Here in 2014, we’re used to our TVs being filled with antiheroes. We’ve had Tony Soprano, Nancy Botwin, Dexter Morgan, Walter White, Patty Hewes, Stringer Bell, Don Draper—basically, any actor who’s hoisted the Best Actor/Actress in a Drama Emmy trophy in the last decade probably hasn’t played the nicest person on TV.
Even in that context, it’s still jarring to tune in to The Americans. With the exception of Nazis, there probably hasn’t been a more historically reliable villain in Western pop culture than communist Russia. It would have been unthinkable for anyone who grew up in the 70s or 80s to consider a TV show portraying the inner workings of KGB agents without it being a black-and-white portrayal of bad guys. The official U.S. position of the 20th century was decidedly anti-communist, and a few examples aside, the popular art of the day echoed that sentiment. So when a show like The Americans comes along and shows characters who are both three-dimensional and KGB agents, it’s still a little shocking.
The Americans is, on its surface, a spy story. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are two KGB agents living just outside Washington, D.C., hidden as super operatives in plain sight. While the spy hijinks are the obvious selling point, the show is also a subtle exploration of love and marriage. Elizabeth and Philip were strangers before being assigned to the U.S., where they were suddenly supposed to act like husband and wife. They’ve moved to the suburbs with their two kids, and yet a huge emotional gulf exists between the two.
While most critical reviews of the show have been largely positive, it’s hardly surprising to see headlines like “Is TV’s New Cold War Thriller Anti-American?” (The Blaze) or “Murdoch’s [Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp. and 21st Century Fox, which owns FX] KGB-Friendly Series” (Media Research Center). And executive producer Joel Fields surely raised some eyebrows when he told The Hollywood Reporter that “we want you to root for the KGB.”
So what is it about a show like The Americans that makes it so compelling? Why might it be even be a good thing for people to watch?
They are … me?
First things first—there were a lot of problems with the Soviet expression of Marxism-Leninism during most of the 20th century. And that’s putting it mildly. From the gulags to intellectual cullings to massive corruption to basically every human rights abuse you can think of, the Soviets were usually near the top of the list. So it’s not as if The Americans can get away with trying to pretend the crimes of the state can just be swept under the rug.
To the show’s credit, it generally doesn’t—while only Elizabeth is a true believer in communism (Philip is periodically interested in giving it up if it means more security), the actions done by the pair are often horrifying. For instance, a meet-up in an early episode of season two goes wrong, leading Philip to commit a terrible murder. It’s not excused as a non-event—it’s shown in its full ugliness, and viewers aren’t meant to brush it aside.
But in general, viewers find themselves “rooting” for Philip and Elizabeth. We root for them to avoid detection, to complete missions and to fall for each other. We watch them struggle to let themselves care about each other, fear for their safety as they go on dangerous missions and cringe as they do their best to hurt one another. But we’re hoping they succeed, even if that means, when we take a step back, the “enemy” (at least, for any American born in the latter part of the 20th century) succeeds.
As I’ve watched the show, over the course of the first suspenseful season and excellent early second season, I’ve wondered why I’m rooting for people that are so different, so awful and so contradictory. Surely there must be something wrong with hoping such bad people succeed. Then I realized that it’s because the characters of Philip and Elizabeth remind me of me.
I don’t shoot people, and I don’t cheat on my wife or make dead drops or really share anything in common with the characters at the surface-level. And yet, The Americans engenders an empathy in me that unpacks motivations and actions for people I’ve always assumed are the faceless enemy. These villains become a fellow husband and wife fighting for their marriage, parents trying to do their best for their children and people trying to understand how to reconcile their patriotism with those times when their country doesn’t inspire a whole lot of pride. These are things I understand.
The gift of empathetic pop culture
It’s this kind of empathy that is, perhaps, a hidden and under appreciated quality of some of the pop culture that has most moved me. When I listen to This American Life, I feel empathy with Dan Savage over the loss of his mother, even though I disagree with Dan Savage about almost everything. When I watch The Wire, crime and the drug trade get a lot murkier when I realize that some people don’t have very many choices in life. When I watch Friday Night Lights, small town people become more than yokel caricatures and become living, breathing humans who feel and doubt as much as I do.
Works like The Americans remind me that there is something that links me to a lot of other people: the plank in my eye, and the image of God in every person.