Wednesday, June 4, 2014

‘For the Greater Good’: Life Lessons from The Americans

Eclipsed by all the attention rightfully given to the spectacular season finale of Mad Men, my favorite TV series The Americans just ended its latest season as well. One of the reasons I love this excellently crafted Cold War drama is that, in addition to its action and plot twists and well-drawn characters, it addresses broader themes than you would expect to find in a spy thriller. This second season-ending episode emphasized the conflicting ways in which the main characters seek to give their lives meaning and purpose.

I have written about the show previously for Acculturated (and elsewhere, for that matter). If you are sadly unfamiliar with it, The Americans centers on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Soviet spies living undercover as a normal American couple in 1982 in Washington, D.C. While raising their two children (who are oblivious to their parents’ true identities), Philip and Elizabeth carry out subversive missions to advance the Communist cause.

Their teenage girl Paige, however, is growing up, trying to become more independent of her authoritarian parents, and looking for something fulfilling to give her a sense of her own identity and direction. She believes she has found it in a politically active, local church youth group, which seriously displeases her atheist parents. Believing that religion brainwashes impressionable youth with fairy tales (an ironic complaint coming from Communists), they try to discourage her from serious involvement. But Paige passionately asserts herself and explains that the church makes her feel that she is engaged in meaningful activity, that she can make a difference in the world. “Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good – and that inspires me.”


Meanwhile, the Jennings’ KGB handler informs them of a new program the Communists have initiated: a long-term plan to groom the innocent children of undercover couples like Philip and Elizabeth to become the next generation of spies – something the Jennings swore they would never permit for their kids despite their own total commitment to the cause. Their handler tries to sell them on the idea of bringing Paige into the espionage game: “It would give her life a purpose and meaning that she could never find in this country.” When the Jennings resist, she presses harder: “Paige is your daughter, but she’s not just yours. She belongs to the cause, and to the world – we all do. Have you forgotten that?”

Meanwhile, FBI agent Stan Beeman, their American counterpart, is wrestling with a soul-crushing choice between committing treason or allowing Nina, the beautiful Soviet double agent he has fallen in love with, to be repatriated back to Moscow to be tried for treason herself, which will surely end in her death – or perhaps worse, a life sentence in a gulag. To save her, Beeman is being blackmailed to give the Russians access to an American computer program that is critical to the future of the free world. In the end, even though his personal life has completely collapsed – his wife of 20 years has left him – he sacrifices love for love of country; he refuses to comply with the blackmail. Though it means abandoning Nina to her doom, Beeman ultimately chose something more important than his own selfish desires – patriotism – to give his life purpose.

“Life itself has no meaning,” the famed mythologist Joseph Campbell once said. “But you can give your life meaning.” We accomplish that by committing to something larger than ourselves: art, work, family, service to others – or in the case of the characters in The Americans – ideology, religion, love, patriotism. Whatever it may be, without that commitment, we risk wasting our lives in a gulag of our own making.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/2/14)