americans
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Culture
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United States

The spies next door

The release late last year of the twenty-fourth James Bond film, Spectre, resulted in a widespread discussion in online forums and publications, including Overland. Claims the British spy is misogynist, too violent, could or should be played in the future by a woman or a person of colour, all raised interesting debates. I agree with British journalist and author, Laurie Penny, who wrote one of the best pieces of cultural analysis on the Bond phenomena in a column in New Statesman:

Bond cannot be played by a woman or a person of colour, except in pastiche – Bond’s whiteness and maleness are as much a part of who he is as the gadgets and the sharp suits and the romantic alcoholism. Indeed, these are almost all of who he is. Bond is anxious 20th-century masculinity incarnate, a relic of 20th-century power struggling to come to terms with its own irrelevance, still fighting cartoon Cold War villains as the planet burns – which is what gives the films their melancholy beauty.

Regardless of the identity questions, if the Bond franchise has run its course, what now makes a good spy story? How do writers balance accurately portraying the dirty business of espionage without recourse to the gadgets, physical buffoonery and the – usually highly gendered – violence of so many contemporary espionage movies and television shows?

Over the summer I’ve become obsessed with the US cable program, The Americans, season two of which I’ve just finished (a fourth has just been commissioned in the US). The Americans is one of the better screen portrayals of spying I can remember. It is also one of the more politically interesting television shows to emerge recently out of the US.

The Americans (be aware, spoilers follow) is set in early eighties America at the start of what was then referred to as the Second Cold War. Ronald Reagan has just been elected President and is ramping up military, economic and rhetorical pressure on the Soviet Union. The key characters are Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two deep-cover Soviet KGB agents posing as a middle-class American couple in the northern Virginian suburbs of Washington. They run a travel agency and have two young children, a teenage girl, Paige, and a younger son, Henry. Another major character in the show is one of the Jennings’ neighbours, Stan Beeman, a deceptively intelligent and hard-nosed individual who, coincidentally, works in the FBI’s counter-intelligence section. Intelligence personnel working in the Russian embassy in Washington, in particular a young woman Nina Sergeevna Krilova who is having an affair with Stan, also feature heavily and, unusually for commercial television, all their dialogue is in Russian.

While The Americans is not without its flaws, a reliance on high tech gadgets and large-scale violence to move the story are not among them. The show is about as anti-Bond in its depiction of espionage as it is possible to get. Although Philip and Elizabeth do kill people, the main tricks of their trade are manipulation, blackmail and a sharp eye for any human weakness, which they ruthlessly exploit. Global politics, the growing arms race, superpower proxy wars in Latin America and Afghanistan, are frequently referenced, but the impacts are explored through the lives of Philip and Elizabeth – particularly the growing pressure on them to get results.

Season two sees them trying to steal technology relating to America’s efforts to develop stealth aircraft and the beginnings of what is now known as the internet. For the most part, Philip and Elizabeth have no idea what it is they are trying to obtain: a hard drive, paint samples, design specs; the wider scientific and geopolitical significance of these objects is beyond them. They are just cogs in an intelligence machine, tasked with getting the items in question by any means necessary and passing them on to their handlers, who they don’t really know and don’t entirely trust.

They constantly doubt what they do, Philip especially. After over two decades undercover, he is starting to think maybe the US is not so bad. Elizabeth is still a true believer in the Soviet system and is shocked whenever her husband professes to have positive thoughts about America. ‘It’s nice here, yes, it’s easier,’ she tells him at one point. ‘It’s not better.’ This difference is one of the fascinating conflicts running through the show.

Another major tension involves the mechanics of how they do their job and keep up appearances as a ‘normal’ family. In particular, while their identities and marriage may be a fiction, their two children are not. How they get in and out of the unimaginably complex web of relationships and situations that arise, crossing and double-crossing, often stretches credulity. But grounding the plot is the fact that whatever happens in their spy lives, they also have to parent two children, one of whom, their daughter, is beginning to suspect her parents are not who they say they are. James Bond never had to deal with that.

All this only compromises Philip and Elizabeth further. They have to tell huge lies to their children, all the time. How do you discipline your son for breaking into a neighbour’s house to play a video game when you have just returned from killing someone? How does Elizabeth reconcile her dialectical materialist principles when her daughter joins a Christian youth group, albeit one that attends anti-nuke demonstrations outside US air force bases? And what do they do when the Centre – as their anonymous controllers are referred to – develops a plan for a second generation of sleeper agents and wants their eldest child to be the first recruit?

The Americans was inspired by the so-called ‘Illegals Program’, a real life network of Russian sleeper agents planted in the US by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, previously part of the KGB, and broken up by an FBI operation in 2010. Posing as ordinary citizens, the spies were supposed to collect intelligence from academics and businessmen, but according to some reports their work mainly involved reading newspapers and policy papers.

The creator and showrunner of The Americans, Joe Weisberg, worked for a time with the CIA. Although he has described this career move as a mistake, it hasn’t stopped him from coming to an agreement with his previous employer whereby they sign off on the scripts, presumably in return for technical advice. Weisberg has also brought on board at least one other former member of the intelligence community, Oliver North. North is infamous for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair in the eighties – the sales of arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon, funds from which were diverted into aiding US-backed rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. North became the Reagan administration’s scapegoat after the scheme went public. He lost his position on the National Security Council but found notoriety on the far right speakers circuit and occasional work in the entertainment industry. He wrote an episode in series two in which Philip and Elizabeth break into an army camp outside of Washington to assassinate two Contra officers training there.

The majority of critics have seen The Americans as a show about relationships and marriage, a view reinforced by Weisberg. But to me, regardless of the creator’s intentions, it’s a text about eighties politics and the decline of the traditional left in the US.

It may seem ridiculous now, but anyone who was active in radical politics in the eighties will remember the pervasive sense of anxiety produced by Reagan’s 1981 election, his militaristic stance and renewed nuclear build-up against the Soviet Union, and the very real feeling that we were heading towards global nuclear conflict.

Of course, what most of us didn’t know then, was the Soviet Union was already in deep trouble by the time Reagan was elected. Two decades of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev had left the economy sclerotic and riddled with corruption. Moscow’s military build-up had consumed 25 per cent of the Soviet Union’s gross national product, causing larger problems. Reagan, backed by allies such as the UK’s Margaret Thatcher, hastened the Soviet Union towards inevitable collapse. I could just be reading things into the show that aren’t there, but there are signs of this in The Americans: in particular, Philip’s doubts, and their handlers’ palpable desperation to get their hands on anything that will give the Soviet state a leg up in its conflict with the West.

Domestically, the Reagan years were the beginning of a sustained counter-offence against the American left and its allies, already hollowed out by the push back against the counter culture in the second half of the seventies. The declining fortunes of the traditional left are depicted in the show: Elizabeth and Philip’s network comprises academics angry at Reagan’s policies, disillusioned ageing fellow travellers, and a former black militant in season one, whose primary motivation for helping is the prospect of rekindling a previous relationship with Elizabeth.

To paraphrase the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, history is written by the victors – and increasingly their screenwriters.

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Andrew Nette is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.

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