Now nearing the end of its fourth season, The Americans is a confounding success. It’s hard to figure out which of its triumphs is the most unlikely: that it has millions of Americans rooting for KGB agents to outsmart our country every week, or that the FX network has produced a critical darling that is not entirely awash in testosterone.
The show, which stars an impressive array of ugly wigs worn by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, achieves a masterful balance between the slow burn (how long before someone close to them discovers that Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are more than simple travel agents?) and the explosive disaster. The Americans is not a program that frustrates its audience with its unwillingness to mess with the status quo (as daughter Paige’s knowledge of her parents’ activities this season certainly demonstrates). But as both a professor of Russian culture and a fan, I have come to a perverse conclusion:
It’s time for The Americans to jump the shark.
The World Is Not Enough
As all savvy television viewers know, “jumping the shark” is the moment when a series signals its own decline, usually through a stunt that violates the show’s basic premise. The phrase refers to the notorious fifth-season premiere of Happy Days, when Fonzie, for the flimsiest of reasons, performs a water-ski jump over a caged shark. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that The Americans perform a similar stunt (though if they did, my money would be on Elizabeth). But Happy Days and The Americans actually have a great deal in common: each is predicated on nostalgia for a bygone era, nostalgia that the shows themselves are largely responsible for creating.1 That nostalgia, in turn, confronts the shows’ creators with a potential time paradox familiar to anyone who watched M*A*S*H take eleven years to tell a story set during a three-year-long war.
The creators of The Americans cleverly hedged their bets by starting the series in 1981, but that does not change the fact that the characters unknowingly face a geopolitical time bomb. This is not to say that all spying ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but at the very least, the onset of perestroika could require a change in the Jennings’ job descriptions. For years now, the thrills in watching Philip and Elizabeth recruit new agents and steal new secrets are both enhanced and haunted by our inevitable hindsight: enhanced, because analog spy techniques look adorable in the age of NSA metadata collection, and haunted, because we know that, despite the risks undertaken by nearly every character, when it comes to the big picture, absolutely nothing is at stake. Unless The Americans suddenly indulges in alternate history, all the Jennings’ work is for naught. They need to jump the shark now, because their motherland is sure to jump it in 1991.2
The Americans already indulged in one time jump, in an episode that aired early last month: for seven months, Elizabeth and Philip had been blissfully off-duty. Only Paige, now tethered to Pastor Tim for life because she revealed her parents’ secret to him, can never take a break: while the rest of the family get the chance to live the life their parents have been shamming all these years, Paige must drag herself to Tim’s youth group every week (the same episode makes the irony apparent a half hour earlier, when the fiercely atheistic Elizabeth forbids her daughter to skip Bible study). That still only brings us to the end of 1983.
A larger time jump risks upsetting the family dynamic that has developed so nicely over four years (Paige would be off in college), but at least it could help avoid the perpetual problem of child actors aging in real time on heavily serialized, slowly developing TV shows.
You Only Live Twice
The prospect of Elizabeth and Philip facing the collapse of Soviet Communism is all the more enticing because, in every aspect of their daily grind (leaving aside the murders, dead-drops, and brief encounters with weaponized pathogens), the heroes of The Americans are already building post-Soviet lives. They just don’t know it yet.
In the 1990s, it was the KGB officials and party bosses who proved best equipped to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by unbridled, corrupt capitalism. As would Philip and Elizabeth be, by virtue of not just their work as Soviet spies, but also the cover story their handlers created for them. Without even trying, they are living the post-Soviet dream: they run a small business that would strike their compatriots as glamorous (travel!), they own their own home, and their children are preternaturally well-adjusted. True, the children espouse values that their parents will never understand, but how many teenagers, both in America and in post-Soviet Russia, feel as though their parents were from some strange other land?
The Heroes are already building post-Soviet lives. They just don’t know it yet.
