When three years ago, the FBI successfully uncovered a dozen deep-cover Russian agents, who had been living double lives for years all across America, it was not just the press who had a field day with stories about Anna Chapman. TV executives were also hungry for a slice, a scenario combining the thrill of the espionage drama, with the standard middle America backdrop. Fast-forward to 2013 and we now have The Americans, a drama about two undercover KGB operatives, “Philip and Elizabeth Jennings”, posing as a typical couple with two kids, living in suburban Washington DC, whilst secretly undertaking missions for the Soviet government.
We are thrown straight into the action: Philip and Elizabeth, and another operative, are abducting a recently defected KGB general, at risk of divulging many details about hidden Soviet agents across America. The adrenaline starts right from the off, to a pumping soundtrack much more bold than the minimalism of Sean Callery on 24 or Homeland – there is blood, fist fighting, chasing – good old-fashioned espionage drama staples. Once this is over, however, the audience is launched into the main interest of the show – the necessity to maintain a deep cover. The ruthless efficiency with which the couple, played superbly by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, alter the car, and hide their children from the truth enforces their belief in their double lives – it would not be possible to maintain fifteen years of deception, without a rigid set of rules.
Cleverly, the first acts of evil Soviet-ness where we see Philip and Elizabeth is in the killing of another evil Soviet, and a nasty paedophile. Certainly, they are heroes, having bumped off two nasty villains, but will there be future scenarios where there are more shades of grey? Elizabeth stresses her belief in the Russian cause frequently, that America is a land of evil capitalist largesse – she wants her children to be as socialist as possible, even if they cannot know about her communist background – and it will be interesting to see whether our love for the couple will dissipate after more villainous acts. My feeling is not; somehow, these characters, who embody the very principles that the West fought against for forty years, are likeable. We empathise because their family values are like ours.
Special plaudits must go to the suspicious FBI agent, former undercover white supremacist, neighbour and his wife – their relationship looks to be as engaging and interesting; he is already suspicious enough to search the Jennings’ car and case the joint, who knows how far he will go to discover the truth?
It is impossible not to compare this to Homeland: a smash-hit TV series,about a family living in deception, with an ambiguous anti-hero with whom one cannot but help empathise, despite their likely intent to damage American lives. The difference here is that we have a strong loving relationship between the husband and wife – a dynamic usually uncertain in Homeland. Still. there are ambiguities involved: does Philip love his kids and his wife more than his country? Does Elizabeth love her husband despite the sexual liaisons which are part of her spying?
These questions, and more, are sure to be considered in greater depth over the coming weeks. A great hit to keep an eye on over the summer.