The Americans Was a Show About Marriage, the Cold War, And Why Politics Is the Worst Way to Engage With Another Human Being
In this brilliant spy thriller, the personal and the political are always intertwined-but they are not always inseparable.
The Americans, which ended an outstanding six-season run last night with a remarkable series finale, has always been a show about marriage, about the day-to-day trials of domestic life, but heightened and sharpened by being set against a backdrop of intense Cold War conflict.
It was a domestic drama cloaked as a spy thriller, a show about what it's like to raise children and keep a peaceful home, and the myriad ways that the compromises necessary to do so can both drag a marriage down and bind a couple together.
The more sensational aspects of the show—the sex, the murders, the spy-agency plots and counterplots—served as both a genre-inflected entry point for its domestic drama and a grand metaphor, in which the great powers struggle of the 1980s often reflected the household struggles of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the pair of Russian spies at the center of the show. But that metaphor worked in both directions, with the Jennings' marriage serving as a mirror for the larger international struggle.
If the Cold War was a metaphor for the Jennings marriage, then their marriage was also a metaphor for the Cold War. So The Americans was a spy thriller about the mundane difficulties of marriage, yes—but it was also a show about geopolitics and the ways in which powerful international rivals interact, conflict, and, maybe, forgive each other, by insisting on treating people as individuals rather than as political and ideological adversaries. (This post includes some spoilers about the series finale.)
That dynamic was at the heart of the series' long-running dispute between Philip, who is exhausted by spy life and at times wants to defect, and Elizabeth, the determined patriot who is driven by her cause. The series often used that conflict, which hinged on a blend of ideology and personality, to drive the two apart. In the final season, they effectively ended up spying on each other as part of a fracturing of the KGB.
But although the series never shied away from depicting the horrors of Soviet communism, it also never resolved that conflict by deciding that one side was right and the other side was wrong. Instead, it tended to fall back on ideas of familial commitment and devotion. Philip and Elizabeth were forced together by the KGB, which set them up as deep-cover agents operating inside the United States, but eventually, somehow, they fell in love, or something like it, and it was always that love—their deep commitment to the other person, as a person—that kept their marriage from completely falling apart.
Over and over again, the show came back to the idea that political conflict—and the Jennings' marriage was divided by an essentially political conflict—could only be resolved by looking past politics, and treating the other side as individuals first. Politics, it seemed to say, was the worst way to interact with someone, especially someone you loved.
The same sort of fraught and complicated humanistic impulse was similarly on display in the best, and perhaps most controversial, scene in last night's finale, an extended standoff between the Jennings (including their daughter, Paige) and their neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman.
Part of the genius of the show has always been the way it localized and compressed a sprawling international conflict, making it more relatable while giving it a greater emotional valence. So of course the KGB spies living just outside of Washington, D.C., have an FBI agent for a neighbor, and of course he would become their family's closest friend, and of course, in the finale, he would discover their true identities, and attempt to place them in custody. In The Americans, the personal and the political are always intertwined—but they are not always inseparable.
The moment when Beeman finally confronted the Jennings and Philip confessed their true identities was the dramatic center of last night's episode and, arguably, of the series as a whole. And in that moment, Beeman makes a choice that is in some ways difficult to accept: He allows them to go free. Beeman is an FBI agent sworn to protect his country, and the Jennings are KGB spies equally committed to their own nation. But they are also friends and neighbor. And in the end, that is how Beeman chooses to treat them—not as mortal ideological enemies, but as friends, as people, as the family next door.
This negotiation, which is as much about what is unsaid as what is said, requires some lying; Philip denies murders that Elizabeth committed, and Elizabeth denies that they are murderers at all. And given the violence and mayhem that the two have committed over the years, one could reasonably argue that it doesn't offer justice, at least not in the way we normally think of it. Instead, when Beeman allows them to run, it is an act of humanity, of forgiveness, of letting go. It is personal, not political.
It's the defining choice of the show, which over six seasons consistently returned to the idea that the way to survive (if not resolve) the heated, drawn-out political conflicts that inevitably appear within families and cul-de-sacs, as well as within nations and across international lines, is to focus less on politics and ideology and more on people, who, after all, are our neighbors and family members, our international allies and partners, whether we chose them or not.
You can obviously draw a more explicit contemporary lesson from this idea, if you want, viewing the series as a plea for decency and forgiveness in a time of ideological tension and polarization. That wouldn't be wrong, necessarily, and in some ways it would even be welcome.
But I'm also not sure it would be entirely in keeping with the spirit of the show and its wariness of putting politics above all else. So I'll remember The Americans mostly as sublime television, a delicate-yet-gripping drama about flawed people, flawed countries, and the difficulty and necessity of treating people as individuals rather than as avatars of nations or ideologies.
(Be sure to check out Reason's interview with series creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields.)