When I started this blog series, I was just going to rattle off my favorite spy content and highlight the best of the best.
That was before I finished The Americans.
Because I work on a spy show, I knew I had to see the full series. I, like so many people I know, gave up around season 1 because I found it a bit dull. On the spectrum, I prefer a bit more elevated spy thrillers because I find that if you get too grounded you run the risk of something too muddled and pedantic rather than a slick and gut-wrenching show that hits in an emotional place while keeping the tension high.
So there’s Good Television and Great Television, and it turns out The Americans falls squarely in the second camp, and it’s been the underdog for so long because viewers (like me, admittedly) hadn’t yet put in the work to realize the full brilliance of the show.
So here I am! About to go through this show with as limited spoilers as possible in order to convince you to set aside all your shiny Netflix shows and switch to this classic. Ready? Let’s go.
The Americans is a show about people without being About People (TM)
It’s trendy now for television to be like “we’re a show about circus performers/magicians/etc. but we’Re rEaLLy a SHow aBoUt FAMILY!”
Cool. We get it. I still don’t care unless your circus performers are damn good characters and you put in the work to build them out and put them into crisis decisions that reveal their true nature and then have them clash with each other in dramatic, conflict-fueled ways.
As I said on Twitter, I think a lot of shows have swung too far in the direction of being precious about character moments while forsaking entertaining plotting, and it’s a tough balance to strike. The character moments shine best when framed by the adventures (and stakes) in the spy world.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are real people whose true nature is revealed through crisis decisions — and these moments of crisis don’t just present themselves in the heat of a shootout, but also when it comes to the secrets they keep from their children and how to protect them — or let them in to their world.
What really sets this spy show apart is how closely guarded these characters are. We care about them. They act in line with their interests. They live tumultuous, authentic lives and that’s what’s relatable. (Although, let’s be honest, we ALL wish we could relate to their incredible mastery over Wearing Wigs.)
The Sexy Female Spy Cliche is Reimagined
In every spy show ever, you see the female spy/assassin pulling a handgun out of her garter (those damn things don’t even stand up on their own, let alone when you keep your firearm in them!) and only sport cocktail dresses to every mission.
Elizabeth’s character goes against this cliche in several ways. She’s a mother, a loyal patriot, and in her own words, sex is power that she wields to do what’s right. She beats up her rapist, teaches her daughter how to fight, and doesn’t immediately catch The Feels for every man she sleeps with.
The fact that Phillip Jennings also seduces contacts makes the honeypot trap feel more equal: both are using every weapon in their arsenal to accomplish their mission. The show takes this to some very dark places where you’re definitely cringing, but the way it explores the reprehensible territory of sleeping with people to use them for a greater good — and whether or not that greater good is even worth it/that good to begin with — is complex and fascinating.
The Sides are Blurred
Elizabeth and Phillip’s friendship with Stan — the FBI agent who lives across the street — is one of the most compelling aspects of the show.
A lot of shows just shamelessly use this trope of your enemy is living right next to you/sleeping in the same bed/has no idea you’re Russian Spies pretty predictably.
What The Americans does differently is part of the genius of its concept: STAN IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE GUY WE ROOT FOR. He’s the good guy — the American FBI agent taking down Russian spies. Not only that, but he’s truly a complex, sharp character we want to root for because of his moral compass.
His journey of seeing Russian threat as the “OTHER” that must be fought and destroyed starts to bend when he falls in love with a KGB agent, but this happens and concludes in a surprising way for both the show and his character. The way he works with and starts to see eye-to-eye with the Russian characters he comes in contact with kicks off his evolution as a character who realizes the humanity of both sides.
This dovetails beautifully in one of my favorite scenes of the show, in the finale in the parking garage. I’m not going to spoil anything other than say that Stan’s arc and his friendship with Philip and Elizabeth comes head-to-head with his quest for justice in a heart-wrenching and incredible way.
Stan’s journey and arc is what we as writers need to strive for: messy, complicated, but a poetic set of crisis points that truly see what kind of person he is.
We Want to Live with These Characters
Elizabeth and Phillip aren’t anti-heroes. We’re done with that trend, okay? But they’re not heroes. And they’re not villains.
We live in the gray area with them, we watch their struggles, both with their work and their family. We want them to pay for their sins, but we also don’t want them to get caught.
Most importantly, though, we want to spend hours and hours of television with them. Their imperfect marriage feels honest. Their moments of total despair and exhaustion remind us of our own. Their drive to protect their children hits something primal. They are the only two people in the world who truly understand each other, and even after all of the murder that goes down, we root for them.
Sure, “relatability” is part of why we love them. As storytellers, however, we know that the mechanics below the surface: their relationship is a story engine, and their conflicting desires and ideals keep us watching. We want to see two broken people become whole, to heal together, to create a happy life together — and avoid the FBI. Isn’t that what we want for ourselves and our own relationships? (Especially the ‘FBI’ part, amiright?)
The Americans Never Stops Being a Spy Show
Yes, it’s a show about family. It’s a show about marriage. It’s a show about these people and what it means to put your country ahead of yourself and be something bigger.
But it is still a spy show, and our characters are also still constantly in danger every single moment of the show.
We get wigs. We get disguises. We get car chases and dead drops and heists and assassinations and honeypots and double-crosses and double-agents.
We joke about tropes and cliches, but there’s a reason they exist: they’re damn entertaining, and they serve to underline the beautiful character moments that come out of the show. Take away the spy thriller, and you don’t have a show. It’s all necessary to heat the pressurecooker and tell a story that operates on so many different levels.
The Sum of Its Parts is the Triumph
Listen, I can do a bajillion-page dissertation about the moments and story arcs from this show that I love. But the true triumph here is the sum of its parts. When a show runs for six seasons, it’s so easy to go off on tangents or to so dramatically rework the show so it becomes unrecognizable just to get in a new twist or to surprise the audiences.
The Americans doesn’t make plot decisions for shock value. It stays with these characters, their journey, and the surprises come from a deeper exploration of who they are — not just a wider exploration of the world.
When you can dig deeper instead of wider — then you know you’ll have made something incredible. This is true both for the performances and the writing. Keri Russel and Matthew Rhys may not seem to have huge ranges at first glance on the show, but the delicate subtleties of their characters moment-to-moment are some of the juiciest performances I’ve seen on television.
Last night at 3am, I watched the finale and was moved beyond belief. The artistry, emotion, and simplicity of how the show ended was perfect. It wasn’t a spectacle: there were no huge action set pieces. There were much fewer deaths in the last few episodes than I expected.
The Americans’ series finale stayed true to what the show is: an honest spy thriller about family, country, and what we’re willing to sacrifice for what we believe in.