The Americans, Season 1
I finished the first season a week ago, but I wanted to let it…settle, I guess. It’s a complicated show, and worth thinking about. (This is all in fairly general terms, so no real spoilers).
1. There is a basic plausibility issue that I REALLY struggle with, which is that I have never met a Russian who could speak English without a noticeable accent. I don’t know why that is, mind you – I have a theory that the most common sounds in English are comparatively rare in Russian, which makes it more of a struggle (for the same reason English speakers have difficulty with French – most of us can’t roll our Rs properly, because that sound simply doesn’t exist in English). Now I can believe that there is the occasional savant out there, but…hundreds of them, all able to trained up to speak with flawless American accents, even though they don’t start learning the language until they’re in their twenties…I don’t think so.
2. Funnily enough, I have a personal connection to the show – it was filmed very close to where my sister lives in New York. Apparently her street of apartment blocks is used as a double whenever they need a depressing Russian city. Needless to say, she found this amusing.
3. I prefer my spy stories more La Carré than James Bond, and the emphasis the show places on the roles of contingency and fuck-up in determining international relations is genuinely fascinating – one of my favourite episodes involved Reagan’s shooting, when it became how differing cultural assumptions played a huge role in how actions were understood – or, more to the point, misunderstood.
4. That said…I have this nagging feeling that they take too many risks – they’re too casually violent – to be fully plausible. Which is a sacrifice on the altar of drama, and I shouldn’t complain about it, but…the last thing a spy should do is attract attention.
5. I can’t up feel the showrunners are tilting the scales a little bit, because the American counter-intelligence officers are routinely cast with actors who have goober-ish qualities. I about fell out of my chair when I realised one of the characters – a super-tough CIA operative – was played by Congressman Owen Pierce from Veep, at which point I could no longer take him seriously. (I am entertained by the joke of casting Sitwell from the MCU as an FBI agent, though who knows if that’s purposeful).
6. If I had one wish, it’s that they would fill us in just a little bit more on the internal politics of the Soviet Union – my Russian history basically stops in the 1960s, and I don’t know enough about what was going on in the early 80s to properly contextualise what I’m seeing. One of my earliest memories of a political event is the Berlin Wall coming down, which kind of illustrates how distant some of this is. I think the Americans must be a very different show for each generation that watches it.
7. Following on from this…it’s fascinating to think about how the show will handle Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union – assuming they get that far.
8. The show turns me into everyone’s mother – I literally watch scenes thinking “well you seem like two people who should definitely NOT be having intercourse.” Not to mention that I find myself suspecting sometimes that Elizabeth’s…flakiness with regards to Philip is at least partially caused by her never having had a proper adolescence.
9. I am so much less interested in the gathering tragedy of Stan Newman’s marriage than the show wants me to be – Sandra should get out while the getting is good. I am also pre-emptively depressed at the thought of watching Nina coming to her inevitable sticky end.
10. There’s quite a delicate balance between the two central characters, and one of the things I find…interesting is the way it draws out their professional strengths and weaknesses. Philip seems to me to be unquestionably the better spy, but the very qualities that make him good at it – his flexibility, his ability to think himself into someone else’s head, his willingness to depart from procedure – are the same qualities that make him…unreliable in a lot of ways. Whereas, Elizabeth is unquestionably loyal and dedicated – which…oddly enough, comes with some downsides. She genuinely fell in love with her ‘mark,’ she recruited him and came to care for him, she was willing to make real sacrifices for him – but I’m certain Philip both likes Martha as a person, and will cast her aside if he ever has to (I am not looking forward to watching that play out one bit, mind you). They actually balance each other out pretty well – one can see why they were paired, way back when – but I am occasionally frustrated with Philip’s inability to see that Elizabeth isn’t being…wilfully rigid. The ambiguity that comes so naturally to him isn’t something she’s comfortable with, and I tend to doubt she ever would be. As of right now, I find her the more interesting character – but not by very much, which is quite an achievement. That said, you’d think a pair of spies would teach their children better survival instincts.
11. Margo Martindale is clearly having the time of her life, and bless the show for giving her the opportunity.