FX’s Cold War spy thriller The Americans returned to the cable network February 26 for its second season of espionage antics. Initially just something to tide one over between seasons of Homeland, the series, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet spouses deep undercover in Reagan-era America, has unexpectedly developed into one of television’s finest programs, nimbly balancing its winking embrace of spy-genre pulp and '80s camp—the show’s worth watching for the wigs alone—with well-written, morally complex characters.
Spies, ICYMI, are trending on the small screen right now: in addition to Homeland, there’s CBS’s cyberpunk-ish Intelligence, AMC’s forthcoming historical-espionage series Turn, and Fox’s imminent exhumation of 24. The Americans isn’t the best of these shows—that honor still goes to Homeland, despite its increasingly cockeyed storylines—but more than any of them, it’s giving viewers what they want from this nouvelle vague of cloak-and-dagger drama.
The Cold War world, at least as the history books have it, was one of “Spy vs. Spy”: black-and-white. Our own War on Terror world is less cartoonish, more gradient. Post-9/11, the terrorists are supposed to be the new Soviets, but, as in a frustrating game of Whack-a-Mole, they won’t stay in one place long enough to get conked. Post-Snowden (or post–Abu Ghraib, or post–Iraq War—take your pick), Americans aren’t so sure who is the good spy and who the bad.
Curiously enough, The Americans, through the looking glass of a period that could hardly be more different than our own, offers a kind of view-askew of this confusing American moment. Indeed, despite being set in a geopolitically high-contrast time, the show manages to be a better representation of the grayscale of contemporary world politics than series that actually take place in the present day.
That’s thanks in large part to The Americans’ smart premise: making the Soviets the protagonists. Like Breaking Bad, the series cleverly plays on our distinctly American identification with the hero: we know Elizabeth (née Nadezhda) and Phillip (né Mischa) are technically the bad guys, KGB operatives sworn to America’s destruction, but that’s easy to forget in the camera’s steady gaze.
Over season one’s 13 episodes, a nuanced portrait of the couple emerges. They are willing to commit acts of violence in the name of their cause, but never without at least considering the ethics of the situation. They are Communist ideologues, but they have sympathy for average Americans and are tempted by the comforts of capitalist life. Having come to the U.S. as mere twentysomethings, they’re homesick both for their country and for the lives that might have been. And they’re parents, of a daughter and son for whom their love is as real as their cheesy disguises are not. Can bad guys love their kids and still be all that bad?
If Phillip and Elizabeth are The Americans’ unlikely heroes, then the cat to their mouse, FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (played with great sensitivity by Noah Emmerich) is far from its villain. Still, Emmerich’s character, whom we might have rooted for as the American lead, turns out to be as morally ambiguous as anybody on the show. And Stan’s colleagues at the Bureau are no more straightforward, risking sources’ lives and carrying out “extrajudicial” (it’s a lot like “illegal”) justice with means-to-an-end ruthlessness. With countrymen like these, who needs enemies?
By making its Soviet spies look good and its American agents look bad, The Americans doesn’t so much complicate the Free World–Communist moral dichotomy as complicate jingoistic American moral dichotomies in general. From the allegorical remove of the Cold War, it tosses out “Spy vs. Spy” and impeaches U.S. intelligence’s moral superiority. And it does so to a tubular '80s soundtrack.
Spy shows on American T.V. are, of course, nothing new, but the reflection that they’ve held up to viewers has hardly been warts-and-all. A lot of these series haven’t even been willing to call the intelligence organizations they obviously portray by their real names, yielding fictional agencies ranging from sci-fi (Get Smart’s CONTROL) to silly (Mission: Impossible’s Impossible Missions Unit). The new wave of spy shows that includes The Americans is notably more brackish: on Homeland, for instance, CIA agents aren’t just called CIA agents—they’re shown doing things like (spoiler alert!) stabbing a detainee through the hand during an interrogation.
Neither the proliferation of these programs nor their relative realism is a coincidence. As the United States’ security becomes increasingly dependent on information-gathering, Americans’ interest in their own intelligence apparatus is piqued. And following more than a decade of war-making and waterboarding and wiretapping and data-sweeping, Americans are painfully aware that the people who run this apparatus are not necessarily the good guys. We as a nation are more willing than ever—in fact, feel the need more than ever—to look in the mirror and to recognize that we are not the fairest of them all. It’s taken a while for small-screen spies to catch up, but The Americans puts a couple of Russians hot on our tail.