Eighties America Through the Eyes of KGB Deep Cover Agents: The Americans

Joe Weisberg, creator of the TV series “The Americans,” (Wednesdays, 10 PM on the FX Network – current and previous seasons available on Amazon and iTunes Store) worked at one time for the CIA.  He became interested in the subject of living abroad, serving government, and raising a family – all while doing covert intelligence work.  How do those who work for their government in such a way explain to their families what they are doing?  What strains does this subterfuge place on marital relations, child rearing and friendships? That’s the subject of this TV series, except that the expats are Russian, not American.

The story follows two protagonists, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a married couple in their 30s, in suburban Washington, DC, in the 1980s.  They are both Americans in disguise, deep cover Soviet KGB officers, recruited, married and transported to the United States with false identities, back in the 1960s.  Their nonofficial cover includes a travel agency they run in their hometown of Alexandria, VA. Weisberg has said that as we follow Philip and Elizabeth, sometimes with sympathy and sometimes with condemnation, “… there’s a breakdown of the barriers between us and them.  Finding [oneself] rooting for the enemy is a fundamental part of the experience.  What is the enemy?  What does it even mean to be the enemy?”

The Jennings’ mission is to subvert the US government by stealing secrets, a mission that often requires deadly force.  Managed locally by Directorate S handlers who report to The Center in Moscow, and who communicate with the Chief of the KGB station at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., the couple are directed to identify real Americans as potential witting or unwitting agents, run those agents and dispose of them as necessary when they are no longer needed.  The recruited agents cannot know the “Jennings” identity of Philip and Elizabeth, who hide a vast array of disguises in the basement (wigs, eye glasses, mustaches, and so forth), don them for several hours while on a covert assignment with their agents, then take off the disguises and return home to fix dinner and help the kids with their homework.

Because of the need to take counter surveillance measures, and things in general, of course, never going smoothly, these covert outings can be time-consuming.  Offering plausible-sounding excuses to the kids for their long absences becomes more difficult.  So far in the series, the couple has managed to keep their real identities a secret from their next-door neighbor and beer-drinking friend Stan, a counterintelligence agent at FBI headquarters in Washington.  Stan is tasked with busting up the KGB’s operations.  He’s figured out that there’s a young couple somewhere in the area stealing secrets and committing murder.  With the enemy next door, Philip and Elizabeth have little margin for error.

All of this intelligence work requires that the couple maintain their “Jennings” cover by keeping up appearances as an authentic upper middle class American family with unassailable knowledge of everything American, including body language, idiomatic phrases, sense of humor and a nuanced understanding of American politics and culture.  They handle this flawlessly, down to the tiniest detail.  When Philip plops himself down on the TV couch next to his daughter, he says to her, “Scooch.”  One wonders how he learned this slang, but he did.

The deception of being American is complete.  When the KGB took the Jenningses out of the Soviet Union, they took the Soviet Union out of the Jenningses, at least superficially.  But beneath their American disguise, the couple is loyal to the USSR and committed to its cause.  Thus we have Americans, portrayed sympathetically, who are undermining US policy for a totalitarian adversary.

Creator Joe Weisberg explained why he chose the last decade of the Cold War.  He thought those years, with all the “yelling about the evil empire,” as he described US foreign policy, might make for an interesting time, and indeed it is.  The TV series is replete with depictions of an America that seems to have been jolted suddenly out of the predictability of a balance of power era and into a new, destabilizing, and militaristic strategy, upsetting the Cold War applecart and forcing the Soviet Union to defend itself against an ominous, reckless and unpredictable threat: Ronald Reagan.

Philip and Elizabeth follow closely news reports as the Reagan Doctrine takes shape with the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Nuclear Freeze movement and events in Nicaragua, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan.  But the doctrine of rolling back Soviet aggression is nowhere to be found.  If there is a time in this TV series, now in its fourth season, when the Soviets are the aggressors, I’ve missed it.  In every aspect of the Cold War, the fast-thinking KGB is just barely managing to contain the adventurist US and its acceleration of the nuclear arms race, support for oppressive regimes, and undermining of national liberation movements.

The heating up of the Cold War is seen through the eyes of Philip and Elizabeth, who, like many in the left wing of the Democratic Party at that time, feel frightened by Reagan’s threatening behavior, and also through the eyes of the Washington KGB residency and the FBI Counterintelligence office.  The Soviets are gracious, polite, articulate, thoughtful, prudent, philosophical, and sexually liberated.  Though the officers in the “rezidentura” are far from home, they are bonded together in America by familial and party ties in Russia.  The KGB offices are decorated in rich tones of dark wood paneling, bookcases, artwork, fine upholstered furniture and the ever-present silver tea service.

