'The Americans' and the rewards of period genre pieces

Jaime Weinman explains why good period pieces resonate beyond time and place

Because there are certain things you can’t get away with saying or doing in ad-supported TV, the medium has often used genre stories, like fantasy and science fiction, to say those things covertly. And another fertile ground for hidden meanings is the period piece, where M*A*S*H could tell Vietnam stories at a time when Vietnam was still off-limits outside the news. One thing about The Americans, a period piece and a sort of genre piece (the espionage thriller form that shows like 24 and Homeland have helped to codify for modern TV), is how it uses its genre trappings and ’80s setting to deal with things that another drama – a modern-dress show, a realistic show – probably couldn’t.

On the level of genre entertainment, The Americans is a suspense piece about Russian spies with perfect American accents, and since people like Matthew Rhys are taking American actors’ jobs with their perfect American accents, it’s not such a fantasy – it can happen here. On the emotional level, it’s a show about marriage, where the missions teach the characters something about the secrets, lies and differences of opinion inherent in making a marriage work. The mission in episode # 5, for example, is explicitly set up to be about the issue of how much married people should tell each other and how much they should trust each other, and episode # 6 is all about the dangers of trusting anyone – your spouse, strangers in cars, lovers, governments. (If there’s one thing TV has taught us, is that you can’t handle a case effectively if you cannot somehow connect it to your personal life.) But like many good period pieces, it has a resonance beyond its own time and place. For one thing, it works surprisingly well as a War on Terror story. Or if you don’t want to get that specific, as a story that deals with some of the security issues that are on our minds today, but that would be impossible in a modern setting, or without the slightly campy trappings of the period thriller form.

When I say you couldn’t do The Americans in a modern setting, I mean you probably couldn’t get away with it. The basic idea of the show is to tell a national-security story from the point of view of the enemy, and not just the enemy, but the enemy within: people whose mission is to fulfil our worst paranoid fears by infiltrating our society and working to take it down. (In TV’s best bipartisan tradition, the show has something to please people of any political persuasion: it shows the dark side of American suburbia and confirms that we were right to be worried that our neighbour might be the enemy in disguise.) Keri Russell’s character is able to express all kinds of ideas about Western governments that an ideologically-committed spy would say in any time period. In the Reagan assassination episode, she argues that it’s the Americans who are the aggressors, and that America isn’t really a democracy at all. Rhys, the more pro-American of the two spies, is willing to question what they’ve been taught about America, but he hasn’t gone all the way over to rejecting his country. The idea is that our foes are also patriotic and believe themselves to be in a fight for their survival and way of life. It doesn’t engage in what, during the Cold War, was referred to as “moral equivalence” (that is, it doesn’t suggest that the Americans are just as bad as the Soviets), but it’s intended to be a show where, as the creator of the show, Joe Weisberg, put it, “there’s a break down of the barriers between us and them. Finding yourself rooting for the enemy is a fundamental part of the experience. What is the enemy? What does it even mean to be the enemy?” Or, as that wise philosopher Sting put it, “I hope the Russians love their children too.”

Much of what happens in the show could happen if it were updated to the world of Homeland, but it would be the most controversial show in history – Homeland starring the people who are unambiguously working for the other side. Even with modern-day spies working for an actual foreign government, it would be a problem. Weisberg was inspired to create it after reading about the Russian spies of today, but didn’t think it would have the same kind of urgency that it would have with an enemy we were truly afraid of. So he set it toward the end of the Cold War, which is a more iconic period, and also a period when we have the luxury of knowing that the enemy spies lost. Because it takes place in the ’80s and Keri Russell is playing a Russian and she’s holding conversations about Al Haig and the ERA, the show can hit these themes the way The Twilight Zone did, only with Russians instead of space aliens. The Americans is a bit reluctant to actually encourage us to root for the enemy; it gets us to root for Russell’s Elizabeth not to get caught in the middle of her missions, but suspense scenes are set up so we’d root for her whether she’s the hero or the villain. But it does seek a certain sympathy for people who kill in the name of a foreign power, and this is more comfortable to process because we know the foreign power didn’t win in the end – just as an anti-war movie goes down more painlessly when it’s about a war is already over.

Apart from the comfortable distance of the period, another thing that makes the themes of The Americans more palatable is the casting principle involved, which is that the leads should be just a little unbelievable in their roles. I can’t remember who said this – probably several people – but I once read something to the effect that if you want to make a popular entertainment about an uncomfortable subject, it’s important to miscast a little bit, so that the viewers will not have to confront the full, unpleasant reality of the subject. The Americans has a number of people who are believable as spies. You can always believe Margo Martindale is the enemy. But while Keri Russell acts her part well, she has so many associations from her previous big TV role that it’s hard to quite believe her as a tough-as-nails spy, and because the show puts her and Matthew Rhys in wigs and disguises at the slightest opportunity, a slight air of unreality hangs over the whole thing, like those scenes where Rockford went undercover with silly accents.

