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My Take on 'The Americans'

| May 13, 2014

Back in the early, one might say naïve, days of the CIA, we entered the clandestine ranks as Junior Officer Trainees (JOT's). We had a short orientation in Washington, followed by an overlong six months training course for case officers at "The Farm".

In our initial orientation, one of the catechism-like formulas presented to us was called the "Basic Obstacles" to a life under cover. This was by way of preparing us for life in the "Silent Service." There were six or eight listings as basic obstacles, and I remember two of them: "need for recognition" and "the strain of a dual existence."

In today's golden age of American television, with the likes of Mad Men (now losing some of its luster) and Breaking Bad (good to the last drop — of blood), along comes a series when "the strain of a dual existence" comes constantly into play. It is The Americans, a dramatization based on an incident in 2010 in which 10 individuals were arrested who were living the life of ordinary Americans — except they were Russian "sleepers", or in KGB parlance, "illegals." Their mission was to implant themselves innocuously in American cities and await operational assignments at some point in the future. These "illegals" were wrapped up and expelled from the U.S. in a spy swap for four Russians allegedly working variously for the CIA and Britain's MI-6. Their expulsion was done with unseemly haste presumably to put the incident in the past as quickly as possible. On their return to Russia, the illegals were warmly hailed by Vladimir Putin, who said he was sure they would find "good jobs". One of them, who had the name of Anna Chapman, subsequently became a glamorous TV personality in Russia.

The Background

The period in play in The Americans is the early Reagan years, a time of intense rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR: of Russian apprehension about what Ronald Reagan with his rhetoric of "the evil empire" might do; and of the war scare of 1983, when the Russians thought the Americans might be preparing to launch a nuclear first strike and feverishly sought indications of preparations for such an attack. The Russian obsession with the idea that the Americans might go for a first strike was not wholly apparent to the Americans who, having no intention of carrying such an attack, mirror-imaged the Russians as thinking in the same way.

With the end of the Cold War, the intelligence services of the two countries entered into a more or less "normal" liaison relationship, one that was concentrated on subjects of mutual interest, that is, terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 2010, when the illegals affair broke, the "reset" with Russia was in full swing, and some officials in the State Department, intent on carrying through with the rapprochement, greeted with incredulity the news that ten Russian agents living under "unofficial" cover in the United States, had been apprehended.

The KGB "Couple"

In The Americans, the sleepers' future has arrived. The center of the action are two Russians, who have had a makeover as the Jennings couple, Philip and Elizabeth, played by the Welshman Matthew Rhys and the American Keri Russell. They were put together originally by the KGB, who made them into a couple., for purposes of their assignment. They have been living in the U.S., in Virginia, outside Washington, for a long time. They even have two children from this liaison originally manufactured by the KGB.

The Jennings, under cover as travel agents, are extremely active operationally — too active, one might say, for anyone outside a TV drama. They change persona with liberal use of wigs, they kill, they arrange a forcible deportation, and they accomplish feats of physical derring-do. But somehow, if not wholly believable, these actions do not jar on us the way 24, with its incessant crash-and-bang scenes began to do so as it went on, season after season. In this regard, we have to realize and accept that fiction has to be stranger than truth in order to entertain an audience.

Nevertheless it is a bit irritating that the net effect is that the Jennings begin to come off to the audience as heroes. How is it that Philip can subdue first a white man, then a black man, both of whom are much bigger than he is? How is it that Elizabeth, from her KGB training, is herself adept at mano a mano, and can hold her own with male antagonists?

As the second season of The Americans approaches its end (on May 21), the Jennings couple, especially Philip, begin to show "the strain of a dual existence".  This is especially evident when their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor)  falls under the spell of American evangelical Protestantism and on her own contributes 600 dollars to a nearby church. As Communist non-believers, the Jennings couple are shocked, and the husband is enraged, confronting the church's minister and tearing up his daughter's bible.

Of the two, Elizabeth is the more dedicated Soviet citizen, despite the fact that she had been raped by her KGB trainer, later explained by her antagonist as one of the "perks" of the job. The experience seems only to have steeled her, and later she kills her tormentor after he has turned up in the U.S. as a defector sought by the KGB.

Elizabeth considers the Americans as weak (which seems to be a Russian characteristic judging by the psyché of Vladimir Putin.) Philip on the other hand is less of an ideologue than his "wife" and has even considered defecting, attracted as he is by the spoils of American life. Nevertheless he plunges into his tasks, and his many-sidedness is brilliantly portrayed by Matthew Rhys, as he moves from strangulation, to surreptitious entry, to seduction (of a not very appealing secretary who works in the FBI office in Washington).

Though is seems contrived that the Jennings couple, trained to live their cover, never speak to each other in Russian, only in English, this was standard KGB practice for illegals. The Americans is plausible, if violent and melodramatic, particularly in the byplay between the FBI and the KGB Rezidentura. The players in the Rezidentura speak to each other in Russian, with subtitles provided in English. One of these players, Nina (Annet Mahendru), a ravishing, full-lipped brunette, is in contact with an FBI officer, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who has forced her into recruitment. The FBI man, bored at home, then falls in love with her. She reciprocates, but does not love him. She reports back to the chief of the Rezidentura on Beeman. The latter believes he has a valid penetration of the Rezidentura, and to make sure he has her take a lie-detector test. She is coached on this by a member of the Rezidentura who advises to tighten her sphincter as she prepares to answer a question. She passes the polygraph test.

Complicating this very complicated but nevertheless verisimilitudinous TV play is the fact that the Beemans live across the street from the Jennings and become acquainted with them, without, despite vague suspicions, apprehending the couple's real role.

That FBI officers and those of the Rezidentura occasionally cross paths is not surprising. Overall, while this series is a dramatization, it should serve to remind us that world powers spy and the Soviets/Russians did not spy on America just because they were communists. One draws from The Americans the realization that the KGB, with its division of "wet operations" (assassinations) is far more lethal than most Americans ever dreamed of. Clandestine activity is not just a way of life, it is a way of Russian life. All this is underscored by the recent and continuing events in the Ukraine.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Cogan, Dr. Charles G..“My Take on 'The Americans'.” The Huffington Post, May 13, 2014.

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