The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Cold War is back. ‘The Americans’ shows us how to end the first one.

Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in “The Americans.” (Patrick Harbron/FX)
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This post discusses a few broad plot elements of the forthcoming fifth season of “The Americans.” This piece initially described Stan Beeman as living next door to the Jennings’; he lives across the street from them.

President Trump’s election and the never-ending trickle of revelations about contacts between his allies and various Russian officials can sometimes feel like a viral marketing campaign for “The Americans,” FX’s drama about a pair of undercover KGB spies operating in 1980s Washington, which returns tonight at 10 p.m.

For four seasons, we’ve been watching Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) run around the greater Washington area seducing people, smuggling dead rats and hacking mail robots, all while splitting beers with their neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who happens to be an FBI agent. The show moves forward in time a little bit each season; there would be an eerie synchronicity if the mission that brought the Jennings into the present day wasn’t merely the possibility that America was tampering with grain imports to the Soviet Union, but the very institution of American democracy itself. Plus, the jokes are too good to resist: “At what point do we find out Jeff Sessions has been married to a disguised Matthew Rhys for years?” Slate’s Sam Adams jested, comparing the attorney general to one of the show’s many marks.

The thing about turning “The Americans” into a way to interpret this new Cold War, though, is that it misses the humanity of the show and the point of it.

A year ago, before Trump’s victory reignited the Cold War in the public imagination, the New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman wrote, “Everything Philip and Elizabeth do is, ultimately, for naught; worse than that, it’s unnecessary.” Even if that doesn’t feel quite true anymore, I’d take this point a step further: Philip and Elizabeth aren’t merely in service of a cause that’s about to meet a catastrophic defeat. They’ve mortgaged themselves, destroying people they’ve come to care for and the parts of themselves that are capable of caring, in service of a movement that isn’t working and doesn’t even love them back. “The Americans” mourns that loss, and the wider-ranging results of policies that prevent both Soviet and American citizens from truly knowing each other.

Last season, for example, Elizabeth donned one of her many disguises to befriend Young Hee Seong (Ruthie Ann Miles), a Korean immigrant whose husband Don (Rob Yang) happened to have information the Jenningses’ handlers wanted access to. Elizabeth played the role of caring friend so well it became real for her. Ultimately, she faked her own suicide, killing, at least metaphorically, the part of her that had developed deep ties to a target.

In the forthcoming season, Stan finds himself tested when his agency and the CIA put pressure on him to fully turn Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), a Soviet official who had reached out to Stan in the hopes of halting a biological arms race. “Burov is a decent man. He did the right thing. Not for money, or because I twisted his arm,” Stan tells a Justice Department official in frustration. “I just don’t know what kind of organization we are if we punish him for that.”

The idea that affection is poisonous rather than sustaining has even passed to a new generation. Any next-door neighbors might be slightly anxious when their children start dating, but for Elizabeth and Philip, their daughter Paige’s (Holly Taylor) sweet romance with Stan’s son Matthew (Danny Flaherty) carries with it the risk of short-term exposure, or long-term ties to a man who could ruin or end their lives.

“The Americans” is frequently described as a bleak show. But for all the shattering stories it tells, “The Americans” makes clear that human connection is inevitable. And Philip and Elizabeth’s handlers, as well as Stan’s bosses at the FBI, caution against love and friendship and even mere respect because they know just how powerful those ties can be. Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage was arranged for operational convenience, not ardor; the blossoming of their relationship into a real marriage has been a source of anxiety for their handlers. In a similar way, Stan’s ability to see Oleg as anything more than a tool to be manipulated marks him as a kind of squish within the FBI, rather than the decent, nuanced, flawed man Stan himself is.

There’s a tiny green shoot of optimism, an almost 1960s sensibility, that springs from this strain of this grim, 1980s drama. These relationships allow Soviets and Americans to see people who live in the other country as individuals rather than as vast hordes engaged in a mindless ideological project aimed at destroying the other’s safety and way of life. If these personal realizations are considered so dangerous, they must be powerful.

It’s difficult for a nation to wage war without buy-in from its citizens; it’s impossible to do so when that war is being fought mostly in those citizens’ heads. The Berlin Wall will fall, and hastening it are the crumbling barriers in the minds and hearts of the people who are supposed to be on the front lines, propping it up. It’s true that Philip, Elizabeth and Stan are causing themselves and others incredible pain for a cause that is rapidly coming to an end. But the doubts they all regard as weaknesses actually mark them, in a small way, as visionaries.