Monday, May 5, 2014

Lessons from ‘The Americans’ on Crime and Forgiveness

If you’re not watching the FX series The Americans, you’re missing one of the most gripping, intelligently written dramas on TV. More than just an action-packed Cold War thriller, it is a series that has its surprisingly compelling protagonists wrestling with big questions of ideology and salvation.

Now in its second season, The Americans stars the darkly intense Matthew Rhys and the criminally underappreciated Keri Russell as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Soviet spies living undercover as a normal American couple in 1981 Washington, D.C. In between co-managing their travel agency and raising two children (who are oblivious to their parents’ true identities), Philip and Elizabeth carry out missions for the Communist cause and keep their activities concealed from their FBI agent neighbor, masterfully underplayed by Noah Emmerich.

Elizabeth is an ice-hearted true believer, but after many years undercover, the American way of life is gradually beginning to seduce Philip. In one riveting confrontation in the very first episode, she is aghast when he suggests that they consider betraying the motherland and embracing the good life. “America’s not so bad,” he argues. “What’s so bad about it? The electricity works all the time, food’s pretty great… We could have a good life.” Later in the series, on a self-indulgent capitalist whim, he goes out and buys a new Camaro, then comes home blasting decadent Western rock music out of the windows.

But the cracks in his commitment to Mother Russia run even deeper than just the superficial. As the Cold War heats up, Philip finds himself wrestling emotionally with the more ruthless aspects of his job – namely, murdering anyone who stands in the way of his and Elizabeth’s work. In last week’s episode, after having slit a young man’s throat and caused the death of another innocent whom he had kidnapped for information, Philip struggles with so much bottled-up rage, doubt and self-loathing that he explodes at his moderately rebellious teenage daughter Paige for getting involved with a youth-oriented local church.

Philip and his family are starting to come apart at the seams, thanks to the terrible lie he and Elizabeth have been living for most of their adult lives. Driven by a deepening spiritual void that he can’t acknowledge even to himself, the atheist Philip slips into the small church one night to confront its young preacher Tim. “I want you to stay away from my daughter,” he threatens quietly.

“I can’t turn Paige away from the church, Mr. Jennings,” Tim replies. “This is a sanctuary. I can’t turn anyone away.” Philip steps menacingly closer. Tim is nervous but stands his ground. “Are you really gonna beat me up over this?” He suggests that if Philip really wants to help his daughter, “you should find a way to deal with your anger.”

Philip gets in his face. “I’m not here to be saved. Not by you or your god.”

“I see that you’re in pain,” Tim whispers. “There is grace and forgiveness for you. For everyone.”

Philip challenges the preacher: “Do you believe that?” Tim stands his ground. “I do,” he answers firmly.

His conviction not only defuses Philip’s violence, but seems to surprise and bewilder him as well. The spy exits without a word, steps outside in the cold night air, and turns with one last look at the church, a look that betrays his desperate desire for exactly the grace and forgiveness that he doesn’t believe is possible for his crimes.

It’s a stunning end to the episode, in a compelling series that traces the growing turmoil of two unlikely TV protagonists: KGB killers, at least one of whom is increasingly torn between diametrically opposed world views – communism and capitalism, atheism and faith, sin and forgiveness, ideology and family.

Their FBI counterpart, Emmerich’s Stan Beeman, is struggling with issues of his own. An ordinarily emotionally-reserved patriot who has foolishly fallen for his beautiful KGB informant, Beeman has put himself in a position to compromise his country’s security and destroy his own marriage.

The Americans doesn’t drive office water cooler talk like, say, Game of Thrones or Mad Men. But its fascinating Cold War clash between spies agonizing over very human conflicts deserves to be just as talked-about.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/1/14)