The Americans denotes FX’s latest addition to their growing stable of adult dramas. In particular, Americans represents the cable network’s official foray into the space race of the “period” drama, as covertly advertised through sizzling symbolic teasers that offered no actors and minimalist voiceovers. The minimalist approach posits an artistic sense of marketing yet revealed no content beyond the show’s Cold War backdrop. In a similarly minimalist approach to viewing, Now that the “pilot” has premiered, I examine some of the narrative subtexts that may or may not serve as a more accurate trajectory for FX’s ambition with The Americans.
The Americans “Pilot” opens with a blonde female in a bar. She coerces an average if unattractive white male in the beginning stages of male pattern baldness. Playing a doubting and buzzed flirt, she convinces him to reveal his Federal badge. In the following scene, he bloviates about the importance of his job and the severity of his clearance until his voice trails away as the blonde insinuates a particular intimate gesture.
Later, a scene inside a U.S. government agency depicts two White males bantering before a top-secret meeting. The shorter bald male exclaims, “There is no greater time to be working in intelligence”. As if winking at the audience in Morse code, the writers make sure we understand that, like all “good” dramas, The Americans has implications for the present. Just as AMC’s Mad Men wrestles with corporate greed and tension between art and capital or HBO’s Boardwalk Empire posits rich politicians as immoral gangsters (and vice versa), The Americans assures its audience that, “hey, this matters”. Yet I sense from the FX pilot further forecasts that greater historiographic parallels come not from the show’s emphasis on Cold War as much as warfare of cultures in transition. Read in this light, perhaps The Americans might then add details that while fictitious signify more truth than the history written in generations past.
After the bar-to-bedroom point/counterpoint, the blonde exits the building complex to her car where she removes her wig with a look of disdain in the rear-view mirror. Here, for the first time the audience sees “Elizabeth Jennings”, played by Keri Russell. Jennings then reinforces her partner the capture of a turncoat Russian working for the CIA. The sequence is an exaggerated chase scene designed to enthrall the audience into the cat-and-mouse world of Cold War espionage. Yet the “Pilot’s” early action scene feels largely manufactured in comparison to larger dramatic issues I recognize in The Americans’ subtext (although The AV Club’s roundtable disagrees entirely).
In a flashback 21 years, a gym setting depicts an intense afterhours training session for the then-young Soviet female. A male superior officer enters the gym, relieves her trainer, and then reinforces her training by beating and then raping her. A flash-forward to the “present” reveals this officer as the turncoat, now bound and gagged in the trunk of the Elizabeth’s car.
In Elizabeth’s first four introductory scenes, we witness her in sex acts in two of them, an action sequence in one, and in perhaps her biggest cover up role, a mom’s jeans wearing married mother of two at the breakfast table. The contrast between her roles in the daylight versus dark represent polar ends of the spectrum, yet each reveal cultural levels of submission. In the sex sequences, she submits to the arousal of men, yet in the name of patriotism to her country, she also submits to the State. Again as mother, she submits simultaneously to the State just as she inhabits roles of domesticity. Phillip, Elizabeth’s assigned husband, listens to a tape-recording of her sexual liaison with a combination of jealousy and sadness. While the tape leaks pertinent information from the government official under seduction, the audience arguably maintains tentative due to the illicit nature of their sexual dialogue. This comes as no surprise as FX’s production patterns toward gratuitous if not explicit content functions hand-in-hand with their series’ dramatic exposition.
The Soviet State naturally assumes a Patriarchal form, despite historical references to Mother Russia. In fact, Soviet history espouses a brutal culture of militarism and otherwise socio-cultural impoverishment. In essence, you either live for the State or your existence may well be lifeless. Does a young female in Cold War Soviet Russia reject the State and risk punishment by death (or worse?) or submit to authoritarianism and represent it through transformative performance in the vein of international espionage? Arguably, Elizabeth chooses the lesser of two evils at the risk of her own soul. By performing ‘the American Dream’ as an infiltrative method, Jennings thus embodies the American Dream where immigrant status might metamorphosis into some new existence. Thus, a larger more personal question emerges on The Americans as to whether or not the American Dream functions as a transformative rebirth or an ideological façade.
On the one hand, The Americans immediately subverts gender roles in the domestic space. While Elizabeth the “housewife” may be in the kitchen baking brownies, it is her “husband” Phillip that is interested in shopping when he takes their daughter to the mall. Phillip buys himself cowboy boots (naturally), and his boot scoot in a shoe mirror teases his temptation toward integration and cultural homogeneity. Phillip also teases his willingness to “flip sides” for the sake of their children’s college fund. Elizabeth finds the joke humorless, in addition to his sexual advances in the name of their assignment marriage.
On the other hand, the latter half of the “pilot” breaks a considerable sweat reaffirming Phillip’s masculinity and threat level. When Elizabeth chooses not to kill the hostage as a demonstration of her empathetic superiority over her one-time superior officer and rapist, Phillip chokes the turncoat until he crushes his larynx with a crunch. After disposing with the body, the “husband” and “wife” make love as kind of peace offering/thank you, with Phillip asserting the dominant position on top. Third and finally, Phillip dons his most American disguise yet and crashes the backyard barbeque of a White/redneck/predator who sexually harassed his daughter in the shopping mall. Thus, Phillip emerges as a true American ideologue that both protects the honor and virtue of his wife/daughter/family and punishes with righteous violence those who threaten the sanctity of everyday American life.
This issue of transformation also reflects post-feminist debate. With The Americans set in the early 80s, issues of post-feminist discourse mark an arguable rich parallel as debates over Third Wave Feminism inflamed in the public consciousness. Arguably, with the result Cold War endgame a retrospective inevitability, these feminist discourses become more cogent than the show’s espionage game at play. Thus again, emphasis on internal versus external reflexivity provides a dynamic insight for audiences. Viewed in this light, Americans becomes less a vehicle for entertaining retroactivity for the past and more an inert contemplation for present issues of transnationalism, glocal politics, and of course, fragmented structuration in what constitutes “family”. Hence just like Elizabeth’s blonde wig or her “husband’s” wig/glasses/polyester suit combo, The Americans disguises itself as masculine-focused niche drama on cable’s machismo comrade, FX. Only time will tell if such covert intelligence-gathering crossover appeal will tap into the clandestine aesthetic appeal among current cable programming cabals.