Part of the drama of The Americans stems from the ways the husband-and-wife spy team simulate a quintessential Reagan-era Americanness. Fittingly for immigrants who hail from the birthplace of Stanislavsky, Philip and Elizabeth are Method actors. Or perhaps they are Method actors in reverse: though they try to suppress everything about their Russian past, the affective bonds they form with their recruits inevitably lead them back to suppressed trauma (Elizabeth’s rape by a KGB superior, Philip’s murder of a bully in childhood). Like the Cyrillic letters that superimpose themselves over the show’s opening credits, their Russian selves occasionally peak out from behind the picket fences of their adopted suburbia.
This tension between simulation and sincerity is quintessentially American, yet it also forces the pair into the kind of existential doubts on which the Russian novel thrives. But the only tools available for them are those provided by consumer capitalism, reinforcing the parallels between Elizabeth and Philip’s pre-Perestroika soul-searching and the identity crisis that would confront their countrymen in less than a decade.
Quantum of Solace
Philip and Elizabeth pick through the spiritual smorgasbord that 1980s America offers them, but with decidedly different results. This season and last, Elizabeth cultivates two potential agents through quintessentially American networks: Alcoholics Anonymous (to befriend a woman she later brutally kills) and Mary Kay Cosmetics (where she develops what looks like a real friendship with the relentlessly charming Young-Hee, only to betray her by ensnaring her husband in a strangely unconsummated adultery). We don’t see much of Elizabeth’s AA meetings, but we do quickly learn that she is an excellent saleswoman. This comes as no surprise: her skills as a spy are exactly what’s required of her to be a capitalist success.
While Elizabeth is peddling mascara to bored housewives, Philip has discovered the enchantment of EST. Werner Erhard’s human potential seminars were predicated on psychodrama and self-reflection, even if their main feature in the popular culture was the stress they put on participants’ bladders (bathroom breaks in these daylong events were notoriously and deliberately rare). Like so many phenomena associated primarily with the 1970s, EST lasted well into the ’80s; Philip’s encounter with the movement takes place just a year before it rebrands itself as “The Forum.”
Tellingly, his first visit is both part of his spy mission and completely disconnected: he accompanies his depressed friend and neighbor Stan, but the basis of their friendship is that Stan is an FBI agent whose suspicion Philip must constantly divert. In EST, Philip discovers the meaning that has eluded him throughout the series, while Elizabeth berates him for falling for the spiritual equivalent of Mary Kay.
The Soviet Union sent young Nadezhda and Mischa to the United States, transforming them into Elizabeth and Philip for the sake of the Motherland. By the last half of the fourth season, our family of “Americans” is composed of a wife who discovers her untapped marketing skills, a husband searching for truth in a dubious post-Christian human potential movement, an adolescent daughter who has accepted Christ as her personal savior, and a teenage son who spends half his days staring at a video screen and dreaming about seducing older women. On a mission to ensure Soviet supremacy, Philip and Elizabeth have been building the new Russia in microcosm without ever realizing it.
And here we should once again recall their legal business and its oddly marginal role in their lives. The Jennings own a travel business, but spend most of their time in the DC area. This makes perfect sense: Elizabeth and Philip are just as much travelers in time as they are in space. The Americans should confront them with the future that they already unwittingly inhabit.
- The Americans is riding a wave of nostalgic TV, from Mad Men to the recent The People v. O.J. Simpson (see Nicholas Dames’s review in the April 1 issue of Public Books). ↩
- The showrunners have been coy about this particular issue, but they have confirmed that there are only two seasons left. There’s always the possibility that they are planning a time jump, given their response to a question about the series’ timeline: “We have some big ideas—one big idea in particular—and we’ll see if we get to that end point and if we can make it work. We [are] thinking it would be really satisfying. We’ll see.” See Daniel Holloway, “‘The Americans’ Renewed for Last Two Seasons, FX Show to End in 2018,” Variety, May 25, 2016; Cynthia Littleton, “‘The Americans’: Producers, Stars Talk Season 4 and Possible End Date,” Variety, January 16, 2016.