“What kind of people are you? Who are you?” These are the questions posed repeatedly in The Americans, most often concerning Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), a couple of Soviet spies. It’s 1981, and they’re undercover, so deeply immersed in their suburban American lives that they’re raising two children, aged 10 and 13, two children who — like everyone else who “knows” the Jennings — have no idea “what kind of people” they are.
The woman posing the question this time appears in the second episode of the series, which premieres 30 January on FX. Viola works as a maid at Caspar Weinberger’s house, which the spies mean to wire for eavesdropping. This process is cumbersome, per the period, when actual wires were used, and also occasions particular violence, as Elizabeth is ensuring Viola’s cooperation by assaulting her son, Grayson (Grantham Coleman), currently laid out on his bed, unconscious. As Viola watches in horror, Philip again explains her task; she’s been resisting, even when instructed that Grayson has been poisoned and Philip holds the only antidote. Viola’s resistance has to do with who she is, or who she might be, that is, someone quite different from her attackers. Viola has a sense of herself, even in the few minutes she’s on screen, during which she she accepts the seemingly outrageous poison story, the proof in the limp body of her boy. And she has a sense of Elizabeth and Philip as very bad people, “them” opposed to her “us.”
Even as Viola insists, “I know the devil”, the show works against such knowing. All this is quite a bit of plot, and The Americans is rather like that, full of espionage bits, car chases and undercover sex (to solicit information), stabbings and shootings and dashes down dark streets. When Elizabeth and Philip aren’t doing this part of their “job”, as she describes it more than once, they’re doing the other part, which is barbequing in the backyard or shopping at the mall with their daughter Paige (Holly Jennings) or playing stick hockey in the driveway with Henry (Keidrich Sellati). A few flashbacks establish that Elizabeth and Philip were recruited in the Mother Country and sent to Northern Virginia in 1965 as veritable strangers, told to share only their cover stories, not their actual backgrounds (“You’re less likely to make a mistake,” says the grim general in charge of their sinister training, “if there is no other version of this man hiding away in your memory”).
And yet, of course, their lives in the States are full of mistakes, potential and actual. While they’re visibly undaunted in the heat of any given moment — say, Viola’s agonizing or their own brutal and very up-close violence, done to enemies or to one another — Elizabeth and Philip are caught up in their own dilemmas. He’s thinking they might consider leaving the program, hide away from the KGB, embrace the fake lives they’ve been living as their real ones. Elizabeth is more of a good soldier, determined not to “betray my country” (another phrase she uses frequently), except when it comes to their kids: “We swore we would never tell them,” she insists, “They are not to be a part of this.”
What “this” actually is becomes increasingly murky, and that may be The Americans‘ best trick. As much as the series’ pitch seems clear — it’s another period series, with terrific design details, long story arcs, and complex performances — it is also something else, a reframing of what it might mean to be “Americans”, then and now. On one hand, this has to do with the not-Americans: as Elizabeth and Philip argue over their essential situation — whether over the kitchen sink or over a KGB agent they’ve got trussed up in the trunk of their car — they’re arguing over what they want and also over what they think they want, their beliefs and their identities. If, for instance, they believe the KGB is as powerful as it says it is, as they embody it and also fear it, they must never imagine leaving it. This even as they might see the agency’s flaws and oversights, its misconceptions and its assumptions.
On the other hand, Philip and Elizabeth confront the lies they’re living, as well as the authentic-seeming lives of their fellow suburbanites. When a new neighbor, Stan (Noah Emmerich), identifies himself as an FBI agent, they guess for a moment it might be coincidence (“FBI agents have to live somewhere”), but you know it’s not. But The Americans doesn’t make Stan a hero in any standard sense; rather, he’s a complicated working man set against complicated working people: they all have jobs to do.
And so does Viola. The fact that she’s at the center of the episode entitled “The Clock” breaks open The Americans‘ thematic concerns in particular ways. Her role as a domestic resonates in various ways, but so does her role as a black domestic. She’s living in Ronald Reagan’s America, she’s a dedicated single black mother and a true believer in God, not unlike Elizabeth is a true believer in her own cause. Each of these aspects of Viola means something, but as she’s only a supporting player, a plot point for the spies, she serves a particular function, a good citizen whose commitment to a moral code might be contrasted and also compared with theirs. It’s not as if her commitment has helped her out any more than theirs has: she has a difficult job for little reward, as do they.
Viola is thus a lens through which you might see or reject the spies, or maybe glimpse their confusion. Philip observes, “She said, ‘God will help us.’ It’s not good. People who believe in God always make the worst targets.” It’s a joke and a bit of commentary, on the nonbelievers as much as those with faith. And it’s yet another way that The Americans represents the problems of beliefs and identities, how they might come to be, and how they might be at once reassuring and confounding.