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Opinion | Mr Cold and Mrs War

Matthew Rhys rightly won Best Actor at the Emmy Awards last week, but his co-star Keri Russell and the entire team of 'The Americans' deserve our applause

‘The Americans’ poster.
‘The Americans’ poster.

Sting wrote the 1985 song Russians based on illegally intercepted Soviet television signals. Because Saturday night in New York is Sunday morning in Moscow, he and a friend at Columbia University would drink beer and watch beautifully made children’s programming. As those growing up in the 1980s will attest, Russian children’s books were strikingly imaginative and exquisitely drawn, and their television as attentive and tender. Building the anti-Cold War song atop a composition by Sergei Prokofiev, Sting used a singular chorus to rubbish the idea of mutually assured destruction: What might save us, me and you, is if the Russians love their children too.

This line is at the heart of The Americans, a magnificent six-season drama that finally won big at the Emmy Awards last week, and can be watched in India on Hotstar. Warning: It is so perilously addictive that my wife and I had our lives and schedules derailed as we watched the entire show in one go. Created by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, this is a seductive show set in the 1980s and focused on a pair of KGB agents who have been living as a married couple in America for over 20 years. Beyond the slickness and heat, it grapples impressively with deeper humanist themes, like belief and conscience and, ultimately, the children these Russian co-workers now have, who are—for all intents and purposes—American.

Right from the ticking time-bomb first episode, these spies are on the run. Their American names are Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a couple who run a travel agency. They are efficient machines of murder and manipulation. They are masters of disguise. They never leave a trail. Then, in the type of coincidence Alexander Pushkin would devise, an FBI agent moves in next door... and becomes their friend. Where do they go now?

The Americans is a show about a marriage, two people thrown together by elaborately constructed lies and elaborately applied wigs. It is hard for those who role-play for a living to stop pretending at home. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are extraordinary as agents who love and lovers who age. She is fierce, unflinching and bound by duty; he is a frighteningly gifted manipulator who finds himself wavering. The actors let us in on the soullessness of the job. Spying has never seemed this sexy while also this dispiriting. Incidentally, in the course of this show, Rhys and Russell fell in love and had a child. If you play the role well enough, it can turn real.

Sex is a bargaining chip. When husband and wife trawl the night, bedding other people for secrets and subterfuge, fidelity matters little. There is, in fact, such excessive sexual gamesmanship in this world that I wondered how anybody in a high-security position could ever fall for someone attractive making a pass at them. The most enduring lesson here is how readily we believe what we want to believe, even when we should know better.

Looking back, the most genuine moments have to do with friendship: between Elizabeth and a witty Korean saleslady; between a Scrabble-loving Russian handler and his illegal agents; between Philip and an FBI agent who frequently drops in for a beer; and between that FBI agent and the Jennings’ son, Henry. We want lovers, but we need comrades.

The Americans has won unanimous acclaim, but we in India have a different vantage point. To American critics, the Jennings’ are absolute anti-heroes, Mother Russia terrorists, sexy characters doing bad things who must eventually pay. The devastating climax is an immaculate episode, with the coup de grâce delivered just as the final page is turned. I was dismayed to find US critics cheering on the FBI neighbour as they longed for comeuppance. However, belonging neither to Russia or America—like Sting—we should be more objective in appreciating both how severely and how fairly the show deals with either side.

The sense of nobility and unconditionality of duty that inform Elizabeth’s actions make her a far more compelling protagonist than, say, Walter White in Breaking Bad, a show that could only have one ending. Conversely, in the opening episode here, Philip suggests defecting and hiding out in America, an idea that colours the entire series. With its dense novelistic sprawl, intense focus on emotional aftermath, and unlikely heroes—the phenomenal Nina Krilova who reads like a Bond girl written by John Le Carré; a tall Russian man who likes American sports and refuses to resist double agents; a secretary who falls in love and lets everything slide—The Americans is literature. With a killer soundtrack.

At a time when Russia is confounding the world, this show serves also to humanize the common Russian. Not the one shirtlessly riding bears and ruling other countries, but the ones waiting in line. The series reminds us how fatal all casualties are, and how noisy it is to break a bone—or a promise. Take care, Russia. From The Americans, with love.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @rajasen

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