Monday, October 3, 2016
October 3, 2016: AmericanStudying The Americans: “Illegals”
[Earlier this year, I belatedly but excitedly got into The Americans, the FX drama about two KGB agents (the great Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) living in deep cover as a married couple in Reagan’s 1980s America. It’s a wonderful and very AmericanStudies show, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five issues and themes to which the show connects. Leading up to my latest Guest Post on another set of pop culture texts and questions!]
On what’s deeply compelling, and what’s accidentally troubling, about the show’s central premise.
When I first heard about the concept behind The Americans—that the KGB had spies whom the US Department of Justice knew as “illegals,” people who came to the US from Russia when they were very young and stayed here for decades (ostensibly the rest of their lives), working, raising families, and living in every way as part of American society while still spying for the USSR—I was sure it was invented by the show’s creator Joe Weisberg. But nothing could be further from the truth. Weisberg is a former CIA case officer who used his knowledge of very real such spy programs—about which a great deal has been declassified and revealed in the last couple decades, and indeed some of which have continued after the fall of the Soviet Union and were only discovered and stopped by the FBI in the last few years—to craft his fictional version. The Americans is historical fiction in the deepest sense, the kind that adheres quite closely to known historical realities and details while of course developing entirely fictional characters within that frame and world.
And what an evocative topic for historical fiction the “illegals” program is. Not just because it explodes the easy “us vs. them,” “evil empire” narratives (that famous 1983 Reagan speech is featured in a powerful moment during the show’s Season 3; SPOILERS in that video review) of the US and the USSR, focusing on people whose experiences inextricably and genuinely linked them to both nations while still locating them very fully within the Cold War between the two countries—although that’s a very powerful and still meaningful effect to be sure. But also because as the show’s primary such “illegals,” Russell’s and Rhys’s characters (Elizabeth and Philip Jennings) deal with questions of identity and community, work and family, culture and citizenship, allegiance and responsibility, that resonate deeply with a number of historical and cultural issues, from the immigrant experience to stereotypes and realities of American society to women in the workforce to contrasting parenting styles (among many others). The show is never not a spy thriller and a very effective one, but it’s also a great deal more, and that’s due in large part to this very unique historical identity and role and all that it opens up.
Yet as an AmericanStudier, and one more and more concerned with public scholarly connections to our contemporary moment and society, I have to admit that every time I hear the show’s FBI agents—led by the great Noah Emmerich as Stan Beeman—refer to their hunt for “illegals,” I cringe. I fully believe that the term is historically accurate, but of course the show is being created in the 21st century, and in our current moment there’s another American community to whom we collectively refer far too often with the term “illegals” (turning an adjective referring to laws into a highly prejudicial noun). I don’t believe that Weisberg and company intended this echo, and I’m not necessarily suggesting that they should abandon historical accuracy because of an accidental problem with language. But it’s worth noting that historical fiction is never simply about the history being depicted, but rather also a product and reflection of the moment and world of its creation, not least because it’s in that momen and world that audiences will engage with and be affected by the works. Just one more complex idea with which The Americans helps us grapple.
Next AmericansStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other AmericanStudies shows you’d highlight?