Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

The couple next door with their homemade lasagnes, ready smiles and picture-perfect rose garden; a set-up that smacks of spy, secret agent, terrorist, psycho killer (Desperate Housewives, anyone?). Perhaps more suspicious are the neighbours to your left: a travel-agent mum and dad with a couple of kids. Sometimes they’re sad (you’ve heard and seen), sometimes they’re happy (you’ve heard and seen that, too); they keep some weird hours but all-in-all they seem pretty usual. Place this semblance of normality into suburban Washington D.C., circa 1981, and you’ve got The Americans; an espionage drama, produced by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg (street cred alert!), telling the story of two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple who quietly sabotage government operations and neutralise targets while raising two unsuspecting teens, with an FBI counterintelligence agent as a neighbour (and you thought your life was stressful).

Yes, The Americans is set during the Cold War but don’t let unfamiliar context deter you from a wild ride! To get with the programme here‘s a quick crash course in Cold War semantics by ’80s poster boy Kevin Bacon (dishing the dirt to millennials who missed the decade): “I saw you tweet an article about Russia. You think Russia’s a threat now? Let me tell you about a little thing called the Cold War. They had nukes pointed at us for 20 years. You couldn’t even skateboard to a Blockbuster without getting nuked. My friend Tommy went out to rent a copy of Gremlins and never came back. You know why? Nuked. At least that’s what my parents told me.”

It was a time of paranoia, when the threat of nuclear war was imminent and Communists lurked behind every bush. Sort of like now, only without jihadists doing the lurking. So we can empathise, and relate.

Cold War espionage was a deadly serious game and surveillance was the key to foiling enemy plans; it was all about wigs, fake glasses and fake identities, compasses, street maps, bugging devices the size of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, briefcases with hidden compartments and coded locks, voice recorders, periscopes, signal beacons and long-range microphones. The Americans is like stepping into a time capsule of corduroys, velvets, knits and chenille, and after adjusting to the earthy, autumnal tones and lack of super advanced satellite tracking systems or listening apparatus that moulds to the skin after flying stealth through the air and attaching to a target’s arm or leg, watching ’80s-style espionage unfold from the comfy chair of technological advancement and laissez-faire fashion, it is entertainment deluxe.

The show is riddled with moral dilemmas relating not only to the ethics of spy interplay but the things relationships and parents are confronted with every single day

The show is dynamic, boasting a labyrinth of intricate story lines (parenting teens amidst a massacre of spy-action, an FBI guy falling for a raunchy Russian double agent and an enemy who changes face as often as the weather) but the show’s real point of awesome is the relationship between protagonists Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys). The couple are recruited into the KGB at a young age, trained and then sent on commission to America – their marriage is one of necessity and their children, Paige and Henry, are a function of their marriage. In an existence dominated by solitude and professional purpose, there are affairs in abundance and yet amidst those and all of the KGB ordered assignment-sex and an extra-curricular marriage or two (one of Philip’s secret identities is Clark – a sure nod to Superman’s Clark Kent – who is ‘married’ to Martha, a secretary for the FBI’s counter-intelligence department), the couple learn to love each other and, actually, they’re a pretty steamy item.

But killer sex does not preclude Team Jennings from having to navigate the complications of an arranged marriage and work out the same old awkward relationship stuff that punctuates the interactions between ‘regular’ couples. As the show progresses the need to preserve and protect their relationship for the sake of Moscow becomes something that Elizabeth and Philip need to do for their own sake as well as the directive; for the sake of a love that has grown out of a shared life and a mutual understanding.

The international relationships that drive nations and fuel wars, in the hands of The Americans, serve as an allegory for the interpersonal relationships that define the character of nations. As per history, Elizabeth and Philip are ‘the enemy’ but just as the viewer is cajoled into championing their marriage, we also root for them as spies. And to be honest, it’s kind of fabulous to see someone other than America kicking ass. Elizabeth Jennings is a force to be reckoned with; utilitarian and pragmatic to the max, this is one gal who will put you down one time. Philip, equally lethal, is the more demonstrative of the pair, functioning as the emotional glue between Elizabeth and the kids, but he’s a killer; make no mistake. Together, they’re like Captain America, only Russian.

The Americans uses yesteryear to unpick the histrionics that have permeated man’s existence since forever. The show is riddled with moral dilemmas relating not only to the ethics of spy interplay but the kinds of things that relationships and parents are confronted with every single day. The mistrust provoked by the heightened sense of awareness that enveloped ’80s America had the potential to do two things: make people crazy or make people lonely, or both at the same time. And, really, although the enemy might have changed, human nature has not. The show’s greater point is this: people are people no matter where they pledge their allegiance.

The Americans returns with the Season 3 premiere on January 28

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