Mission improbable: how The Americans changed the concept of the spy show

People might be raving about The Night Manager and the return of 24, but it’s the Americans, with its mix of family drama and espionage, that still wins out

  • Spoiler alert: there are spoilers for the first five series of The Americans

The season four finale of The Americans is the culmination of a season-long espionage plot, as the embedded Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) seek to get a sample of a biological weapon out of an American science facility and into the hands of their Russian handlers. (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the finale – which airs on the FX channel on 8 June at 10pm ET – however, I will be talking about the first four seasons of the show, so reader beware.)

But it’s not the heist that is the most memorable thing about the hour: it’s a long shot of front of the Jennings’ suburban home with Elizabeth looking out the window. It doesn’t look like a sanctuary. It looks like a prison. It looms over the camera as if the real terror here isn’t getting caught and imprisoned by the FBI, but having to exist as a family. The Americans features shady dealings to get information, the machinations of the authorities to catch the spies, and more wigs than an entire season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but the real focus is here, on the Jennings and their home. That’s what makes The Americans the best of the many spy series currently on the air.

Right now is the perfect time for the espionage drama. The advent of the cold war in the 60s brought I Spy, Mission: Impossible, The Avengers, The Man from UNCLE and even Get Smart – all of which have been adapted into recent movies. When audiences have something huge to fear, such as another global war or a nuclear bomb, they look for something that can make sense of the secret world they feel is lurking just below the surface.

We’re getting all different types of secret worlds, as well. NBC has Blindspot, a sort of procedural where deciphering a woman’s tattoos gets us closer to some shadowy conspiracy. NBC is also the home of Blacklist, with crosses, double crosses, James Spader and secret agents. It’s such a hit for the network that a spin-off starring Famke Janssen is in the works for the fall. Fox is also rebooting 2000s staple 24 with 24: Legacy, featuring a new agent in the counter-terrorism unit.

These shows are happy to offer only the thrills and suspense that are inherent to the genre. There’s another strain of shows that aims a bit higher. AMC and the BBC just closed out the limited series The Night Manager, based on John le Carré’s book from the 90s. The story of a British spy who infiltrates an arms dealing ring, the series got rapturous reviews across the board, especially for the great acting and knotty storytelling, but at its core, it’s just a spy story. It’s sort of like having a gourmet doughnut – it’s made with the best ingredients, but still not that filling.

‘When will this end?’ … Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland
‘When will this end?’ … Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland Photograph: Kent Smith/Showtime

Of course, the keystone of high-end spy dramas is Showtime’s Homeland, which managed to win a slew of Emmys for its first season as Damian Lewis and Claire Danes squared off as a possible terrorist and an unhinged CIA agent. At its best, it was a great character study of two people on the fringes that hinted at American paranoia post-9/11. However, after a reboot following the show’s third season, most of those deeper shades of meaning went away and now it’s more like 24, with a dogged CIA agent whom people don’t often believe, hunting down the enemy at any cost.

What makes The Americans the best spy show is what has made Homeland even weaker. As Homeland moves towards focusing on the machinations of discovering terrorist plots, The Americans moves away from the more genre-specific elements. As I mentioned, the finale is about the culmination of a mission for Philip and Elizabeth, but it is nowhere near as involved as the plots in the first couple of seasons, including one where they had to kidnap and poison a maid’s son to get her to place a camera where Philip married Martha (Alison Wright), an FBI secretary, to get her to inform on her bosses against her will. Most of the season dealt not with planning and double crosses, but Philip and Elizabeth’s various and assorted moral dilemmas.

What makes The Americans one of the standout shows in the “golden age of television” is that it isn’t about spies at all. Just as The Sopranos isn’t really about the mafia, Mad Men isn’t really about advertising, and Six Feet Under isn’t really about funerals, The Americans is about so many other things beyond whether or not Philip and Elizabeth will continue to get away with their duplicitous life.

The Americans, more than anything, is about ideology and the lengths people go to to support it. Elizabeth has always unquestioningly served her country, but this season she was forced to betray a woman who became her friend, testing her dedication. Philip, always more of a skeptic, was allowed to save Martha’s life, strengthening his belief in the cause. Their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) doesn’t believe in communism but instead has fallen headlong into Christianity, revealing her parents’ secret identities to her pastor and dealing with the ramifications of that choice.

Like so many of those other great dramas, The Americans is also about families and how individuals can know themselves even as they sacrifice parts of their identity for the greater good. Philip attends meetings learning New Age philosophy so he can continue with his occupation; their neighbor – FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) – struggles with his worth when his family falls apart, and latches on to the Jennings; and Elizabeth has grappled with with her relationship with her daughter and mother since the series began.

The best moments of Blacklist and Homeland are always when a mysterious conspiracy suddenly becomes clear and the audience sees the devious plotting laid bare. The best moments of The Americans are when whatever conspiracy the characters are working on reveals something about their inner lives. It’s not about the plot itself, but their reaction to it and what that tells us about ourselves. The most compelling scenes are not the ones that take place in the safe houses but in the Jennings’ house, as they huddle around the television watching David Copperfield or fighting in the kitchen about belief systems. The star of The Americans is not the KGB, but the house where these agents live, even as it looms on the screen like something out of a horror movie.


Brian Moylan

The GuardianTramp

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