“The Americans” Turns Up the Heat on the Cold War

Sochi and Pussy Riot have turned the spotlight on Putin's reign of terror. Will it make us reconsider our loyalties to our favorite KGB duo?

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In the first season of The Americans, FX’s excellent Cold War drama about two KGB spies posing as an American couple named Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, we learn that their young son, Henry, plays ice hockey. The detail is glossed over when Philip (Matthew Rhys) mentions taking Henry to the rink for an “early ice time,” but it’s a brilliant choice considering the symbolic role of hockey during the Cold War. In 1981, when The Americans begins, it had been just a year since the U.S. hockey team astonished the world by beating the Soviets at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. It’s easy to imagine young Henry and his older sister, Paige, celebrating that “Miracle on Ice” while their parents secretly seethed. Philip and Elizabeth’s children were born in the United States and have no idea that their parents are actually Russians. On this show, the fake Americans are raising two real ones.

During the Cold War, the Olympics weren’t just games; they were, like the Space Race, competitions for global supremacy. That hockey victory in the semi-finals of the 1980 Winter Games underscored national faith in American Exceptionalism. And deeming the win a “miracle” suggested that a higher power was on the Americans’ side. The Soviet team may have been the favorite—they’d dominated Olympic hockey for years—but the USSR was a godless empire, whereas the United States was one nation, under a God that helped them win gold. (Thirty-four years after the “Miracle on Ice,” residual tensions were visible on the rink in Sochi, when the U.S. beat the Russians in hockey last weekend.)

Six months after the United States hosted the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, the Soviet Union held the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. But the Americans—and athletes from 65 other countries, who followed our lead—boycotted those Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In retaliation, the USSR and other Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. (Wheaties box darling Mary Lou Retton might not have won the gold medal in the All-Around event if the Romanian and Russian gymnasts had been competing in 1984.) Now that the Olympics are back in Russia, for the first time since the Moscow Games, it’s hard not to think about the years when Cold War tensions were played out on rinks and in other sporting venues. Calls to boycott the Sochi Games, in response to Russia’s anti-gay legislation, were another piquant reminder of the early 1980s.

The Americans, which begins its second season next Wednesday, on February 26, has enough period details to satisfy 1980s nostalgia: The Jennings family plays board games of Life, makes plans to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, and drinks Tab. The hairstyles, fashions, and music vividly re-create the era. (Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” was used, to brilliant effect, in a chase scene in the pilot, and Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” beautifully concluded the last episode of the first season.) But The Americans also captures a time when fear of “the Russians” dominated our national psyche. And with current relations between the United States and Russia more strained than they’ve been in years, the show seems especially relevant. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s presence in Moscow has stirred up dormant discussions about defectors and spies in the past year, and Vladimir Putin—a former KGB officer—is savagely cracking down on dissent and staging grand Soviet-style propaganda. The Americans is not just a period piece; it’s a drama for our times.

It’s a spy thriller in which both the KGB agents and their FBI and CIA counterparts are depicted as ruthless. It’s a profound exploration of the complexities of marriage and the way intimate relationships require decoding of signals. It also astutely questions our ideas of what it means to be American. Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell, in a performance that will make you forget all about Felicity) pass as American; they dress and talk like their supposed compatriots. They drink beer (not vodka) and convincingly embrace capitalism. They run a travel agency and take their kids shopping at the mall. In the first season, we see Philip seduced by a pair of cowboy boots at Bloomingdales; he is not immune to the temptations of American culture. But beyond the surface, what does it really mean to be American? If Americans are really so exceptional, as de Tocqueville first argued, why is it so easy for Philip and Elizabeth to play these roles?

When an American astronaut visits Henry’s school for a special assembly, Philip joins the other parents and kids in the Pledge of Allegiance. To Philip, the words of the Pledge are just lines; he’s acting his part. But his son is genuinely pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. (At home, when Henry sings the praises of the Apollo missions to the moon—American triumphs of the Space Race, Elizabeth hilariously points out that “the moon isn’t everything. Just getting into space was a big deal.” After all, it was a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, who was the first man in space.)

Later in the first season, Philip accuses Elizabeth of “making it personal” after she takes the independent decision to seek revenge on the CIA operative who ordered the murder of her mentor in Moscow. Is it individualism and independence that define the American national character? If so, then Philip and Elizabeth, despite their patriotism, have some very American traits. As the series progresses, the Jenningses are increasingly torn between their loyalty to their country and their personal desires. That tension—between the political and the personal, between the State and the individual—heats up in the second season.

Behind closed doors, Philip and Elizabeth deride American capitalist culture. Yet the privacy they depend on to keep their secrets is a distinctly American privilege. In the gripping premiere of the second season, their teenaged daughter, Paige, walks in on her parents enjoying the fruits of privacy in bed. “Why would you open a closed door?” Elizabeth asks Paige. But in the Soviet Union, a closed door was sure to be opened by someone. Hotel rooms were entered, apartments were searched. Friends and neighbors informed on each other. In a world where everyone was under surveillance, privacy didn’t exist. Even in contemporary Russia, people don’t give each other the kind of personal space we take for granted here in the States. When I first went to Moscow in 1993, I couldn’t believe how close together people stood in queues. Privacy—beloved by Americans—is still a foreign notion to Russians.

As spies, Elizabeth and Philip violate people privacy all the time, but they chastise their daughter for spying. “We have to trust each other,” Elizabeth tells her daughter. But Paige isn’t taking her parents’ word for anything anymore. When she suspects that they are keeping things from her, she starts investigating on her own. And she proves to be a natural at gathering intelligence. Paige may not speak Russian, but she intuitively understands the famous Russian proverb: “Trust, but verify.”

Season two introduces a new character, Oleg Igorevich, a delegate sent to Washington to work on “Line X,” the Soviet Union’s Science and Technology projects. In one of the second season’s most quotable lines, he says, in Russian, “I am a feminist. I work for Mother Russia.”

Philip and Elizabeth work for Mother Russia, too. But Elizabeth is also a Russian mother. And this season, her loyalty to the Motherland is often at odds with her maternal instincts. As the Cold War gets more aggressive, she has reason to fear for the safety of her children. And her children are American, which complicates her sense of patriotism and duty. Russian women are famously fierce (for a recent example, see Pussy Riot), and Elizabeth has never wavered in her fight. The question, as this new season of The Americans unfolds, is what she and Philip are really fighting for.

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