And that air of unreality actually makes the thing work. If they had an unknown as the tough, anti-American spy, one who was totally credible in that role, she would be frightening and we’d be fully conscious that we’re watching a show about the enemy. And that would turn a lot of people off. (This isn’t like a crime show, where the anti-heroes like Walt White spend a large portion of the series going up against people who are even worse than they are. This is a show where almost everyone in the target audience will find the anti-heroine hard to root for in any way.) But we know it’s not really a Russian spy up there; it’s Felicity pretending to be a spy, so we can keep a certain distance from the unpleasant implications of the story. That contributes to our ability to accept the enemy as the hero without actually rooting against the American government (yet). It also places the focus on the story where Russell’s look and persona make the most sense: the marriage story, the issue of whether two attractive people can make their marriage-of-convenience into real one. That’s the aspect which the creators consider the real core of the show, and they’ve ensured that that the part of the show that will make the most sense.

The casting, the period setting, and the focus on the enemy all mean that one possible criticism of the show is built into the material: it’s a somewhat distant show where we don’t have much of anyone to root for. That’s probably unavoidable. It’s not just that we don’t approve of the lead characters’ goals, but the historical background means that we know their goals are mostly pointless – doomed to failure before they even begin. Every week they’re sent on a mission for a government that we know (but they don’t, and the U.S. officials don’t) is destined to collapse soon. So their objectives are not simply bad, which we can be made to root for; they’re futile, which is much harder to root for. It sounds odd, but it would probably be easier to root for Elizabeth if she were bumping people off to get rich and powerful. The urge to gain wealth and power is something we can identify with no matter what a character does to get it. But to identify with the goals of Russell’s character, we have to sympathize with her sense of patriotism. And TV hasn’t had a great track record lately of getting us to identify with good-guy patriotism, let alone the patriotism of the enemy. It’s possible to see the whole show as a big farce, where Russell is going on missions based on a gigantic case of mistaken identity, mistaken ideas about the country she’s in, and a mistaken belief in the stability of her own government.

So that gives The Americans a sort of chilly Russian-winter objectivity that it may never quite shed, though you never know. (I’m assuming that next season, following the familiar pattern of Sons of Anarchy and Justified, the show will give itself over more to season-long stories. And while I have my reservations about that kind of storytelling, if they do that, they might have to try to make us engage more with the characters’ objectives in a way that the mission-of-the-week stories can’t do.) But that very sense of distance allows it to deal with things that it could never deal with in a fresh way with more conventional characters. The immigrant experience, for example.

Immigration stories are a cliché, and they’re not often done very well. But here we have a show that is in large part about immigrants with American children. It’s taking on the question of whether you should assimilate completely or hold on to the values and traditions of your home country. Rhys is on his way to assimilating; Russell is anti-assimilation; the kids are American through and through, including the American TV-kid tradition of getting into trouble by hitchhiking. It even hints briefly at the question of what will happen if the parents are deported and their children, being American citizens, stay behind. And all of it has a newness that it would not have if it were just a regular story about Russians raising assimilated children. This is one of the advantages of TV’s dependence on melodramatic genres like the thriller; genres can freshen up everyday experience and make it seem less drab. We don’t realize we’re looking at our dull regular lives under that violent coating.

And, as I said, genres can also allow a show to raise questions that it would never be allowed to raise in a different context. Obviously, the show does not require that we read it as a stand-in for any specific conflict: as with any historical fiction, it’s trying to show that the specific circumstances it describes are universal, and can therefore be applied to many other eras. I just find it especially interesting to look at it from the perspective of our own era, because even though people have sometimes talked about the idea of doing a show about members of a terrorist cell (there was at least one guy who got a job off a spec sitcom pilot about a terrorist couple, which was never intended to be produced), it seems unlikely that it could be done. So while that’s not what The Americans is about, it does force us to think about how things in our society would look to the rest of the world. The Reagan episode gets some of its punch from the idea that the outsize power of the military in America – symbolized by the ascention to power of Al Haig – makes the country look like some kind of military dictatorship: it’s not saying that this is true (Rhys, who points out why America is less secretive than the Soviet Union, is the voice of reason in the episode), but it wants us to understand why people would consider it their duty to fight against America and how they would justify this.

So The Americans is not an allegory, not in the way a sci-fi or fantasy show is. But like many historical shows – M*A*S*H, or Mad Men – it uses a historical setting to confront an idea that a show might never be allowed to confront in modern dress. (Mad Men, for example, is partly about male-female power relationships today, but because it’s set in the pre-feminist era, where everyone can safely agree these issues are applicable, it can surreptitiously make us think about how those issues still apply right now.) The ideas are not new, or even deeply shocking. But they’re just easier to present when the telephones are old-fashioned and calling people 24 hours a day means dialing their answering service.