Games Without Frontiers: In Praise of The Americans

by Kim O’Connor

In a world where Martha Stewart went to prison, it seems strange that the fantasy of a Pinterest-perfect life has crept into the Facebook feed of everyone I know. Any given Sunday, some far-flung acquaintance will accomplish more in a single afternoon than I will in my lifetime. The prevailing tone is somewhere between shrill and psychotic, with an endless stream of photos of smiling people and elaborate desserts that masks the queasy ambivalence we all inevitably feel toward our vacations or our haircuts, or even more serious things like our jobs, our families, and ourselves.

Every month or so I’ll read another design blogger’s think piece on how every Instagram feed is a lie by omission. In a flash of humanity, they pull back the curtain with a post about the time they spilled red wine on the couch. No one’s perfect, they say, but it’s fun to pretend. And as badly as they often come across, they’re actually scratching at a deep truth about human nature. There’s a reason social media platforms don’t have dislike buttons.

Acknowledging bad things gives them power, or so it seems from the way we talk — or, rather, don’t talk — about them. (Of course the opposite is true.) Comedy is one of the few arenas in which negativity is socially acceptable, but even then there are limits. Louis C.K. has built a veritable empire out of hating himself, yet he’s clearly vested in a certain self-image. Every joke he makes about his “asshole” daughters is offset by his panic that some people might not get the goof. I hear it every time a woman on his show lauds him for being such a great dad — an observation that, however true, consists of words that C.K. pays people to say again and again.

In life, and in all its simulacra, our personas are largely engineered to elicit some version of “what a great dad.” Like, like, like. If we hear it enough, it’ll be true. Like a misleading picture on OKCupid, we hold up the most flattering version of ourselves for public consumption and, worse, judge everyone else against it, especially in the kangaroo court that is Twitter. Condemnation of The Other is as essential to our identities as anything we broadcast about ourselves.

The Americans is one of the best shows on television precisely because it dramatizes this fraught business of compartmentalization — of editing the feed, if you will. Its subject is the quintessential human emotion, ambivalence, and the false dichotomies we use to understand ourselves and other people.

On TV and in the narratives we construct about our own lives, stories tend to be driven by heroes and villains. The crowning achievement of the so-called Golden Age of Television is that it has complicated those roles. Like US Weekly’s “The Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” feature, but with psychopaths, prestige dramas encourage us to identify with bad guys. The textbook example is The Sopranos, one of the first shows that exploited our capacity to feel deeply for garbage people. (Who among us doesn’t recall Paulie Walnuts with real tenderness?) The antiheroes of Breaking Bad, Dexter, Homeland, True Detective, and Game of Thrones were all specifically engineered to be sympathetic to some degree, and the best of them — like Al Swearengen on Deadwood and Omar on The Wire — aren’t just compelling, but likeable.

But how complicated are they, really? While many of those shows are excellent, none actually depicts a complex moral universe. Even as writers subvert our expectations about what villains and heroes look like, there remains a sure sense of right and wrong that we can readily identify in any given plot. Sometimes the bad guys act good, or the good guys act bad, but they’re always essentially one or the other, and as an audience we come to feel we know their hearts.

In the world of The Wire, to take one example, evil is more a product of environment than some intrinsic quality. This is not to say the bad guys aren’t bad; in fact they regularly engage, with real enthusiasm, in acts of violence we’d never commit. Part of the pleasure in watching them kill people — because, interestingly, the main characters on what we consider top-shelf television are almost always STONE-COLD MASS MURDERERS — is the certainty we’ll never find ourselves in a similar situation. However nuanced or relatable, antiheroes are unambiguously bad guys. They’re them, and we’re us. By god, we’re good dads.

On The Americans, however, it becomes very difficult to track who is what. In the world of the show, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between true and false, real and fake, or good and bad. A spy story that doesn’t believe in traitors, it transcends traditional characterization, eschewing heroes, villains, and even antiheroes for the more general category of “totally fucked.”

