Thursday, January 29, 2015



THE AMERICANS is one of the most fascinating shows on TV.

Played with sophistication and commitment by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, as an almost prototypical American family with marital issues, yet love for each other, a devotion to their children, and many problems at work, they turn the usual spy story upside down, by being the spies from the other side.

Portraying a Russian sleeper cell in DC that has come to life during the Reagan Era, and is targeting Americans and American interests with assassinations, murder, and espionage, assisted by sex, lies, and blackmail, Keri and Matthew are thoroughly despicable, dangerous enemies, and we root for them as if they were our own.

To follow the story, I think it helps to review the history of the period.

The third season of THE AMERICANS begins in 1982. Toward the end of the season premiere episode, Leonid Brezhnev dies. Brezhnev led the Soviet Union (as General Secretary of the Communist Party), following Nikita Khrushchev, from 1964 until his death on November 10, 1982. At the time, the Soviet Union was fighting In Afghanistan, while the United States was quietly trying to thwart the Russian incursion by supporting Afghan insurgents and their allies (such as Osama Bin Laden).

Brezhnev was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who died just over a year later, to be followed by Konstantin Chernenko who lasted only from Feb 13, 1984 to March 1985, when the old men of the old order were replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev -- roughly twenty years younger -- on March 11, 1985. The Soviet Union crumbled a few years later, with the Afghan war ending in Feb 1989 and the Berlin Wall coming down in November 1989.

Meanwhile, in the US, Ronald Reagan was President from January 1981 to January 1989, when he was succeeded by his Vice President, George H. W. Bush (who had, earlier, by the way, been director of the CIA). During the Reagan administration, the US threatened to build a massive anti-missile defense system (although most analysts dismissed the "star-wars" project as technically impossible and strategically wrong-headed), threatening to de-stable the military balance between the Soviet Union and the US. In 1985, officials in the Reagan administration orchestrated an illegal deal to send arms to Iran in order to free some hostages and finance secret support of anti-Communist forces in Central America.

It is a fascinating property of cinema that whosoever you make the main characters, if they have a strong objective, believe in their own cause, and have good, human interactions with (some) other people, then as long as their actions are not criticized by stronger characters, they become sympathetic, however evil they might be in any objective context.

I wonder what the end-game of this series will be. Do they get caught? Do they escape to Russia? What happens when the Soviet Union collapses: do they assimilate into American life? Become real Americans? I also wonder how today's current events, including renewed conflict with Russia and non-Russian sleeper cells causing real tragedies, will affect this show and the public reaction to it.

Before THE AMERICANS... at HIFF 2007
Photo by Eric Roffman

THE AMERICANS is well plotted, well executed, generally "believable" (except for the silly, simplistic costumes the spies wear as disguises... without ever being detected), continually interesting, suspenseful and tough without being intolerable, and extremely well acted. I felt this show deserved significant Golden Globe recognition; and I think Keri Russell, better known for much lighter drama, would make a spectacularly fine Lady Macbeth!





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