Critic's Notebook: As America Revives Russian Boogeyman, 'The Americans' Goes for Shades of Gray

While the news cycle stokes our paranoia about Russia, FX's 'The Americans' has been busy digging into Soviet history and Russian-American relations with welcome depth and nuance.
Adam Berry/Getty Images; Patrick Harbron/FX
As the Berlin Wall was crumbling and the Soviet Union was ceasing to exist, I had a favorite CCCP hockey jersey. It was boldly red and said "Fienberg" on the back and was handed down by a cousin whose politics have subsequently shifted far to the right. I don't think I wore the shirt the same way a college liberal might have a Che Guevara poster, but I also didn't wear it with irony, even though to grow up in the '80s was always to be aware of the "us" and "them" of it all — especially as a kid ever-invested in the plight of Russian Jews. 
 
It was refuseniks like Natan Sharansky who colored my awareness of all that was wrong with in Russia in my youth, but I didn't grow up thinking of Russia as a threat that would end my life. It's the children of the '60s and '70s who lived in paranoia about nuclear war, but by my childhood the concern was much more whether the 1980 Olympic boycott and then the subsequent 1984 boycott would make respective medal counts illegitimate, because to this voracious consumer of the World Book Almanac, that was the thing that really mattered. 
 
 
As a threat, the Russians were a weakening monolith: a couple of stern-faced leaders, but mostly a collection of initials. Yes, they remained the shady villains in movies, but my youth was a time of trying to give faces to the country's citizenry, to remind us that the Russians love their children too — a ridiculous thing to think of as being a "revolutionary" or "political" thought, but in 1985 if you were Sting, that was edgy as hell.
 
I'm not sure what the antonym for "monolithic" would be — because literally it would be "pocket full of rocks" — but the decades after the USSR dissolved were a period of de-monolithizing: taking what was once a single name and giving it a dozen different names (even if entirely too many Americans can't distinguish between the countries of the Former Soviet Union).
 
The interesting challenge of FX's The Americans was always that it was engaged in a campaign of retroactive de-monolithizing. The drama was all about putting human faces on a past enemy, which was a safe pursuit because we knew that they lost and they weren't coming back again. The Americans premiered in 2013, a few months after we had a remake of Red Dawn in which they changed the bad guys from Chinese to North Korean to make more money at the international box office, and because the idea of the Russians being our adversary again was such a stupid premise. 
 
Good times. 
 
We are, of course, back to reconstituting "Russians" as a monolithic adversary. No matter how many stories we hear about the various Russian officials that various Trump administration bigwigs met with and forgot they met with, it's all back to The Russians and how they're trying to undermine our elections and our economy — which is much less terrifying than when both sides had their fingers on the button, but actually much more aligned with the things that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell on The Americans) might have been able to do. We aren't stressing out about the Philips and Elizabeths, though, because we're basically freaking out about Putin and Trump and maybe Michael Flynn. The Americans spent four seasons getting granular about the Russian threat in the '80s, rarely ever mentioning the macro other than snippets of politicians or key events in the news; now real life is squeezing out the micro in favor of the macro again.
 
 
In that respect, it's not all that interesting that real life has begun to imitate The Americans. I haven't had the problems watching The Americans that I had watching 24: Legacy, with its hollow and entirely inauthentic echoing of real life, or the new season of Homeland, with its hollow and tangential connections to our current climate. Philip and Elizabeth haven't begun to look more insidious to me now that the "They're evil, but history says they lost" narrative has been replaced by, "But what if they're playing the most ridiculous of long cons and the final season is a flash-forward to November 2016 and the last shot of the entire series is CNN calling the election for Trump and Philip and Elizabeth high-fiving as 'Cake by the Ocean' plays on the soundtrack and the credits roll."
 
It happens that as "The Russians" have stepped up to reclaim their position as America's favorite boogeymen, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have begun their most nuanced season yet in terms of the motivations of our Cold War adversaries. The Americans showrunners haven't done this because they felt it was important that their series work against the prevailing political narrative, but really just because that's what good writers do. 
 
Spoiling very little, through three episodes (two of which have aired thus far) the fifth season of The Americans is spending more time actually in Russia (or its NYC-shot equivalent) exploring the country Elizabeth and Philip left behind, but are still willing to kill and conspire for. Returning Oleg (Costa Ronin), the first of the show's Soviet embassy characters to truly click for me on a human level, to his native land and to his family has given the writers the excuse to be back in the USSR several times per episode, and the plotline about food supply has given the show its most universal hook. 
 
The bleakness of Russia has been featured before on The Americans, both in flashbacks but also in its portrayal of Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov), the Jewish stealth technology engineer whose presence was as close as The Americans has come to engaging with the refusenik side of the Cold War that I most remember. My family would have talked symbolically about Anton Baklanov on Passover when drinking the fifth glass of wine for the Russian Jews. Instead, we saw Anton with Nina (Annet Mahendru) in Russian containment, and that was a way of depicting the wretched conditions for persecuted Russians. 
 
This season, we've gotten more insight into such wretched conditions both for regular Russians and even the Russians who lived in relative privilege, like Oleg and his parents. Next week's episode features a visit to a Russian supermarket and it's one of the simplest and most elegant scenes the show has ever done, just a great piece of production design. This season has also featured Philip and Elizabeth cultivating an entire family as a potential source, continuing to fight for a motherland they haven't experienced for decades while doing their best to ignore more recent stories that nod to a cultural battle that is already lost. Philip and Elizabeth had the opportunity to leave America with distinction at the end of last season, but they elected to stay and now they're forced to confront whether they stayed because they believe in the cause, because they didn't want to uproot their family or because they're addicted to a life in which they can go out for embarrassingly opulent dinners at chain restaurants.
 
 
From the pilot onward, The Americans always presented the idea that assimilation was the way that Philip might be able to "win," but we've reacted the point at which he's much too far gone to become the urban cowboy he once dreamed of being (though there's a nod to that in the third episode). He's done things he can't take back, Elizabeth even more so. Their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) has probably become the last front of this war. The United States can't be assimilated, but Paige still can. On one hand, she has growing intimacies with Matthew (Daniel Flaherty), and on the other hand Elizabeth and Philip have found, in the food crisis and maybe in their new source, hooks upon which to sell their cause to Paige.
 
There were actually ridiculous stories leading up to this spring's premiere that the news was giving The Americans all sorts of free press and that visibility might lead to elevated ratings. Of course, that hasn't been the case. The influence of current events hasn't actually informed or added urgency to The Americans at all, probably because The Americans is smarter than real life and more thoughtful than real life and why would anybody want to watch that? 
 
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