These characters are doomed and confused, though they try to pretend otherwise. Performance is everything on The Americans, and the way the show explores it with regard to identity is truly something to behold. (To learn more about the thin line between reality and role-play in the world of the show, read Emily Nussbaum’s astute assessment of Season Two and this series of insightful conversations between Genevieve Koski and Todd VanDerWerff.) The central performers are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, deadly KGB spies posing as American travel agents. We know they’re acting because they wear more wigs in a given episode than an entire season’s worth of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

At first glance, it’s easy to mistake the Jenningses for standard antiheroes. Certainly, all the signs are there. Monstrous behavior? Check. Dropping bodies left and right, Philip and Elizabeth are definitely nightmare people. Relatable problems? Check. The show’s central gimmick is exploring universal problems in the guise of a high-stakes thriller. But unlike, say, everyone on The Sopranos, the Jenningses are motivated by their beliefs, not money or bloodlust. And unlike all antiheroes, they are selfless; Philip is the kind of guy who will, as a courtesy, wipe the ass of a hostage whose hands are tied. These are not people who are ruled by their ids. However misguided, they genuinely want to make the world a better place.

There’s also the question of agency. Much like The Wire’s child soldiers, Philip and Elizabeth were more or less born into their careers. Controlled by unseen forces, they’re routinely required to do terrible things. As adults, they have so little agency that it’s hard to classify many of their actions as real choices. They suppress their consciences and personal desires in the name of getting the job done.

I can’t say the same of Stan Beeman, the FBI officer who is in equal parts the Jenningses’ friend and nemesis. With his resemblance to national treasure Steve Martin, Stan comes across as a weary hero type. (Also: ’Merica.) But across seasons, we watch him carry out the same atrocious acts as the Jenningses, if on a smaller scale. The difference is that Stan acts as a free agent, doing whatever he wants in complete disregard of his family, his boss, and his country. Selfishly, he murders an innocent, cheats on his perfect wife, and commits light treason. Even his “redemption” storyline at the end of Season Two was a morally ambiguous lose-lose situation. This is not a good guy with huge personality flaws, like Jimmy McNulty, or a hero who gets his hands dirty, like Jack Bauer or Carrie Mathison. Stan is arguably the worst person on the show, but at the same time he’s so genuine, so damaged, and so emotionally stunted, we can’t write him off. He’s unknowable to us, and maybe even to himself.

The same is true for every round character (particularly the inscrutable Nina), as well as most of the supporting cast. It’s not just a mysterious spy thing; many of the show’s civilians, including Sandra Beeman, Martha Hanson, and even the Jennings children, lead covert double lives. Everyone can be turned inside out, down to show’s most ostensibly straightforward character, Andrew Larrick, the Big Bad of Season 2. (Click here to read the showrunners’ explanation of how Larrick could have been the hero of the same story if it had been told differently.) The subtlety and skill required to write and act characters this capacious make other prestige dramas seem didactic and simple by comparison.

This is a huge step forward for television, which as a medium still feels limited in its ability and willingness to explore ambiguity and moral relativism. While the first season of The Returned was among the best art I’ve seen anywhere, ever, we know that murky subjects and tones are difficult to sustain and often peter out into ridiculousness, as with Twin Peaks and Lost. Not for nothing, the worlds of those three shows aren’t the same as our own. Rooted in history instead of the occult, the way The Americans traffics in ambiguity seems like something entirely new.

For a show about elite spies, it’s also surprisingly relevant, not just in the way it explores relationships, but in what it has to say about selfhood. The most damaging myth in storytelling and modern psychology is the idea that beneath all our personas — the selves we present to the world at work, at home, or online — there is some essential coherent self that is true and knowable. When different identities are in play, as they always are, each one has some claim to legitimacy. Self-actualization is not a matter of casting off the imposter selves in search of the real one, the Pinterest-perfect self who’s perpetually on vacation and eating dessert. It’s finding a way to let all those selves co-exist.

For the Jenningses, that is literally impossible. Set just before the death of the Soviet Union, The Americans is a cautionary tale about how trying to manage a fragmented identity will slowly but surely crumble your crackers. As Philip and Elizabeth expertly juggle all their disparate selves and their competing agendas, doubt creeps over their hearts like a slow-growing mold. It’s harrowing to watch, even though I think we all know how this ends. Games without frontiers are inherently pointless. No matter how they play out, no one ever really wins.

Previously: Project Popsicle

Kim O’Connor is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. You can find her on Twitter.