A Former Spy Reviews the FX Drama “The Americans”

The Americans is a drama set in the early 80’s about a pair of deep cover KGB agents conducting espionage and sabotage in the United States.

It’s been called the best show that too few people are watching (Todd VanDerWerff, Vox.com Jan 28, 2015), as well as simply “the best current drama out there” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker, March 18, 2015).

And I couldn’t agree more. My wife (a Romanian-American who grew up under Communism) and I got hooked when several seasons became available from free on Amazon Prime. We binge watched until we were caught up and now, because we’ve cut the cable, we buy each new season as it becomes available. They could double the price and we still wouldn’t bat an eye at the purchase–it’s that good.

In this post I will try to touch upon what makes the show resonate so much with me. A part of it has to be with my own background in Espionage. But a larger part of it has to do with the raw emotional themes coursing through The Americans. There will be a few minor spoilers from within the sweep of five seasons. If you have not watched the show, don’t read on. Go watch the show. You’ll thank me.

The Acting

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys devour every scene they are in as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (the KGB moles). Their onscreen chemistry is real–they are a couple in real life. Noah Emmerich, playing FBI agent Stan Beeman, is a treasure. He is simultaneously vulnerable and formidable in his role. Costa Ronin, portraying Embassy-based KGB agent Oleg Burov, is electrifying and engaging, even as he delivers all his lines authentically in Russian.

Spy Craft

National Security Agency, NSAJoe Weisberg, creator of The Americans, is a former CIA case officer himself, and he loosely based the show on the real-life case of several deep mole Russian agents caught in the US in 2005. I myself served at the National Security Agency as an Arabic linguist for four years after 9/11, during which time I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal for service in Iraq in 2004. Both of us have a lifetime obligation to submit things like books and screenplays to our parent agencies for approval before publication, lest we even inadvertently release anything classified.

From within my experience, The Americans is spot on in its depiction of the espionage efforts of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, as well as the counter-espionage efforts within the FBI. On numerous occasions I have paused the show to explain to my wife, albeit through an unclassified filter, just how amazingly accurate something in the episode was. In particular, scenes inside the Counter Espionage Office in the FBI remind me so much of my day-to-day job at NSA Headquarters that I almost wonder how Weisberg got it all approved!

80’s Nostalgia

I went to high school from 1980 to 1984. This show is like revisiting my teenage years. Having left federal service, I am now a Latin teacher at a public high school. And many of my students watch The Americans with their parents (admitting to me the awkwardness of watching some of the steamier parts alongside them). But they tell me that, as a family, the show is a wonderful binding force. It is a way for them to jointly answer the question, “Mom and Dad, what was it like when you were young?”

Missing the Cold War

Despite growing up in the US at a time when we earnestly believed we would eventually fight World War III against the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union, it struck me as curious how quickly, while watching The Americans, I was rooting for these spies! And I have come to process within myself that the reason this was even possible is that, despite our adversity to the Soviets, we still always respected them. And this is something that I think does strike a chord against the backdrop of the seemingly endless “War on Terrorism,” of which I was an official combatant. Al-Qaeda, followed by ISIS, are just not an enemy that deserves our respect in the same way.

Fighting an asymmetric war against an enemy without borders makes us long for the simplicity of the days when it was “Them vs. Us.” The entire world, with few exceptions, was either on our side or their side. And they were a formidable enemy, who reasonably posed an existential threat to our way of life. 

And we seemed to not always be ahead in the race. They got to space before us, even though we then beat them to the Moon. While we fought Communism to a draw in Korea (a conflict still with us today), it then advanced despite our grievous losses in Vietnam. And in the time period of the show, Afghanistan and Central America were also hot spots of Communist aggression. They were advancing, but we were not. I watched the “Miracle on Ice” game live in Madison, WI, bursting with pride that not only did we, the underdogs, beat the Soviets, but two members of the team were from my home town, Mark Johnson and Bobby Suter (who was also a member of my Lutheran Church). 

So when you watch The Americans, there is this fascinating blend of irony, knowing that in just a few short years the Soviet Union will dissolve, combined with respect for these agents waging their war on our soil at that moment when they seemed ascendant.

The Feels

I love a good cry. My second favorite show on television right now, after The Americans, is This is Us. And The Americans is ultimately not a show about deep cover spies. It is a drama about real, flawed, wounded people trying to live a life and connect with those about them–albeit from within a dangerous and complicated mission. Philip and Stan Beeman are actually genuinely friends, even though Stan doesn’t know Philip is his archenemy. Clark truly existed and truly loved Martha, even though Clark was also just a cover Philip used to gain valuable intelligence inside the FBI. And I wept real tears over Nina.

The Russians

Another facet of the quality of this show is that the substantial scenes taking place either in the Soviet Embassy or the Soviet Union itself are conducted in Russian with English subtitles. My Romanian wife herself waxes nostalgic to see scenes depicting the Communist world. Granted, she loves the opportunities and freedoms of the US, for all its dreariness, it was the world of her youth. I am not Russian, coming originally from Norwegian Lutheran stock. But I am today an ordained deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church. And the show has been a valuable linguistic tool for me in my studies. The more I learn of the language, the more I get out of scenes set in that world.

The Americans

Who are the Americans? Is the title simply a reference to the two undercover spies, whom we think to be Americans but they are not? What if it’s about the actual Americans in the show? Stan is an American. And he could fall in love with a Russian and count another Russian as a close friend, without knowing it. Paige and Henry are Americans, by virtue of their birth on our soil. And we have watched Paige grow up into a thoughtful young woman, who wants to place her considerable compassion into a worthy cause, whether it be the Social Justice mission of the Church or perhaps the wider mission of her parents. In an age when people who grew up in this country and even served in her military are then deported for lack of legal status, maybe now the point ultimately is that, while Philip and Elizabeth came to the US to destroy us, they have learned enough about us to be conflicted in their mission. Let’s be a country worthy of winning the Cold War.


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