TV Takes Up Soviet Sleeper Cells in the United States: FX's New Series The Americans
The couple, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, are played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Viewers quickly learn that their coupling was a KGB-arranged marriage. Brought together in the Soviet Union by KGB bosses, they are trained in the ways of America, taught perfect English, and then smuggled into the U.S., where the KGB buys them a nice home and establishes a travel agency for them to run as a perfect front. As part of the deal, they are expected, as most Americans are, to have children and raise a family.
Their days are spent running their business and taking their kids to school, while their evenings (and sometimes their days) are spent in such endeavors as kidnapping a KGB defector who has become too prominent on the lecture circuit, and preparing upon orders to spy upon the home of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, where a top level meeting is to take place at which they hope major American secrets will be revealed. To do this job, the couple has to force Weinberger’s African-American maid to place a bug on a clock in Weinberger’s study, which they accomplish by poisoning her son with a toxic agent for which only they have an antidote.
Ironically, viewers learn that their next-door neighbor is an FBI agent named Stan, played by Noah Emmerich, who is suspicious of everyone, and naturally wonders whether everything is as it seems with his neighborly friends. The Jennings do not know whether he moved there because the Bureau suspects them. To boot, Stan’s area is counter-intelligence and searching for secret Soviet agents operating in the United States.
The show was created by Joe Weisberg, the brother of liberal journalist and editor-in-chief of the Slate group Jacob Weisberg. Its producers evidently want American audiences to root for the Soviet agents to win! Executive producer Joel Fields actually told The Hollywood Reporter that “it might be a little different to believe and get used to, but we want you to root for the KGB. They’re trying to get the Soviets to win the Cold War.” As the trade paper commented, believe it or not,
the creative team behind the high-profile launch expressed a confidence that more than enough time has passed for American audiences to not hold a grudge.
It is hard to believe, given the script and the reactions one has as the show develops, to think that any viewer would actually be rooting for the Soviets. Even if a young audience knows nothing about Communism and the Cold War, what each episode to date reveals is the horrendous immorality of the Soviet agents. The couple, who dote upon their own children and always worry what would happen to them if they are caught by the FBI -- remember that their children have no idea who their parents really are, and were born in the U.S. and raised as regular American kids -- are willing to poison a maid’s son and let him die if need be to get a bug into the secretary of Defense’s home. They have no scruples at all. They eventually murder the defecting KGB agent in cold blood, after having locked him in their car trunk for a few days.
Indeed, the tension between the KGB husband and wife is that the husband thinks at times that they too should defect, get witness-protection identities, and live normal lives with new names so they no longer have to engage in horrendous acts for the Soviet spy agency. Phillip Jennings loves what America has to offer, from cowboy boots to modern technology, while Elizabeth is a loyal Communist who does not want to betray Moscow, “our country,” as she refers to Russia. She also does not want her children to grow up in the American consumer culture. At a secret meeting with her KGB control, she even considers ratting on her husband because of his doubts, and pledges to her boss that she will do whatever is necessary for Moscow Center. At one point, Phillip tells Elizabeth that if they defect, perhaps their children would be alright and would “grow up to be socialists.” Elizabeth does not buy this for one moment, and obviously hopes for the eventual triumph of world Communism. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in Slate, the 13-year-old Paige
can’t possibly understand that her mother is terrified by the prospect that the daughter she hoped would grow up to be something other than a "regular American" is abandoning not just childhood, but Elizabeth’s own socialist values, lured by patent-leather blue sandals and bright red bras.
Creator Weisberg revealed his own bias when he told the trade journal that “these were really competing value systems. And there’s no question that repressive socialism failed, but unbridled consumption hasn’t exactly led to great satisfaction.” Note the term “repressive” socialism; the usage by Weisberg implies that the non-repressive type would be different and lead to better results. Tell that to the writers and producers of HBO’s monster hit The Sopranos. Today’s Wall Street Journal runs a story about how Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess have spent millions renovating their 2 million dollar Greenwich Village brownstone three times, so they could get it perfect. Evidently, they had great satisfaction and are very happy accomplishing what money allowed them to do. I hope Weisberg will get equal satisfaction from the proceeds from The Americans, without socialism prohibiting him from doing so.
So despite creator Weisberg’s claim that “the enemies are the heroes,” the script that the writers produced hardly accomplishes that aim. The FBI agents are dedicated professionals who want to protect America’s security. They know the enemy they face and want it defeated; the KGB agents are malevolent and thuggish, willing to do whatever it takes to bring the United States down and for the Soviet Union to triumph. Thinking of the Soviet Union where nothing works, including the electricity, the husband tells Elizabeth in his most serious moment of doubt that “America’s not so bad"; they never lose electric power (evidently these D.C. residents don’t have the horrendous Pepco company we all have), “the food’s pretty great,” and more than that, the CIA would give them money to live well if they defect. Elizabeth doesn’t buy it, and hopes that rather than become real Americans, “they could be socialists.” Phillip responds, without irony, “this place doesn’t turn out socialists.” Set in 1981, obviously he doesn’t know that by the time his kids get to college, his wife’s dream may indeed turn out to be true!
It was wise for the show’s producers to set it in the Reagan years. Obviously, the idea came to them in 2010, when the FBI busted the sleeper cell of Soviet agents who had been in place for decades, posing as regular Americans who lived a well-off suburban life. Like the TV characters, the ten sleeper agents had been given false American names and identities, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they remained true communist believers.
These agents believed in Castro, Peru’s Maoist Shining Path, and communism, and saw working for the FSB (the KGB’s successor agency) as a vehicle for keeping alive the communist legacy. And, like the Rosenbergs, they too were willing to sacrifice their own children for the cause they served. One of the caught agents, “Juan Lazaro,” told the prosecutors that “although he loved his son, he would not violate his loyalty to ‘the Service’ even for his son.” Like the TV characters playing the KGB agents in The Americans, loyalty to the KGB defines their lives and gives it meaning.
Finally, a word about how the Left sees the series. In The Nation, historian Jon Wiener insists that,
The best thing about The Americans, the new spy show on FX, is that the Soviet spies are not Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They are a different married couple — Russians, sent by the KGB from Moscow to Washington, DC. The show begins shortly after Reagan takes office.
Wiener asks why there isn’t a drama about American spies in Moscow, and answers his own question: there really were not any, especially during World War II, when Moscow infiltrated our own government and we did nothing to spy against the Soviets. He does not know, evidently, that there were American spies in Russia at the time, but they were Americans who spied for the Soviets and defected to Russia, namely Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant. As Steven Usdin revealed in his excellent book about them, the two used their expertise to set up the Soviet version of Silicon Valley and helped build up the Soviet military establishment.
Wiener also writes that “Ron Radosh, David Horowitz and Co., [evidently we are now a firm] will be unhappy with this show.” He never thought of e-mailing me or picking up the phone before writing those words. As he now knows, I like the program a lot, although dramatically, it does not come near to Homeland or MI-5 in quality. He adds that we will not like it “because the spies in question are not American communists,” and to be snide, also writes that we “are unhappy about so many things.”
Well, there are things to be unhappy about, and much to be pleased with and very happy about. That is the human condition, and will be even if the socialism Wiener believes in were ever to be created. Actually, if that was to be built, there would be a lot to be unhappy about, and even Jon Wiener would quickly learn that. So, maybe in writing the TV series, Mr. Weisberg and his team have socialist Jon Wiener as the perfect audience -- a man who hopes the Soviets will triumph in TV land in a way they never did in real life
Thank God it’s only television we’re talking about!