Written by Hannah Dunleavy


Binging: The Americans

Not getting enough Russian spy drama in the real world? Get stuck into The Americans, says Hannah Dunleavy.

Cross your heart: Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans. Photos: 20th Television.

Every so often, a television series has either the foresight or the fortune to find itself in the box labelled ‘right topical’.

Hulu, for example, is about to launch its adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale at a time when a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body is inexplicably up for debate again.

Black Mirror served up another buffet of dystopia just in time for the world to stagger into dystopian times. The Leftovers, which ponders our many reactions to momentous change, will deliver its final series at a time of momentous change.

Even Arrested Development‘s much promised fifth series is said to be ‘near’, which means it’ll air while there’s a real-life Bluth family in the White House pretending to build a wall. Only joking; the Trumps are nothing like the Bluths. They don’t have a Michael. But oh shit, do they need one.

Perfectly positioned to capitalise on interest in the ongoing clusterfuck that is US-Russian relations is The Americans, the tale of two deep-undercover Soviet spies stabbing people with poisoned umbrellas while posing as a married couple in 1980s Washington DC. (I know.)

If the current political climate doesn’t give FX’s best drama since Justified a pop culture bump when the fifth series arrives in March, it’s perhaps a sign The Americans is destined for the box marked ‘unappreciated classics’. Because classic it certainly is, pulling off the remarkable feat of being a crowd-pleasing, pacey and shag-fuelled jaunt around the nostalgia hub du jour – the 1980s – AND a slow musing on the nature of loyalty AND a portrait of a very unconventional marriage.

“While the Jennings are posing as the epitome of American-ness, even having two children to strengthen their cover story, reality is very different. And not just because they are spies.”

Impressive, eh? I haven’t even got to the best bit. The Americans has Elizabeth Jennings, television’s first great female antihero.

That’s probably the best place to start, with the impossibly pert and slight Keri Russell, who turns in a performance so mighty I have never once feared for Elizabeth’s safety.

That woman can look after herself. Or, to put it another way, that woman is dangerous. She’s a killer. She’s a liar. She sells her body and chunks of her soul to prop up a regime that history will not look kindly on. She’s one of the bad guys.

But, like so many great antiheroes before her, she’s a whole lot more. The writers slowly unveil Elizabeth’s backstory – although, to be fair, if you’ve read anything about 20th-century Russian history, you already know it. When added to the knowledge of what happened to her and her husband Philip during training, the pair seem less ruthless forces of destruction than pawns in a very dangerous game.

And while I can never say I want them to succeed in any one mission (given it’ll probably mean someone else’s life getting a whole lot worse), I also don’t want them to be killed. Or caught. (The Americans, like Breaking Bad before it, amps up the tension by placing an enemy within, with the role of ‘Hank’ being played by Noah Emmerich’s Stan, a neighbour who works for exactly the Government department looking for the Jennings.)

The dynamic between Elizabeth and Philip, played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, is central to her character – and to the success of The Americans as a whole. (A dynamic that’s made more interesting still by the knowledge that Russell and Rhys met, married and had a child while the first four seasons were filmed. There can be nothing to put you in the mindset of a woman who can say, “He’s only doing his job,” when her husband’s fondling another woman in front of her, than your husband fondling another woman in front of you in the name of work. That’s like a Russian nesting doll of suppressed instincts right there.)

While the Jennings are posing as the epitome of American-ness, even having two children to strengthen their cover story, reality is very different. And not just because they are spies.

For one thing, the gender cliches are thrown out. It’s Elizabeth that’s gung-ho and quick to temper. It’s Philip who’s good with the kids and worries about the future.

She has no problem separating work and life. He does. (Although, to be fair, Philip is asked to do some really soul-destroying stuff. Stuff so skin-crawling it can almost ruin Only You for you. That awful.)

The never-changing – yet also ever-changing – nature of the Jennings’ union makes for as interesting a metaphor for marriage as a partnership as TV’s given us for a long time. And that that can happen while they are in a car chase while dressed like an ABBA tribute band is a joy to behold.

Watch it. My spies will tell me if you don’t.

The first four series of The Americans are available on iTunes or DVD.


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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.