I was born in November 1989, just a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the event placed in the popular collective memory as the end of the Cold War. While it took a few more years for the dust to settle and the former Eastern Bloc to establish democratic governments, the removal of any perceived threat to the West was felt almost instantly. The idea of the Russians (or Soviet Union that was) as the enemy and ‘the other’ is more or less lost on me, as I imagine it is to anyone else born after the late 1980s. With the exception of the odd Bond villain, most perceptions developed during my lifetime have moved on from the Cold War stereotype of the Soviet threat and imminent nuclear war.
During the early ’80s, although American society’s fears of impending attack from the East were low, the American government maintained a significant level of paranoia and panic. Joe Weisberg’s spy fiction period drama The Americans begins in 1981, at the point that the Reagan era saw the previous period of détente giving way to growing tensions in Moscow and Washington D.C.
On the surface the premise of The Americans sounds a little cheap and even outdated. Main protagonists Philip and Elizabeth are KGB sleeper agents masquerading as a suburban American couple. They’ve lived in the USA for over a decade, raised all-American children, made s’mores round the campfire (I assume), and are now fighting as active KGB officers in their very own hot Cold War. And, oh look, an FBI agent just moved in across the street! What a lark! But it’s not a lark, and it’s not corny, and it’s not over the top. But it is intense.
The Americans is a well-acted, very well-written drama, made up of a range of events experienced by real KGB sleeper agents that lived and worked in the USA during the Cold War. I’m not saying it’s the most realistic of US dramas, but the storytelling is both believable and intensely emotional.
Although it is a historical drama, the show is not obsessed with the excessive, kitsch value of the ’80s. Early on in the series the ‘80s music and outfits disappear (with the exception of the rather fantastic wigs) and the storylines begin to take over.
As the series progresses the complexities of life as a spy noticeably permeate the domestic decisions made by Philip and Elizabeth, explicitly regarding their relationships with their children; Paige and Henry. The safety and happiness of their children increasingly becomes the decisive factor in their decisions about their job, their home and their relationships to both each other and the motherland.
The irony here is that Paige and Henry represent everything their parents (particularly Elizabeth) hate about America, and everything they are fighting against. In spite of an obvious love for her children, Elizabeth struggles to accept her American daughter’s deeply conflicting views on clothes, boys and politics. They’re not just from different generations, but different worlds. is twist on the generational divide emphasises how far the ‘ordinary’ goes in affecting the high drama and political intrigue.
This notable divide also plays against the children’s role as the only true stabilising force within their parents’ marriage and also their cover story. What starts as a Cold War spy drama gradually comes to depict something far less political and much more emotional – two parents trying to make the right decisions for their children, in some incredibly obtuse circumstances, and in a surprisingly relatable way.
Throughout the series, my overwhelming desire was for them to hold on until 1989 and let the whole thing blow over. With a second season on the way, due on screens in 2014, it will be interesting to see how far the sway of domestic normality will influence the hardest working parents in Washington D.C., and whether the international political crises will ruin yet another family dinner.