Spoiler alert: the following contains minor spoilers and alarming personal opinions.
The Americans (2013—15, aired on FX channel) is a TV show that I’m currently most fascinated with. I knew it’d be a match for me the moment I discovered the series and read its description. Set in the early eighties, it works with the premise of two KGB agents on a long-term mission in the States which entails their posing as an American family. Included is their having day jobs and two now teenage kids, who remain uninformed of their inherited schizophrenically split identity. As I was born in a Soviet satellite state and went on for a degree in English Studies, there’s hardly anything I’d watch with a greater involvement than The Americans.
Naturally, the series is USA-made, but I’ve long discovered that even the dumbest TV is made by smart people who mostly do their jobs catering for a dumb majority audience while occasionally creating something that gives away their capability of intelligent insight. It’s admirable how well the writers manage to convey Eastern European mentality, especially considering that it’s not merely alien but above all positively antithetical to the foundations of the North American way of life.
To me, the crucial difference between the West and the East in the context of this series is not as much the ideology as rather the way individual humans work out their existence as they are confronted with issues that, ultimately, have little to do with political alliances per se. The stereotypical Western way is to talk about shit and drag people down with you in the gutter – the customary Eastern way is to shut up and get shit done. No need to elaborate on which approach I prefer for myself.
When one manages to see past the red scare, what transpires are Eastern Europeans as a hardy set of people who persist despite defeating circumstances. I find the no-nonsense, utilitarian approach impressive and imitation worthy. However civilised we like to consider ourselves, I don’t believe that the Darwinian survival of the fittest has yet been surpassed or can be cheated. I’d rather be a practical survivor than a sentimental corpse.
In The Americans series, two opposing worldviews meet and clash, and their interaction illustrates, if anything, that there are differences that can’t be worked out. We might be all people alike at the end, but to think that any two or more thinking units could peacefully coexist without obsessively striving to dominate each other seems a misguided idea(l). This underlying motif is nicely shown in the relationships of the main characters in the series.
The show is particularly strong in female characters. The one that appeals to me the most is the supporting character of the double-agent Nina. She’s the perfect model of a powerful personality who indeed experiences emotions but knows better than to allow herself to be overwhelmed by them. She deceives and manipulates when required, yet she scrupulously avoids deceiving herself. She ends up betrayed by her American informer and lover, who is too engrossed in himself to know whether he prefers to do the right thing for the abstraction of his homeland or whether he will choose to do good to the very concrete fellow person.
Nina’s American nemesis, a tormented CIA agent with a disturbing facial tic, chooses his country and sends the woman whom he insists he loves to the Soviet jail. As an Eastern European, I’m likely to be biased, but I suspect that the CIA agent hasn’t checked the standard dictionary definition of love lately. The tension between a declaration of love and a manifestation of love recurs in his affair with Nina throughout the series. At one point, he is enlightened by another character that he should consider cutting the I love you phrase with Nina because Russian women don’t care for clichés. (Neither do Czech women, in case you wonder.)
To conclude this heavy post – which I set to myself as an opinion piece writing exercise – on a lighter note, here is a dialogue that was never literally spoken on The Americans but could have just been.
The American (heartfelt): I love you.
The Russian (distanced): Don’t make me say it.