Marriage, Kids + Soviet Super Spies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, if we’re checking perspectives, nothing back in the 1980s came even close to being what it seemed.
By Anna Nordberg
Now in its second season, this FX sleeper about married Soviet spies living in suburban DC has gotten even stronger since its great, overlooked debut.
As KGB agents who have been trained to look, speak and act like Americans, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) represent one of Russia’s greatest counterintelligence triumphs. But what does it mean to imitate, day in and day out, the culture you’ve been taught since birth to despise? And what toll does it take when your children are citizens of your country’s greatest enemy? These are strong, complicated questions, which the show treats with smoldering restraint.
Elizabeth starts to fall for Philip — sort of like Scarlett discovering she has feelings for Rhett after years of sharing a bed with him.
It’s also a lot of fun. The setting is 1982, after all, and the fashion, hair, and cultural references (Elizabeth dumps her kids at Raiders of the Lost Ark when she’s called out to help a Comrade) create just the right amount of nostalgia. And no drama has taken as much glee in its wigs since Alias, though instead of Jennifer Garner’s sexy superspy disguises, these are hilariously suburban: frumpy perms and comb-overs. As for the fashion, well I’ll just say that Russell looks better in bodysuits and high-waisted jeans than anyone has a right to.
The first season, which I urge you to binge-watch immediately, shone a spotlight on Elizabeth and Philip’s sham marriage. While it was clear he had feelings for her, in a smart twist, the show made her the cold one, the true revolutionary who held America’s values at a distance while Philip let them creep in. (At one point he asks Elizabeth if it’s really so bad, having good food and reliable electricity). But as she sees the lengths Philip is willing to go to protect her and their family, Elizabeth starts to fall for him — sort of like Scarlett discovering she has feelings for Rhett after years of sharing a bed with him.
In the second season, the stakes are higher as the Jennings’ kids are potentially put at risk. To complicate matters, their daughter Paige begins to suspect that something is up with all of mom and dad’s late nights and 3 a.m. laundry folding sessions (clearly, Elizabeth decided that the laundry room was the best place to stash counterintelligence docs with an 11-year-old boy and teen girl in the house — probably a safe bet).
Even a plot about Paige becoming religious that could feel a bit tired (we’ve seen it on The Good Wife and Friday Night Lights), yields one of the season’s best scenes. Elizabeth and Philip, of course, are atheists, as all good Communists are. As they discuss their concerns about Paige, Elizabeth toes the party line, quoting Karl Marx’s ”opiate of the masses,” while Philip, ever pragmatic, suggests moving dinner later, as hungry kids don’t say grace. It’s an amusing domestic conversation, but it’s not taking place at the kitchen table. Instead, they’re sitting in a car about to snatch a defected Russian scientist. It goes without saying that this is one of the funniest examples of multi-tasking ever.
Though we’ve seen Cold War intrigue a thousand times before, this show keeps it fresh. Perhaps because creator Joe Weisberg was a former CIA agent.
Even with all these plates spinning, they still find time to be social with their FBI agent neighbor, Stan Beeman (the always great Noah Emmerich), who works to uncover Russian spies in the U.S. and is carrying on an affair with his KGB mole at the Russian embassy who he thinks he’s turned, but is actually a triple agent.
If that sounds like a lot going on, it is — but the brilliance of this show is it never goes over the top, threading the needle between action and psychological drama without wallowing in it. And though we’ve seen Cold War intrigue a thousand times before, this show keeps it fresh. Perhaps because creator Joe Weisberg was a former CIA agent. (And OZY has a thing for former CIA agents.)
Plus, not to overinflate TV’s importance or anything, but with all of Russia’s recent saber rattling, there’s been a lot of talk about how to understand Putin’s once-KGB-always-KGB soul. The Americans could be the place to start.
- Anna Nordberg, OZY Author Contact Anna Nordberg