The Americans and American Exceptionalism

For someone not naturally disciplined about watching TV, one of the best things we did a while back was to ditch the box altogether. Don’t really miss it. A benefit is that you have to choose to watch something online (free of ads). Quality of viewing up, waste of time down. And (for the moment) not paying a TV licence to subsidise RTE feels very nice indeed.

The-AmericansOne show I’ve got into is The Americans. It tells the story of an apparently all American couple (married, two kids, living in the suburbs) during the 1980s who are actually KGB spies. Recruited as young communist idealists, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) were sent to the West. Their idealism remains intact (hers is steelier than his). Their double lives are complicated by having to negotiate real jobs, teenagers who know nothing of their parents’ true identities, dangerous missions given to them by ‘the Centre’, as well as the conflicted messiness of their own ‘marriage’.

There is an authentic joylessness about their relationship and family life, flowing from the lie that hangs over the whole family. The children are part of their cover, and so there is a constant tension between the pull of protective parenthood and the reality that their children’s very existence was a utilitarian strategy to serve their greater goal.

Leaving aside the unbelievability of some of their missions, not to mention how they manage to combine an active espionage life (including numerous undercover missions and affairs with targets), two full-time jobs and parenthood without the kids being brought into state care for neglect – this is curiously compelling viewing.

In Reagan’s time Russia was the ‘evil empire’. It’s only now, in the moral complexity of the post-Cold War era that it is imaginable that a series about Russian spies, told from their perspective, could be made in the USA. The Americans humanises the enemy within, revealing their battles to maintain loyalty to their cause amidst the lure of the American dream and relational tension within this most un-American of families.

This is interesting for being robustly post-nationalist TV within a vigorously nationalist nation. While the Russian agents are necessarily ruthless, they are no more so than their American opponents. The politics of the FBI HQ are just as cut-throat as those of the Russian Embassy. This is a re-writing of American demonization of their old enemy and of the lionization of their own security forces. Here the battle is depicted without favour or stereotyping.

This parallelism is most explicit in the doomed relationship between the FBI agent hunting Elizabeth & Philip and Nina, a Russian Embassy worker locked into being a double (triple?) agent. Both appear as tragic figures, trapped between their duty to nation, feelings for each other and conflicted loyalties to others. The struggle of being human; of the relatively powerless individual navigating treacherous waters of love, sex and desire are pitted against bigger forces of national security and international politics.

I guess what I’m saying is that the modernist myth of American exceptionalism is missing from The Americans – and perhaps that is why it is so good.

I saw and experienced a little bit of communism in the late 1980s in Romania under Ceaucescu. It was destructive, dehumanising, dispiriting, corrupt and, yes I would use the word ‘evil’. Yet, while ‘40 years late’, The Americans reminds us of the common humanity in even our worst enemy and the value of trying to stand in their shoes.

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