover operative, is running a Soviet mole whom he wants to extract and make an American citizen. His supervisors will not let him. The various agencies don’t seem to cooperate very well. And sometimes the whole government is shown to be dysfunctional (for instance, in the episode where Reagan gets shot, and no one in the government seems to know what is going on).
The Soviets, of course, are portrayed as even worse. Well, if not worse, than certainly more desperate and bloodthirsty. Torture (even of the people working for them) seems to be common. As is murder. As of right now, the killcount for the Russians is MUCH higher than that of the Americans.
But, maybe it’s the fact that I know how the Cold War turns out that I root for the “bad guys.” I want them to defect and be in love and have a normal life. Though, truthfully, I doubt that the Jennings can have anything close to a normal life. Tensions get pretty high during the Reagan era, and the show is beginning to reflect that.
So, what bad guys have you rooted for? Did you feel a little bad about it?