The Americans, Season 1

Why Can’t Spies Have a Little Romance in Their Lives?
Talking television.
March 20 2013 11:00 PM

The Americans, Season 1

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What does a former spy make of these fictional ones?

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/FX

In Slate’s TV Club for The Americans—which was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of the Slate Group's editor-in-chief, Jacob Weisberg—June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner. This week she chats with Lindsay Moran, a former CIA case officer and author of Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy.

June Thomas: Lindsay, I'm keen to get your former-spy's perspective on TV's great new espionage show. This week, I was struck by our undercover KGB agents’ passion for their job. When Elizabeth told Philip about their impossible assignment—find an unidentified assassin who could be targeting any of 14 American scientists and cancel or otherwise halt the job—there were no complaints. Instead, they both relished the prospect. "I'll call a sitter," Philip announced, clearly dying to get started.

Lindsay Moran: Yes, I am impressed by their shared dedication—it's a little over-the-top, but it is indeed characteristic of case officers. For these two, there is no other life besides their deep-cover jobs.

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Thomas: Philip and Elizabeth are incredibly dedicated and incredibly good at their jobs (they do manage to find the German needle in a scientist-slaying haystack), but I wonder if it's true that they have no other life. For the last few weeks, we've seen them both lose a bit of their focus as they enjoyed a kind of delayed honeymoon, a period of true love after many years in an arranged marriage. This week, Grannie explicitly warned Elizabeth not to get distracted by romance. It was a bummer, though, that the loss of that romantic spark coincided with a failed mission. Philip and Elizabeth did everything right, but they got to their target after he had already booby-trapped an FBI agent’s phone. That's got to hurt.

Moran: I really enjoy their relationship. It's a great premise for a spy show and, while aspects of The Americans are typical Hollywood melodrama, the romance between Philip and Elizabeth feels genuine to me. I'm one of those people who's still nostalgic for the Cold War, and what I love about this show is that it's forcing us to root for the bad guys, not so much in their overall mission, but as a couple. Philip is the softer of the two, emotionally and ideologically. I definitely get the feeling that if Elizabeth were to turn, he'd be more than ready.

Thomas: Yes, a lot of critics have said that they are pleasantly surprised that Elizabeth is the more dedicated of the couple—she still believes in the tenets of Marxist-Leninism, while Philip has been corrupted by the comforts of the West—but when you and I had a similar conversation about Homeland a few months ago, you said, "the CIA's biggest secret is that its best spies are women." Elizabeth seems to be bearing that out. How does that rate on your credibility scale?

Moran: Yes, my long-standing claim that the best spies are women has been borne out in both fiction (Homeland, The Americans) and nonfiction (the real CIA officer on whom the character of Maya is based in Zero Dark Thirty). Elizabeth is a hard character to like, however. I find her coldness—toward Philip, but even more toward her own children—believable, but unsettling.

While we're on the topic of female spies, I love the character of Grannie. Contrary to Hollywood depictions, every good spy organization has its share of battle-axes who are basically married to their service. I almost felt like I recognized Grannie as one of the CIA human resources ladies who recruited me back in 1997.

Thomas: I’m also struck by how Elizabeth seems to find it easier to treat sex transactionally than the guys do. Sure, Philip screws his sources if he needs to, but he often seems reluctant. In his Clark persona, he did all he could to postpone “going all the way” with Martha, though he finally did it anyway. Stan seemed genuinely devastated when he realized that Nina had started sleeping with her boss at the Russian Embassy in order to score information for him. Now that he’s sleeping with her himself, he seems extra-conflicted—though he’s doing it anyway. Meanwhile, Elizabeth just grits her teeth and gets on with it. No soul-searching, no pondering larger questions of exploitation. She just knows that this is an effective way of getting a guy to lower his defenses.

Moran: I agree. Elizabeth is one tough cookie in every respect, and her pragmatic approach to sex is just one example of her mental fortitude. Though I wasn't sure if Clark's reluctance to be intimate with Martha was because of a lack of attraction, his feelings for Elizabeth, or just because he thought she might pull that ghastly wig off.

Nina is another great female character. We really don't know who she's going to end up working for. Stan makes me sad; he's a dedicated FBI agent—and I think basically a moral guy—who's on a collision course with personal and professional tragedy.

In Blowing My Cover I wrote about the CIA’s double standard: Women were considered to be more susceptible to flattery and deceit, when that is far from the truth. The Americans definitely seems to be depicting men as the weaker sex, which is refreshing—and in my opinion—an accurate depiction of the world of espionage.

Thomas: It's so hard to watch Stan march toward his doom. He's clearly a great agent—smart, dedicated, with good instincts—but he's still scarred from his undercover work with the white supremacists. I wish we had a better understanding of why he can't connect with his family. And I wish he could step back from the situation with Nina.

Moran: I see why he can't connect with his wife. There is so little—nothing, really—of his professional life that he can share with her. This inevitably erodes a relationship beyond repair and is why so many case officers marry other case officers. As lonely as Philip and Elizabeth's lives may be (she in particular seems incapable of making friends), at least they have each other.

Thomas: And Elizabeth has Grannie. Although they don't get on, to say the least, Elizabeth can be—more or less—honest with her handler. Stan doesn't have anyone to talk to, though his boss, Agent Gaad, clearly suspects something's going on between Stan and Nina.

Let me close with the inevitable question: I know you're a Homeland fan, but you also admitted to Cold War nostalgia. Does the period setting make The Americans easier to take?

Moran: I think we're all a little sick of the terrorist threat, both in real life and in our entertainment. The Americans hearkens back to a simpler time in the world of espionage and in the world at large. I was attracted to the CIA in large part because I came of age during the Cold War, when it was a big spy-versus-spy game between us and the Soviets (and Soviet bloc countries). The Americans feels like a return to a simpler time, but through the lens of history, we are able to view Philip and Elizabeth as more than just our enemies. A lot of people at CIA are nostalgic for the Cold War. That's when you were truly able to play upon people's weaknesses and vulnerabilities in order to collect human intelligence and sometimes turn them. It's so much harder to infiltrate our enemies’ networks these days. I love that The Americans—like Homeland—shows the human face of espionage.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Lindsay Moran is a former CIA case officer and author of Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy.

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