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The Americans Season 1 Review: Love, Duty & A Cold War
Created and produced by a former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, The Americans is set during the height of the Cold War in the early 80s. Following a pair of KGB officers embedded in the country as husband and wife, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) on the surface are a pleasant looking family with two children.
The strong opening episode shatters this illusion by showing them embroiled in espionage against the USA. Packed with ample amounts of silenced guns, hand-to-hand combat with knives, high stakes, high tension, dark humour, and attention to detail, The Americans is a brilliant spy-thriller with compelling characters. The attention to detail is not just to the era being depicted, but the spy profession, with all manner of era-appropriate tricks of the trade being utilised by people living dangerous lives.
Philip and Elizabeth’s lives get more dangerous when a counter-intelligence FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) with wife and son in tow, moves in across the street from them. This is a big coincidence which you have to swallow, because ultimately it helps develop one of the themes of the show which is deceit amongst those closest to you.
The opening episode sets up so many plot threads, character and thematic arcs, one of which is the unique nature of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. Spies have many tools and weapons at their disposal, one of which is sex. Suffice to say, they have an open relationship in service of their duty to their motherland. They are supremely professional, putting aside any differences to complete their missions. Except when their differences spill over and their missions go awry, which makes the show addictive viewing.
The season steers clear of melodrama for the most part, because it’s actually brutal when it needs to be, and does not hold back to adhere to any age rating. This does not mean it’s gratuitous with violence, but that what the story infers is highly disturbing. Innocent people are manipulated, terrorised and killed whenever they orbit too close to the world of spies operating in the convulsing throes of the Cold War. It’s to the show’s credit that we can stick with these characters for thirteen episodes despite the dubious nature of their false lives and knowing full well they’re ultimately on the losing side of a war.
The Americans is almost single-handedly supported by a great female lead, in the form of Keri Russell’s portrayal of a hardened KGB operative living a lie in service of her country. Merciless when she needs to be, strict, unforgiving, in a master-stroke she is playing the traditional male role that’s proactive. In stark contrast her husband is the one who acts on emotion, who is hesitant in their actions to protect his family. It’s a fascinating gender reversal of a cliché. Russell has rocketed into my top 5 favourite female characters of TV with her performance of KGB operative Elizabeth.
Racing behind her heels is Matthew Rhys’ portrayal of a man with a subtle menacing quality about him. Similar to Russell, he has a face that is seemingly cold, but can fill with warmth when it needs to. The highlight of his antics is the slow and methodical manipulation of a witless woman in order to gain access to sensitive information from the FBI. It’s torturous to watch her fall for his charms so utterly. The pair are often in disguise, but in each role they play on their missions, there is that same hard stare, so much of their performance is in a look between the two.
Though the show’s strength is its depiction of marriage and the conflict between love and duty, the episodes operate in the spy-thriller trope, with Mission Impossible style incidents. The episodes feature hand to hand combat, surveillance, foot and car chases, the odd explosion or two, rampant assassinations. With the constant threat of the FBI at their heels, Philip and Elizabeth have to contend with all this while also somehow being parents to American-born children who have no idea of their parents true natures.
The pair are squeezed tight by their KGB controllers, one of whom is played by the marvellous Margo Martindale, who shows up in so many shows, but is brilliant here as another hardened KGB woman who has a complicated antagonistic relationship with Elizabeth. Another plot thread follows a female KGB employee played by Annet Mahendru, and is effective in its exploration of double-agents. There is a trend forming here: strong women. The show is filled with excellent female characters written and directed by female writers and directors. All populating a world on edge; paranoia and suspicion in the air, like a certain song by Phil Collins featured in the first episode.
Philip and Elizabeth are forced to do dubious things, to threaten innocent people constantly, but their characterisation is so well developed, we are in their shoes, their heads, their home, and we see what is at stake for them. There is no propaganda, just skilful characterisation wrapped by an exciting plot in an era rife with conflict.
One of the most fascinating aspects explored is sex. Sex is a tool for the spies. There is no time for jealousy or melodrama. Carnal acts are not a form of betrayal for them. Withholding information is. Their trust in each other is the key to their survival and emotional well-being, and if they can’t trust each other, it’s all over.
The characters are pulled apart between duty and family, maintaining a sense of identity, defining a relationship built on subterfuge, reconciling their beliefs with their children’s upbringing in a society they’ve been taught to fight against.
This is another example of the strength of modern US TV. Tackling a high-concept idea with depth, ripe with conflict, always ending each episode with us wanting more. All amid high production value, and brilliant writing and acting. This is the golden age of TV, and the US is the standard when it comes to drama. They’ve chosen to follow spies from a country that the US has been ideologically opposed against for decades, and to tell a nuanced story from their viewpoint.
The Americans is bold and rewards viewers with its impartiality. The FBI aren’t exactly shown as saints either. The show does not sugar-coat things, it’s quite astounding for a US show to portray Soviet spies and humanise them. Would other countries do this with their traditional enemies? Maybe. South Korea has tackled stories from the North’s perspective, but it’s few and far between to get a tale like this.
The FBI is unfortunately the weak point of the show. The characters sometimes feel like they belong in another story entirely. Noah Emmerich is hard to believe as a seasoned FBI agent whose worked undercover with white supremacist groups. He comes across as a jovial everyman. However, late into the season he’s given more to chew on as his character is thrust into murky grey waters. Noah is ultimately like Hank from Breaking Bad, the friend of the main protagonist who is inexplicably hunting him at the same time. So it feels a little derivative, but the trope is full of tension, despite the massive coincidence of Noah moving in across the street.
Suffice to say The Americans made a substantial impact on me, but it must be reiterated that above all its strengths, the quality of female roles is outstanding. The choice to not just be a variation of J.J. Abrams’ Alias, but a meditation on the nature of marriage under such false pretences, makes for compelling drama, especially when it’s from the viewpoint of spies who are fighting a losing battle. They may lose the war, but The Americans is a win for TV.