When a celebrity superpatriot opened the doors to the Oval Office, Western faith in Pax Americana shut down for good. This wax replica president went on to break arms expenditure records, reward a tiny investor class and penalise the many for their belief that America could be made “great again”. This counterfeit everyman concealed his dedication to the elite with the false solidarity of racism and other forms of hatred. His cabinet’s horrific preparedness for nuclear war became a fact best endured by poking fun at the guy’s bad hair. Ronald Reagan’s hair really was awful.
Acclaimed period drama The Americans begins in 1981. It first aired in 2013, when not one of us had imagined that history’s tragic leader would repeat himself as farce. We did not know then that the United States presidency could be vandalised more irrevocably than it had been by The Gipper. We did not know then that Russia, Reagan’s “Evil Empire”, would come to function both as the enemy of liberals and as some sort of touchstone for President Donald Trump. If we’d had a hint in 2013 of the West as it is today, this unnervingly recognisable vision of the past would not have made it to our screens.
But you can watch the dawn of this America in which it was no bliss to be alive. I recommend it. If you can forgive its oversupply of sex scenes shot in the Basic Instinct style, this show, which begins in the weeks following the Reagan inauguration, is almost good enough to forget the history, or the present, it describes. Creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer and reformed Reaganite, may have steamed up his Cold War memories with one too many hot leather mini-dresses, but darn if all six seasons of a show just concluded are not otherwise masterfully made.
Per the near unanimous view of TV critics, this series is, at its heart, the portrait of a marriage. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, played by Matthew Rhys (The Post, Brothers & Sisters) and Keri Russell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Felicity), are sleeper Soviet agents wedded by the KGB. But they are wedded to each other, all the same.
Life for the spies has come to include two young and oblivious children, and takes place in an affluent suburb adjoining Washington, DC. The viewer is never permitted to forget that all this is an elaborate cover for the job of destroying imperialism, assassinating defectors, stealing frost-resistant super-wheat for Mother Russia et cetera. Yet the viewer is perpetually persuaded to sympathise with the two busy parents.
Elizabeth can honeytrap a congressman, delude a dying woman and slit the throat of a refusenik in a single evening. Still, we worry that she’s just too tired to take her son to hockey practice. Philip can bludgeon a lab assistant whom he falsely suspects of ravaging the Soviet grain supply, marry a lonely FBI secretary and then chop up a body and place it in a suitcase for dispatch to the Central Executive Committee. Still, when does he ever have time for the country linedancing in which he takes such pleasure?
The writing is shrewd and just comic enough to suggest that such frustrations are universal. The performances by Rhys and Russell, however, seal the naturalistic deal. There can be little doubt that the pair’s widely reported off-screen intimacy helps the work. But there was, surely, always a great deal of doubt that deadly “illegals” – the name given to Soviet sleepers by the US Department of Justice – would ever seduce an American audience.
Philip is an adorable dad in his bootscooting gear and Elizabeth is a mother who frets that her teenage daughter has purchased the wrong kind of bra. And this is how the series plays throughout: the kids don’t truly understand the Jennings’ hardship and nor, for that matter, does the boss. That the hardship is tradecraft and treason or that the boss is the rezidentura is irrelevant. They are a working family. They are just like us.
This is, of course, a peculiar victory and testament to the skill of showrunners, actors and all those people charged with the acquisition of ’80s-era props – from bad wigs to military coffins to acid-wash denims, the accoutrements perfectionism here is, at least, to the Mad Men standard. Everyone has done everything they can to humanise a pair of elite Russian killers.
This success, however, cannot be attributed to excellence alone. There’s something else about this show that permits us to like, even cheer for, the victory of Russians. Communist Russians. Communist Russians who even, at one point, quote Marx. Sure the quote is from the early 1844 manuscripts and is completely taken out of its original context. Still. Show me one Marx-quoting Soviet on Western TV that didn’t end up dead before getting to the bit about class struggle.
For at least a century, the Western superego has entitled itself to a gulag full of Russians, Marxist-Leninist, paleo-capitalist or otherwise. Russophobia is now and long has been among the most broadly permissible bigotry. It has not ever been the most virulent sort of bigotry, but it is up there with the most persistent.
From the scheming Natasha and Boris of Cold War cartoons to the guys who kicked the adorable puppy to death in John Wick, Russians have served as the convenient objects of popular, fearful derision. Just this year, real-life Russian Grigory Logvinov, the Federation’s ambassador to Australia, was described by The Australian as “Bond villain meets Lowes catalogue” and by The Sydney Morning Herald as “Soviet-red in complexion”. People have lost their day jobs for tweeting more benign opinions.
The trick that the writers have performed here I once saw in cruder form at the Grammy Awards of 1986. The musician Sting performed a tune from his rather pompous debut solo record with the line, “If the Russians love their children too.” Naturally, it went down a treat in the West, as a proof of its own high-mindedness and a prelude to the fall of an “Evil Empire”.
Weisberg is an artist far more complex than Sting, but it is his stubborn, artful faith in US liberalism that made this show a critical and ratings success in a nation otherwise occupied with fearing Russians, reading books by Jordan Peterson about the evil of “communists” and feeling, in many quarters, great humiliation that a Xeroxed Gipper was now gaffing his way through the first of what many suspect will be two appalling terms.
A good part of the reason we like Elizabeth and Philip is their dedication to labour and their familiarity with Soviet austerity. This commie-neoliberal hybrid couple is really not Soviet at all, but an injunction for the future of an imperilled West. They have principles. They believe productive labour will bring glory to their nation. They show us that there is the potential within all of us to believe so unquestioningly in a founding principle – even as it has begun to fail – that we will kill, die and slave for it. All of this is packaged in the parentheses of a lipstick-smeared erotic-thriller lens.
Weisberg has made an engrossing show and it is one that reminds me often and vividly of an era in which we all thought we would be blasted by Brezhnev if not starved by the Thatcher–Reagan romance first. But what it does not show, unlike the very good supernatural series Stranger Things, set in the same era, is the forgotten towns and grinding poverty of life in the post-stagflation, early neoliberal era.
Russia is seen as empty of commodities and joy, while the US is a place of overabundance and know-how. The showrunners ascribe morality to the poverty and nationalism of the Soviet spies, but the end of history to the USA. If only we can be better people who need less and work more, so the principle of The Americans goes, we can rebuild this nation with no ethical or government debt.
It’s a captivating show and I adored every minute – particularly and regrettably those in which Keri Russell is adding to her kill list. But the American prescription for a socialism of the self is not something I’ll be ingesting with any seriousness.
CULTURE Dark Mofo
Venues throughout Hobart, June 13–24
VISUAL ART MoMA at NGV
NGV International, Melbourne, until October 7
DANCE Dark Emu
Sydney Opera House, June 14 – July 14
THEATRE The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, June 12-24
THEATRE Holy Cow! James Joyce Slaughters the Sacred Cows of English Literature
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, June 13-17
CABARET In Vogue
Melbourne Recital Centre, June 14-15
Belvoir Theatre, Sydney, until July 15
Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, until June 10
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Oh, those Russians". Subscribe here.