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The Americans: James Bond in Suburbia
By Bert Ehrmann
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Sex has played a major role in stories about fictional spies since there were stories about fictional spies. On the male side there's been the womanizing James Bond the last 60+ years who's inspired a term to record his conquests; "Bond Babes." The female side has characters like Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) from Burn Notice who sometimes wears bikinis on missions to keep the bad guys distracted as she kicks their butts.
In fact, it's almost impossible to have a spy movie or television series that doesn't somehow involve the "S" word in the story. That's why I think the TV series The Americans is so different. Sex does play a role in the here, but in The Americans rather that it being something that's titillating/over the top it's dealt with a bit more realistically.
The Americans is really an examination of the institution of marriage in both its strengths and weaknesses.
The Americans follows the seemingly normal family of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) with two kids who live and work in early 1980s Washington DC. Except they're anything but normal. Phillip and Elizabeth are actually two Soviet Union KGB sleeper-agents who infiltrated the US in the 1960s and have lived here ever since. By day they run a travel agency, but by night they break into the homes of Washington elite to hide bugs, chase down Soviets wanting to defect to the US and trap diplomats in compromising positions to blackmail.
The Jenning's relationship and entire marriage are predicated on a lie. They were put together as a team when they were training in Russia and told to act as husband and wife as part of their cover. And this arrangement went surprising well for them. They settled into suburbia, had kids and began living the American dream.
Unexpectedly Phillip and Elizabeth began loving each other and started to feel like a real husband and wife. Even with them occasionally having relations with contacts/targets in order to extract information or gain confidence their relationship stayed strong. To Phillip and Elizabeth, cheating on each other while spying isn't cheating. It's work.
What does start to strain their marriage, though, is first the realization that while Phillip likes living in the US (in the first episode he tells his wife, "The electricity works all the time and the food's pretty great") while Elizabeth instead is devoted to her home country. What begins driving them apart, though, is that while Elizabeth might be okay with Phillip courting an FBI secretary to gain information and Phillip alright with Elizabeth picking up defense contractors in bars to steal secrets, neither is okay when real lovers from their pasts begin reappearing in their lives.
Be it Gregory (Derek Luke), an American working for the KGB who had an affair with Elizabeth in years previously but returns to help them find someone, or Irina (Marina Squerciati), another KGB agent who's brought in to help Phillip with a blackmail job but who also was his real lover back in Russia before Elizabeth.
Phillip and Elizabeth come to the realization that while they might be compatible with each other, love one and other and have kids together, there's really no legitimate reason for them to be together. Their marriage is fake and if they ever returned home to the Soviet Union their relationship would surly fall apart.
While Phillip and Elizabeth's relationship does have major problems, one of the questions asked in The Americans is in how many ways is their "fake" relationship better and stronger than of a "real" couple like FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his wife? Stan is tasked with rooting out KGB agents like the Jennings in the US. But after just having come off a case where he was away from his family undercover for months and now working 24/7 tracking down spies, his marriage with wife Sandra (Susan Misner) is on the rocks and headed for divorce.
It doesn't help matters that Stan has started a relationship with an asset working in the Soviet embassy who might just be getting more information out of him than he her.
But it's all this conflict in both the character's relationships and conflict with the US and the USSR that makes The Americans story so deep and so satisfying.
The second season of The Americans starts February 26 on FX.
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