When the spy drama “The Americans” debuted in 2013, critics pointed to the show’s success as a sign that the Cold War was long over. Reviewers described it as an evocative Cold War thriller, rich in period detail, that portrayed KGB sleeper agents in a surprisingly sympathetic light. NYU professor Eliot Borenstein wrote, “It’s hard to figure out which of its triumphs is the most unlikely: that it has millions of Americans rooting for KGB agents to outsmart our country every week, or that the FX network has produced a critical darling that is not entirely awash in testosterone.”
Then, when Donald Trump became president, reviews of “The Americans” took on a new tone, hailing it as “the most prescient show on our screens” and “the most politically relevant show on TV.” Critics asked whether the show’s plot, involving KGB subversion of the United States, was hitting too close to home. After all, the program’s producer explained, “the show was intended to help look at the former enemy, not our current enemy.”
This change in tone is understandable, given recent headlines, but as the show returns for its final season tonight, it offers us a different lesson — not about a present-day Russian threat, but of the enduring power of Cold War mythology. The show’s representation of Soviet espionage promotes a distinctly conservative narrative of the Cold War — one in which the Russian enemy is truly the “Evil Empire” engaged in sabotage of American institutions. By emphasizing the show’s “relevance” today, critics risk reinforcing questionable narratives about a second Cold War, based more on the conservative mythology of the 1980s than on an understanding of contemporary Russia.
The story told by “The Americans” is surprisingly straightforward. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play KGB agents under deep cover in the United States in the 1980s, working as travel agents in Washington’s Virginia suburbs under the names Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. They speak with American accents, are raising an all-American family and seem to live a normal life. Behind the scenes, however, they embark on dangerous KGB missions — hunting defectors, planting bugs in sensitive locations, assassinating enemies of the Soviet Union and looking out for the USSR’s interests, often clad in elaborate wigs and disguises.
“The Americans” builds a sense of credibility by using authentic period details. One of the show’s creators, Joe Weisberg, is a former CIA officer who taught the cast surveillance techniques and needs to get approval from the CIA for the show’s scripts to make sure they don’t accidentally reveal American intelligence secrets. The show’s costume designers do their best to reproduce the fashion of the 1980s, and its scripts are littered with references to 1980s political figures and Cold War pop culture. One scene even features the TV movie “The Day After,” about the threat of nuclear war.
This realistic approach extends to the show’s portrayal of Russia. Scripts are filled with real spy terminology, terms like “rezidentura” and “Directorate S” that could have come straight out of Vasilii Mitrokhin’s “KGB Lexicon.” A majority of the cast’s Russian characters are played by native speakers, and the Moscow-set scenes are translated into Russian by Masha Gessen — a journalist and dissident in Putin’s Russia who is intimately familiar with the KGB and its successor agencies.
But the show makes the work of KGB sleeper agents look more glamorous — and more dangerous — than it really was. The KGB did have a program of deep-cover “illegals” (overseen by the agency’s Directorate S), but they were seldom involved in assassinations and were unlikely to engage in the show’s higher-stakes escapades (like the season one bugging of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s house.)
In fact, much of the work of the KGB’s Directorate S was downright boring. Jack Barsky, a former Soviet illegal who lived in New York during the 1980s, spent a lot of his time delivering packages by bicycle, earning an undergraduate degree from Baruch College and working at the MetLife insurance company, where he stole an industrial software package for the KGB. Software, which the BBC reported, was commercially available to American companies.
Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin even wrote in his memoirs that the section dealing with deep-cover illegals was “the most secretive and least productive” branch of the Washington KGB station, adding, “During my five years in Washington, including one year as acting station chief, I never learned of a single case of a Soviet illegal who had penetrated the U.S. government.”
In short, the show’s portrayal of foreign espionage will sometimes make KGB experts wince, but it does capture the KGB’s own mythology about its espionage work. As late as the 1980s, the British historian Christopher Andrew wrote, “KGB propaganda continued to depict the Soviet illegal as the supreme embodiment of the chivalric ideal in the service of secret intelligence.” Rudolf Abel and Konon Molody — two famous illegals — were among the heroes in the KGB pantheon, and when the legendary Directorate S chief Yuri Drozdov died in 2017, a Washington Post obituary described him as a “Soviet spymaster who planted agents across the West.”
Ironically, this KGB mythology also served the purposes of the American right, which emphasized that the United States and the U.S.S.R. were engaged in an irreconcilable life-or-death struggle and that Communist agents threatened the American system from within.
That conservative vision of the Cold War has helped shape “The Americans.” The show portrays the KGB’s American assets as more dangerous — and more deeply embedded — than they were in real life, just as conservatives alleged during the Cold War. One of the show’s less-realistic characters is a high-profile journalist who uses his reputation as a right-winger to supply intelligence to the U.S.S.R. Season 1 features a former civil rights activist who also collaborated with the KGB. These characters bolster the idea that anyone on the right or the left could be a KGB mole.
When the show’s producers wrote a storyline for Season 2 about American support for the contras (right-wing Nicaraguan rebels who opposed the Sandinista regime), they even consulted the right-wing political figure Oliver North (famous for his role in the Iran-contra scandal) as an expert — ultimately giving him a story credit for one episode. North later told the New York Times that the show was “very accurate” in its portrayal of the success of “Ronald Reagan’s strategy for doing in the Evil Empire.”
The show’s conspiratorial worldview can be partly explained by its genre. After all, it would be hard to construct a riveting spy thriller around the theft of office software at an insurance company, even if that better accords with reality. Spy dramas always highlight hidden conspiracies and high-stakes intrigue, with a smattering of assassinations and seductions for good measure.
But “The Americans” further ingrains a Cold War mythology defined by narratives about the subversive threat of communism and a conservative need to emphasize American military strength. The real Cold War, dangerous as it was, featured fewer hidden enemies and a less daunting KGB than many Americans feared. Contemporary Russia is very different in both its ideology and its geopolitical position from the U.S.S.R., but this Cold War lens shapes how many Americans view U.S.-Russian relations today.
This is a problem. Putin’s Russia presents real dangers to the United States and the democratic world, but that doesn’t mean Russia wants to reestablish the Soviet empire and launch a new Cold War. The KGB’s successor agencies may have tried to undermine our elections, but the threat they pose is very different from the dangers presented by the fictional Jennings family and the very real Konon Molody and Yuri Drozdov.
Putin’s Russia is not an existential threat to American democracy but an unusually powerful rogue state — meddling precisely because it isn’t powerful enough to push for its interests more directly. Its involvement in the 2016 election looks more like North Korea’s Sony hacks than the strategic maneuverings of a superpower.
As gripping as it can be, it’s at best debatable whether “The Americans” is “prescient” or “politically relevant.” Contemporary American democracy faces an array of external and internal threats, but the best way to understand Putin’s Russia is to examine it on its own terms — not to view it through the lens of Cold War mythology and 1980s spy thrillers.