Poster for watching The Americans as a Russian-Jew

Why I can’t stop watching The Americans as a Russian-Jew

Last updated on March 21, 2022

Can we talk about The Americans? Let’s talk about The Americans. Because I can’t stop watching The Americans as a Russian-Jew, but meanwhile no one in my Russian-Jewish circles is talking about this show. Now they’ve got a storyline about Soviet-Jews and you should all start watching it. Even Gary Shteyngart is watching – it’s his favourite show this season (thanks, Twitter).

Imagine this – you’re a Soviet-Jew in 1981, a refusenik who finally managed to get out. One of a handful living in a country still at war with your homeland. What do you dream about at night? Perhaps being stalked by KGB agents on the free streets of your new home?

Did that ever happen? I don’t know. But it happened on The Americans last week, and it was as chilling as you might expect. We open with a nice, mild-mannered Soviet-Jewish physicist talking in a shul about his love for America and its baseball. He goes about his business, including an affair, and where he goes, so too the KGB. Their plan? “Exfiltration.”

We close with – well, I won’t ruin it for you.

The Americans follows a pair of Soviet spies, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, in 1981 Washington, DC, who pass as an American family – fake marriage, real kids. Their orders come from a shadowy “centre,” propped up by the more official Soviet presence in America, the rezidentura. The premise seems preposterous, maybe unless you lived through that era – Soviet spies so deeply embedded into American life that they (and their wholesome, all-American, totally naive, kids) can be neighbours and friends with the FBI agent tasked with finding them and never get discovered. Not yet, anyway. But it’s brilliant and I am utterly and completely addicted.

Now in its second season, the show was inspired by that Russian spy ring discovered a few years ago. The series creator, Joe Weisberg, also worked for the CIA early in his career. Naturally, his spies are much better at spycraft, and, since they’re played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, a tad better-looking.

Is the Americans believable? The Soviets never planted spies quite like this in the US. Or did they? Could they have? And does it matter when it makes for such addictive watching? The ridiculousness of it all is partly what keeps me coming back. That and the characters. It’s really more a period drama than a spy thriller. We get a glimpse into the intensely deep paranoia of the time, and a clear enemy we can point at and name. Except when they’re our neighbours.

Sometimes, I think the only reason the show doesn’t keep me up at night wondering whether our family was ever stalked by KGB agents in Canada is the accents. Their absolutely perfect and natural English. That Russian lilt never really goes away, often even in people who came as teens. So I don’t buy it, and I can never forget that we’re watching Americans playing Russians playing Americans. Meta enough? (Psst, hey, Joe Weisberg, perhaps a scene where we get to see Elizabeth and Phillip struggling to master speaking – and being – American?)

One of the things that makes the show work is that it’s so focused on the processes. The thousand and one details that say life in the 80s. It’s why I like Mad Men and Downton Abbey, and probably why you do too. It’s the close up focus on how they get through the day. Listening to records in a listening booth. Making information drops in parks. Dialling messages in code. Manually retrieving tape recordings, which are manually hidden in offices. Yes, in clocks and pens, literally. When I talk to people about their immigration, it’s the little details that always seem so hard to grasp. How do you organize a cross-Atlantic move like that without anything more than paper and phone? Can you remember what you did before the internet? That’s how far away this all is in our minds.

“The Americans”…is a show about human personality as a cruel performance, even (and sometimes especially) with the people we claim to love. It’s about marriage as much as it is about politics. And its unpretentious visuals—from those goofy bangs to the no-frills, low-budget camerawork—are a gift to the viewer. Without this hint of aesthetic distance, the story might be too sad to watch. –Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker

The Jennings live in a house much like yours was back then. They’re parents and spouses and neighbours. Just like you. They’re so human in their all-American life, and yet they do the most brutal, horrifying things without hesitation. It’s not the casual violence. It’s the way they play on people – you want to feel for them, for their very human problems, but then you also have to watch them manipulate their way through every relationship and interaction. In one scene, Stan Beeman, the FBI agent on their trail/their neighbour, pours his heart out to Phillip about his affair with one of the Soviets in the rezidentura. There’s this weird conversation where the emotions are all there, on both sides, as Phillip commiserates about how hard marriage is. But at the same time, he’s filing every little detail away for later use. It’s incredibly cold stuff. The way these people interact makes me uncomfortable. That I watch on my iPad, their faces inches away from mine only amplifies the effect.

I can’t figure out what it’s all for. All the window-dressings of the arms race are there, but I really don’t get where the loyalty and blind belief comes from. Maybe that’s the point. There are flashbacks to their lives in the USSR and, in Elizabeth’s case, a painful childhood, but you never really see what it is that makes the Soviet cause so seductive. Even when their kids talk about video games and the general materialism of American life, the appeal isn’t there. They have an easy, comfortable life, their kids aren’t shallow and vacuous (or am I seeing it through my western eyes), and you don’t really see them pining away for the Soviet ways. It’s almost like they’re programmed – they’ve gotten onto a train and they can’t get off or stop and think about where they’re headed. That we all know how it ends and they don’t just makes it all feel even more empty.

In the opening scene of last week’s episode, “A Little Night Music,” Phillip watches the refusenik give a talk in shul. Freedom and baseball and gentle laughter from the audience. Perhaps there’s something there too about the immigrant experience – that way both men are so utterly cut off from home, the former-refusenik and the patriot-spy. At the end of it, they’re both exiles, and that must be there somewhere in how Phillip looks at this man, who voluntarily gave it all up to become a traitor. Ironically, they’ve both given up the motherland for a higher purpose. Those purposes just happen to be at odds with one another.

This week’s episode promises a continuation of the Soviet-Jewish storyline, along with the appearance of the Mossad. Kind of exciting to see my own little piece of history making its way onto TV.

[Update – Read my take on the Soviet Jewry storyline here.]

If you’re a fan, let me know what you think!


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