Wed Menace

The marital politics of Cold War drama The Americans

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Frank OCKenfels / FX

The Americans Keri Russel and Matthew Rhys

Like many Suburban parents in 1981, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings feel a gulf between them and their two growing kids. Unlike their Reagan-era peers, though, for them the issue is not rock music or Pac-Man addiction. It's the international proletarian revolution.

Unbeknownst to the kids, Elizabeth and Philip--born Nadezhda and Mischa in the Soviet Union--are deep-cover KGB spies, matched in an arranged marriage, taught pitch-perfect English and sent to the U.S. to run missions. Now their beloved children are happy American consumers, gulping orange juice, reading teen magazines and demanding new leg warmers. In the debut of FX's The Americans (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET), Elizabeth (Keri Russell) refuses to believe that their kids' corruption is irreversible. "They don't have to be regular Americans," she insists. "They could be socialists." Philip (Matthew Rhys) disagrees. "This place doesn't turn out socialists," he says.

It's a little moment that shows how total the Jenningses' sacrifice is and why The Americans is such an unusual, adult spy drama. In the worst-case scenario, they're exposed and their children orphaned (a distinct possibility, since their new neighbor Stan, played by Noah Emmerich, is an FBI counterespionage agent). Best case, they topple the Yankee capitalist way of life their children have come to love. They've given up a lot for the motherland: their safety, their sexual volition, their past loves. Now through their kids, conceived as a cover and raised in a lie, they must give up their future. And they do so, though they could get paid millions to defect, because they believe.

From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to The Americans' spy sibling Homeland, a lot of TV dramas have asked us to identify with protagonists doing bad things out of greed, pathology or hubris. The Americans asks us to identify with protagonists doing bad things out of idealism. Elizabeth and Philip aren't out to get rich, get power or get revenge. They're simply, sincerely, trying to bury us.

Spoiler alert: they don't. The show begins at the beginning of the Soviets' end. In the second episode, the Jenningses bug the home of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger--a ruthless mission that involves poisoning his housekeeper's son and withholding the antidote--to eavesdrop about a secret defense project: the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. The ballistic-missile shield may not have killed the U.S.S.R., but the symbolism is clear. We are watching a drama about the dinosaurs, and they have just glimpsed a distant asteroid.

Knowing this gives The Americans an air of tragedy it'd be hard to pull off on, say, a show about al-Qaeda sleepers. And historical distance--30 years' worth of bygones--gives the show room to build an intimate picture of marriage as a partnership and a struggle. (Creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer, drew loosely on the 2010 Russian spy-ring case involving several married couples.) Elizabeth and Philip, whose cover is running a travel agency, are the ultimate working couple, with a division of labor that would shame most dual-income households in the Sheryl Sandberg era: they share the child-rearing and the hand-to-hand combat. (They're also equal-opportunity sex objects, each of them having to seduce contacts to obtain secrets.)

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