The Americans: food for thought.
Series 5 of The Americans is proving it’s still the most relevant thing on TV.
For a drama centered on the machinations of Soviet and US intelligence, The Americans, which is halfway through its fifth series on UK television, has consistently managed to feel curiously, almost disconcertingly, unlike a spy thriller and more like a costume drama or period piece.
The 80s setting is meticulously recreated through the clothes, technology and pop culture of the day, while actual historical events are woven into the stories to provide authenticity and nostalgia about what was to become the denouement of the Cold War. A defining feature is that the majority of the actors in Russian roles are Russian-speakers. Their dialogue is native and natural, and far removed from the meeeer-kut sound-a-likes we’re used to in classic Bonds and not-so-classic Rambos.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows Washington DC suburbanites Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, who started life as Nadezhda and Mischa back in Mother Russia. They run a travel agency but their main line of work is as deep-cover KGB officers. Planted in the 1960s, they are, twenty years later, the epitome of Reagan-era middle-class parents: two kids, two cars, a big house, and a successful small business. It’s always Morning In America for Liz and Phil. Spoilt only by all the killing, kidnapping, seducing, blackmailing, burgling and surveilling of their fellow Americans. Well you can’t have everything, tovarishchi.
The central theme of Series 5 is food. In America, the Jennings are sent into deepest Corn Belt country to uncover suspected attempts to biologically contaminate the wheat that the US supplies to the USSR. Back in Moscow, their colleagues are investigating corruption in supermarket supply chains, which the Kremlin is tentatively beginning to realise is a greater cause of the country’s near-starvation than the decadent West.
These storylines are underpinned by contrasting culinary scene-setting. The Americans are constantly eating. At home, there’s always a meal about to be made, consumed, or ordered as take-away. Approaches to subjects revolve around dinners and drinks, in restaurants and safe houses. And the produce sections of supermarkets are particularly useful for ‘accidentally’ running into their latest sources. Elizabeth spills copious amounts of trail mix over a healthstore floor. Philip turns up at their second home with a McDonald’s for a young agent pretending to be their son. In the USA, calories are surplus and everywhere.
In the Russian scenes, the nutrition situation is far bleaker. The flashbacks to Nadezhda’s and Mischa’s childhoods are all small potatoes and chunks of black bread. In the present day, even when a well-connected KGB family gathers for dinner, we don’t get to see the food. And the shelves of the shops are never full.
This series opened with a US propaganda film in which a Russian translation of ‘America The Beautiful’ played over scenes of vast amber waves of crops being efficiently, mechanically harvested - and then contrasted with scenes of babushkas guiding wooden ploughs in muddy, barren fields. Does The Americans risk merely being an extension of such information wars, 35 years later? It certainly does not avoid the abuse inflicted by the USSR on its citizens, at home and abroad, but it is about far more than that.
The show’s historical foundation is real-life cases of Soviet and Russian sleepers. But its televisual base is even more familiar: people in dangerous or glamorous jobs balancing themselves against obstructive back stories and life’s more mundane challenges. With each tasking from ‘The Centre’ in Moscow, the Jennings develop new, disguised alter egos. But to anyone who’s been paying attention during TV’s latest golden age, they are always recognisable as Tony Soprano, Jed Bartlet, Stringer Bell, Carrie Mathison, Walter White, Olivia Pope, Hannibal Lecter, Don Draper, Alicia Florrick, and a host of others.
What makes The Americans different is that the schizophrenic lifestyle is not a consequence of unusual choices or misfortune. It is a definitive career path imposed upon the characters. And it is why, even though they would be the villains in a more traditional spy story, it is as easy to empathise with Elizabeth and Philip as it is with the show’s flawed but extremely likeable ‘good guy’, Stan Beeman, their neighbour and an FBI counter-intelligence specialist.
Elizabeth is the most idealistic, rationalising duplicity and violence as necessary in defence of communism, however uneasy another murder or betrayal may make her personally. Philip is more uncertain about their missions and more comfortable with the consumerist life they have built. He sometimes appears on the verge of asking, Mitchell and Webb-style, if they and their PGU comrades are, in fact, the baddies. At times, the Jennings marriage enters its own Cold War, with the couple suspicious of each other (she suggests he has considered defecting) and almost ideologically split on the rights and wrongs of bringing their daughter and son into the family business. As their marriage of convenience becomes a true and loving relationship, an historic affair of Philip’s with a former girlfriend leads to him temporarily moving out.
The end of season four was marked by a striking scene between the two and their handler, Gabriel. Noting how long they had been serving and how Philip’s heart no longer appeared to be in it, he opened up the option of their duties ending and a return to the USSR. It looked and sounded like a redundancy meeting for middle managers and came at the end of a storyline that had seen Philip increasingly clashing with his seniors over his showing a little too much initiative and independence.
So the real bad guy is the system. Not just of the whole espionage circus, but of the global Cold War structures that necessitated it. Thus we end up rooting for the Jennings, their children (who are getting sucked into the subterfuge), and the wider KGB network; as much as the FBI, compromised American citizens, and Soviet defectors. There is no starker, more competitive relationship in modern story-telling than the spy and the spy-catcher but who is foiling whom is often unclear in our emotions when watching The Americans. The lines between protagonists and antagonists, heroes and anti-heroes, morality and amorality blur in a way that even The Sopranos and Breaking Bad did not manage.
When The Americans was first broadcast in 2013, these conflicts reflected the historical questions it raised about loyalty and identity in a bipolar world of great, competing nationalisms. In 2017, the populist square of Trump, Putin, Brexit and Corbyn have left it addressing similar but more contemporary concerns. The mischievous Elizabeth and Philip are the personification of “fake news”, lying their way through friends and colleagues and into the organisations they are targeting. They are an unknown force, hidden in plain sight, with immense control over the lives of the people they come into contact with — and from which no other agency is offering adequate protection. Meanwhile, the global political powers that ultimately direct them and their rivals seem detached, unaccountable and elusive.
The shows creators could not have asked for a better turn of current events to boost interest in their plots, with real-life shenanigans such as the “insane president’s idiot son live-tweeting treason”. Our post-fact, post-truth, post-ideological geo-politics feels rather starved of vision and grand ideas. We are a far cry from the global leadership that led us out of the Cold War 30 years ago.
The fourth episode of Series 1 of The Americans dealt with the 1981 assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan. The next and final series will take us into the Gorbachev era of perestroika and glasnost. Hopefully, it will explore, albeit it from afar, the relationship between the two men and how the decline of the Soviet Union was managed. And if the show’s successful formula is stuck to, we shall see the nuances play out in the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, too, and how and whether they finally get to go home or live the American Dream for real.
The Americans Series 5 is on Monday nights at 10pm on ITV Encore.