‘The Americans’ Is the Most Reactionary Show on TV

There's a reason honeypots are dangerous

There's a reason honeypots are dangerous

Somehow I missed this great piece on Oliver North’s involvement with FX’s critically acclaimed (but criminally underwatched) The Americans. I remember being somewhat surprised to see North get a credit during a recent episode of the show; the Times does a solid job explaining how it came about. It’s highly recommended reading for fans of the show.

It also reminded me of a theory I’ve held for some time, specifically that The Americans is the most reactionary show on television. After the jump (where there are spoilers for all of the first season and most of the second) I’ll explain.

For those of you not in the know—and judging by the ratings, that’s most of you*—The Americans is set in the early-1980s and is primarily about Philip and Elizabeth, a married pair of KGB spies who have fully infiltrated American society. After they take the kids to school and work a shift at their travel agency, they assassinate American officials and conduct espionage for their comrades back home. The show bears all the hallmarks of the Golden Age of Television: intricate plotting involving multiple storylines; a bunch of anti-heroes who are all morally compromised; kinda-sorta nudity (this is FX, not HBO); the occasional bit of ultraviolence; and some of the best acting on TV.

It also happens to play up and confirm virtually every fear the right wing had about communism, the Soviet Union, and domestic left wing organizations . I just want to highlight a couple of plot points from the first 20 episodes to give you a sense of what I’m talking about.

  • As a general thematic matter, the Soviet Union is taken as a serious threat. There has been some revisionism in recent years that late-stage USSR activities weren’t that big of a deal because America was obviously destined to win the Cold War. This series dismisses that silliness entirely, showing the ways in which the Soviet Union was undermining America, stealing intel, and waging war on multiple fronts in a committed and vicious way.
  • There’s a running plot from the first season involving a black militant named Gregory, whom Elizabeth turned into a Russian spy when they worked together in the civil rights movement. He has been feeding the Russians intel for years, selling out his country for the international ideal of communism. This plays into a key part of reactionary criticism of the civil rights movement, namely that it was riddled with communists who actually hated America.
  • The “cowboy” Ronald Reagan’s efforts to spend the USSR into the ground with SDI/Star Wars and other military efforts are implicitly acknowledged to be correct through much of the first season, and then explicitly acknowledged in the season finale as the right call when a traitor tries to warn the Soviets off of trying to replicate the program due to its huge cost.
  • The second season has revolved around a subplot involving the fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The show portrays it as a serious effort by the Soviets to undermine capitalism in the Western hemisphere—Elizabeth at one point refers to it as a “beachhead” in the communist movement, if I remember correctly—and a young Sandinista in America serving the Soviets is portrayed as a sociopathic murderer. In the universe of The Americans, the Sandinistas are bad dudes worth taking down.
  • Finally, there’s an ongoing plotline this year about Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter, Paige, and her attendance at church. Paige’s parents, obviously, are godless communists, so they’re pretty upset that she’s swallowed the opiate of the masses. In one particularly harrowing episode, however—after Philip has killed several people and is wrestling with the demons his job has left him with—we can see the redemptory power of faith and religion when he is told that he can still be forgiven for what he has done. In one of the show’s most powerful performances, a look that is simultaneously longing and relief and despair crosses Philip’s face when a pastor he has physically threatened with harm tells him his sins can be washed away like so much dirt. As Alyssa Rosenberg noted when the episode aired, this was Matthew Rhys’ Emmy reel episode.

It seems that the series is building toward an irresolvable conflict between Philip and Elizabeth. She’s a true-believer, an ideologically pure communist. He, meanwhile, is susceptible to America’s charms and hates what his job forces him to do. He’s tired of the killing, thinks America and Americans are okay folks. She is not so easily swayed. If the show is half as conservative as I think it is, we have some sense of how that conflict will play out.

*Seriously, people: Start watching this show. It’s great. And it’s great irrespective of my possibly-insane argument about its reactionary nature.

Update: Over at National Review a couple of weeks ago, Kevin D. Williamson made some similar points. The “Oh my god, there’s a coup on!” subplot when Reagan was hospitalized was pretty great and helped show just how badly the Soviets misunderstood America’s workings. Anyway, the point is that both the WFB and WFB’s mag think you should be watching The Americans. What are you waiting for?