The anti-hero genre has officially reached its apex; turning Russian spies into protagonists. But these spies, representing a threat to the America that we all enjoy today, don’t look nearly as threatening as a meth cooking science teacher or a booze soaked, playboy ad exec. The Jennings are loving parents who enjoy baking brownies and shopping at malls. They have marital problems, like many couples, but they work through them. Above all else they are loyal and patriotic, traits that most Americans forget to strive for these days. And yet, all these virtues amount to nothing because that loyalty is to Mother Russia.
What makes The Americans so intriguing is that it isn’t an untold story. A married couple struggling to connect, to juggle their hectic lives along with figuring out a marriage they entered into too young and all the questions and hesitancies that come with it, is hardly groundbreaking storytelling. But add in a few wigs, government secrets, and threats to national security and suddenly it’s a whole new story with higher stakes, greater tension and endless opportunities for our own entertainment.
The series began by throwing us straight into the action; a mission to kidnap a defected Soviet spy and return him to the country he betrayed. I have never before thought of “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac as a song that should have a chase set to it, but now that its happened I realize that it was meant to be and everyone who has made a chase scene prior to this should be ashamed that they didn’t do it first. Of course the raddest soundtrack in the world doesn’t mean that a mission will be successful. When Philip (Matthew Rhys) makes a detour to drop a wounded comrade at a hospital, they miss the exchange and suddenly find themselves with a very unwanted houseguest.
Like many unwanted houseguest, Timochev causes tensions to rise within the Jennings household; bringing to the forefront the central strife of their marriage; Philip wants to defect and live their lives in peace and Elizabeth is still fiercely loyal to her country. The friction only intensifies when a counter intelligence FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), moves in across the street. Philip is certain it means they’ve been blown, but that’s probably just wishful thinking. While the years in America have done nothing but harden Elizabeth’s resolve and impassioned belief that what she is doing is right, they have been comfortable and eye opening for Philip. As he watches his children grow up as Americans, suddenly he has something much more precious to protect than the Soviet Union.
Luckily for Elizabeth, Philip’s love of family stems from a greater love for her and when he learns that their car trunk visitor raped his wife during her training all thoughts of turning Timochev over to Beeman go out the window and Philip acts as any husband would; he snaps the neck of the man who hurt his wife. Never (and probably never again) has murder looked so romantic.
The grand gesture brings the couple back together again (or perhaps for the first time), resulting in another well soundtracked hook up and Elizabeth sharing details of her life before going undercover.
The added intimacy couldn’t have come at a better time because, while not actually blown, their covers are certainly being questioned by their new neighbor, Stan. He sneaks into the Jennings’ garage late one night to check the recently vacated trunk. Of course he finds nothing, all the evidence has already been cleaned away, but that moment of succumbing to his suspicions has lost him the upper hand. As the garage door raised high enough for Stan to sneak back out, it revealed Philip waiting in the darkness, gun at the ready, not to protect his country, but his family.
The show could easily have centered on American spies living in the Eastern Bloc, but by making these characters supposed threats to our country offers another aspect of the storytelling. It puts us into the same shoes the characters wear; an inner conflict of where allegiances should lie, what constitutes right and wrong, and what matters more, an individual person or the greater good of a nation. So far Philip and Elizabeth have done nothing unjustifiable; they have followed orders, done their job and taken appropriate measures to protect themselves and appease their spouses. Yet, any one of those actions could land them in federal prison, if not get them killed. What makes these characters anti-heroes is not their actions, but our own context.
Like with all anti-hero sagas, the focus is never on the (relatively) terrible things our protagonists do, but in the hundred tiny ways they are just like us. In a sense it endears us to the characters, helps us to relate and to care about their fates. But it also serves to scare us. The Jennings look to all the world like the perfect American family, while they are systematically working to destroy the American way of life. We pretend all we want that the greatest threats to our lives live far away in the great unknown, but these shows remind us that threats can just as easily be right next door.