Wednesday, April 23, 2014

“The Americans”: A Much Needed Look Back at a Clash of Civilizations

You may have noticed the Cold War coming back to a TV screen near you. Strangely enough the TV show that has done this is called “The Americans.” It’s not so strange actually when the story line is about KGB agents trying to infiltrate America by passing themselves off as average Americans.

The show, on FX, is written by former CIA officer turned screen writer Joel Weisberg. Taking place in the early 1980s, a couple played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, is living the idyllic suburban life outside of Washington, DC. As we learn, both were born and raised in Russia and trained to be “The Americans” and put together in an arranged marriage. As the show commences we see them with two children, a teenage daughter and son a few years younger who have no idea their parents work for the dreaded Evil Empire.

The concept intrigued me because most Americans born around the time the show takes place have no memory of the good old days of the Cold War. To them the idea of a civilizational struggle that could literally wipe out life as we know it is incomprehensible. Radical Islam offers no comparison, because the destruction of the World Trade Center as horrific as it was is no match for a possible nuclear winter.

In a way I lament the passing of that struggle. Younger Americans simply take for granted the freedoms and liberty we enjoy, as if they were the natural state of human affairs; those who walked on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain knew that liberty and tyranny are in a perpetual state of struggle for mankind in a fallen world, or an imperfect world for those who don’t believe in a Biblical fall.

Since our Soviet couple is in an arranged marriage we are given a unique dynamic that underlies the series. From the back story we have so far, it seems that the couple are pretty much complete strangers when they are married. Some fifteen or so years down the line we see what appears to be a typical suburban middle class American family struggling with living in the modern world, be it the thirty plus years ago modern world. Four episodes in the characters begin to become emotionally involved for what is obviously the first time in their married relationship.

But this seeming love story is a stark contrast with the brutality these Soviet agents display toward their avowed enemies, the real Americans. If innocents happen to get in the way of a mission, they have no qualms about shooting them in the head, as happened in the last episode. At points you begin to care about them, until you realize they can be monsters in obedience to the totalitarian dictates of their Soviet masters. This viewer ambivalence is very effective in drawing you into the story.

Another interesting dynamic in the relationship is that the wife appears much more single-minded in her mission than the husband, who has even expressed a certain kind of admiration for the American way of life saying once that America “isn’t so bad.” He adds a humorous aside, to me at least, that “at least the electricity stays on all the time.” This was obviously an indication that communism wasn’t a sustainable social or economic model. It’s amazing as I think back on the time, how most everyone assumed the Soviet Union would be around for a very long time, yet within the decade the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR not to long after that as well.

In last week’s episode I referenced, we get to experience Ronald Reagan’s assassination all over again, which happened on March 30, 1981 just 69 days into his presidency. For those of us who were adults then, we probably remember it as a disorienting time in American history. Reagan was a cold warrior who scared liberals and Soviets alike. All of a sudden the president is shot on camera for all the world to see and suspicions abound.

In the show, American intelligence is obsessed with finding out whether the USSR was behind the assassination, while their Soviet counterparts are convinced, comically as we look back at it, that Al Haig, general Al Haig, is preparing a military coup to take over the government. Everyone was on hair trigger over the event until they find out that the gunman is a crazed Jodi Foster fan. The contrast of the two governments’ initial response to the event is another of the effective contrasts the writers use to tell their story.

Four episodes in and we’re off to a promising start for a series dedicated to a critical time in American and world history. FX must think so as well, because “The Americans” has already been green lighted for a second season.

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