The Americans is a dynamite show about a couple of Soviet spies – Elizabeth and Philip, played brilliantly by Keri Russell and Matthew Reese – who were trained from a very young age to pass as Americans. When they hit adulthood they are paired up, married off, and settled down in the suburbs of Washington DC with their two children, by all appearances your average family next door. Except, they sometimes slip out at night to carry out nefarious spy tasks – infiltrating, kidnapping, murdering, that kind of thing.
In the collective American imagination, the Reagan era Soviet Union is a drab, cheerless place, where people stand in long, polite lines to purchase loaves of bread, or single rolls of toilet paper. Imagine taking a couple of young adults who grew up in that environment and plopping them down in an American suburb during the go-go eighties, with VCRs and microwaves and two cars in the driveway. In spite of their loyalty to the Soviet cause, you might expect them to feel a little conflicted. And that is what makes The Americans an interesting show, far more than the secret spy shenanigans. Elizabeth and Philip are committed to living the American dream while they covertly work to undermine it; as time goes on their facades start to crack, especially as the couple begins to reckon with the impact their secret life could have on their American children’s futures. (In a nice bit of gender bending, it is Philip who starts questioning first, and Elizabeth who clings with brittle resolve to serving “the greater good.”)
But while this tension is at the heart of the show, the spy stuff is a lot of fun. Philip and Elizabeth seem to have few limits when it comes to doing their Soviet duty, they’re always donning elaborate disguises (which don’t really disguise them, but you sort of accept that on this show) and pulling stunts like slipping someone a slow acting poison (with an umbrella!) and withholding the antidote until the guy gives up crucial information. They use sex a lot – both of them do – in order to persuade folks to do their bidding; Philip even marries a poor unsuspecting woman (her name is Martha, find her on Twitter at #PoorMartha) in order to keep the intel flowing. Sometimes after a steamy encounter they come home and have sex with each other, because, you know, they’re feeling sentimental.
They also kill people, because this is meant to be a real spy story and not a genial caper; they are ordered to kill or they take the initiative in an effort to protect their cover. It’s never pretty and it is never shrugged off, these murders impact Elizabeth and Philip and make us wonder if it is possible for them to ever be redeemed after a lifetime of shadowy double living, but we can’t help but pull for them.
The Americans features a great supporting cast, including Alison Wright, who plays Martha, Holly Taylor, Elizabeth and Philip’s teenage daughter Paige, and Noah Emmerich, the lonely FBI agent who just happens to live across the street. There is also a whole passel of Russian KGB operatives whose paths frequently cross with the others causing all kinds of developments. The Americans is available for streaming on Amazon and new episodes are on FX. Definitely worth a watch.