In contrast to this rich cultural European heritage, the FBI office is decorated, if that is the right word, with an official photograph of president Reagan, staring down at the agents in their cramped, gray cubicles.  Next-door neighbor Stan is one of these agents, doing his best despite marital problems, intimacy issues, a tendency to be tongue-tied at critical moments, and a trigger-happy finger.  So there’s a clear dichotomy that’s set up between Russia and America in their respective offices.  One is rooted in a love of high culture and the meaning of life, the other is – well, American.  One produces sophisticated patriots able to serve heroically deep behind enemy lines, the other is represented by struggling, lonely souls – competent at their jobs but frustrated by life.

The Jenningses live in this lonely American world, as they are not permitted to have contact with their compatriots in the KGB residence.  Their world is one of latchkey kids hooked on video games, cookie cutter housing villages, marriages on the rocks, rock ‘n roll churches and EST meetings.  The only lures that America holds for Philip and Elizabeth are certain types of food, and fast cars.  The concepts of freedom of speech or free enterprise, which were totally absent in their upbringing, has not, as least not yet in the series, dawned on them.  The couple appears to bear no scars from culture shock.

Nor do they appear to have an ear for Kremlin propaganda.  Philip and Elizabeth take orders from much older handlers who are veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad.  The handlers use the defense of Stalingrad as an all-purpose moral justification for everything KGB.

Claudia, one of the handlers, murders a CIA agent in Washington.  As the CIA agent lies conscious on the floor and bleeding to death, she shows him a photograph of her mentor, a KGB general, whom the CIA assassinated in Moscow.  Explaining the justification for her revenge, she tells him,

We met in Stalingrad in 1942.  He was ragged skin and bones, same as we all were.  First time I saw him he was standing over two dead Nazis.

Philip and Elizabeth accept at face value their KGB handler’s explanation for why they must steal samples of deadly biological weapons from the Americans:

There are certain very powerful weapons – biological – we’re not allowed to make them … we’ve signed treaties, but we think the Americans are making them, so we make them, too … If they target our nuke capacity in a 1st strike, our people back home will have nothing to defend themselves with but these weapons. I’ve been there, when we couldn’t defend ourselves … you know what happened.

Whatever the 1980s Cold War issue, it seems that Stalingrad justifies any conflict and makes the US responsible for resolving that conflict to the satisfaction of the Soviets.  One would think that this sophisticated young Russian couple would know how to discount illogical righteousness, since they grew up under communism and probably heard this self-serving Soviet argument a thousand times.

The brutal operational methods of the KGB are on full display, no more so than when a sympathetic file clerk in the Washington residence is executed in a prison basement in Russia.  Nina Sergeevna is a beautiful and compellingly intelligent double agent, coerced by FBI agent Stan into spying.  The series would not be complete without her, as her efforts to protect herself, aided by agents on both the US and Soviet sides, slowly crumble.  The manner of her execution, including the way the KGB officer who reads her death sentence steps quickly out of the way to avoid being splattered with her blood, is horrifying to watch. 

The TV series, now well into its fourth season, is focusing more and more on Paige Jennings, the teenaged daughter.  She attends the Reed Street Church for its spiritual values, social get-togethers, guitar playing and leftist political activities.  Her parents are not particularly impressed with the ideological values Paige is developing, choosing to focus instead on their revulsion toward Christianity, and this revulsion brings out in the parents vicious, withering attacks on Paige.  One might optimistically hope that these raw confrontations plant the seed of self-reflection in the parents, and mark the beginning of a true Americanization. 

Both Philip and Elizabeth learn about the severe emotional hazards of running agents, the required level of involvement in their agents’ lives being almost equal to that of a best friend or spouse, and Philip actually marries one of his agents – wedding ceremony and all.  One of the most riveting aspects of this dramatic series is the grinding and gut-wrenching betrayal that shows on Philip’s face as he leads his agents into danger.  The emotionally stronger Elizabeth soldiers on in her cases.  But she seems to be hitting a wall in the most recent episodes as she breaks up one family by day and nurtures and protects her real family at night. 

Among the political issues the Church takes up are the Nuclear Freeze and El Salvador.  In reality, the political left in America is, at this time, promoting both of these issues in churches and college campuses.  The Nuclear Freeze is aimed at freezing the status quo of Soviet military superiority in Europe.  The “Stop US Intervention in El Salvador” campaign is aimed at allowing the spread of communism and Liberation Theology in Central America. 

Philip and Elizabeth are surprisingly uninterested in these issues, even though the campaigns are central to their organization.  Perhaps it’s because they’re busy stealing secrets, maintaining various covers and agents, holding a marriage together, raising children and worrying about the future of their family.  Maybe the church will help them in the end.

The Reed Street Church and Pastor Tim play a big role in Paige's character development.  When Paige is baptized, Pastor Tim says, "This is no empty ritual."  He goes on to explain to the congregation that the baptism is a celebration of political activism, including participation in the Nuclear Freeze movement.  There is a cut-away reaction shot of Paige's parents after the baptism.  Philip looks unimpressed, but Elizabeth beams and smiles.  It may be the Jenningses are finding a home.