The Americans

My favorite new TV show this season was The Americans. It took me a bit of time to fully embrace the show, though.

Halfway through the season, I was hung up on how Philip and Elizabeth, especially Elizabeth, didn't really seem credible in their loyalty to mother Russia. This was Keri Russell, for god's sake, how could she turn against the U.S.? She doesn't even look the slightest bit Russian.

[Yes, they're supposed to be able to blend into the U.S., that is the point of being a spy, but All-American Keri Russell is not a species native to Russian soil, especially as compared to the much more Russian faces seen at the Soviet embassy in the show.]

But the best TV shows, the ones that rise above being high end soap operas, are ones that have a larger point to make, and the longer the season ran, the more the show's casting works in its favor. What are national loyalties, after all, than arbitrary "us versus them" distinctions implanted in us by chance and circumstance?

What better way to illustrate that by having an American sweetheart playing a Russian mole? In one life, born in the United States, Keri Russell would be Felicity Porter. In another life, born in Russia, she became Nadezhda, a KGB agent. How unaware we all are of the group affiliations we subscribe to purely because they were the ones most available to us in formative years of our lives.

That Elizabeth and Philip are playing the role of husband and wife extends this theme out beyond spy games to the very household institution of marriage. When Elizabeth attends the marriage of Philip to Martha Hanson, one of his informants, she asks Philip, after the wedding, if their marriage might have been different had they actually had a real wedding. In asking that, she cuts to the heart of the power of ritual.

That their fake marriage initially seems stronger than the actual marriage of Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Sandra Beeman, their neighbors (one of which happens to be an FBI agent hot on their trail), is a wry comment on the entire institution. Elizabeth and Philip had no choice in their marriage early on, it was their cover, and they had to make it work, despite both of them having been attracted to other people earlier in their lives.

Stan and Sandra went into their marriage with different expectations, romantic ones, and the show is rather harsh about the sustainability of a relationship centered around such notions. When Elizabeth and Philip start to see their relationship strained, what seems to draw them back towards each other is not any abstract ideal of romance but instead a pragmatic life and death dependence. It's easy to love someone when they're literally saving your life on a regular basis.

As with Mad Men, the audience knows how the plot at large turns out since The Americans is set during a Cold War that ended long ago. But what we're curious about is not that larger context but the smaller scale drama of Elizabeth and Philip's relationship. Of all the backdrops for a show about marriage, the Cold War must rank among the most unlikely.