The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before ‘The Americans’ and ‘Homeland,’ Russian TV spies were simple villains. No more.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell portray Russian spies on the hit FX show, “The Americans”. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In 1955, the TV show “I Led 3 Lives,” about an undercover FBI operative infiltrating the communist party in suburbia, wound down its second season with an episode titled “Child Commie.”

The plot of the episode: A 12-year-old girl — the commie child — spends the night with the FBI operative’s daughter. “Never underestimate a commie,” the operative is warned, “even a baby one.”


The commie child immediately goes to work on the wholesome suburban girl, telling her “the truth” about George Washington — that, like so many other powerful Americans, he hurt poor people to enrich themselves.

As a plot device, this was pretty standard fare in the 1950s as the Cold War entered a particularly chilly period. Television shows, in black and white, the painted Americans vs. the Russians in very black and white terms.

The Russians: evil, conniving, one-dimensional.

The Americans: As wholesome as apple pie.

‘He just beat the hell out of me’: When JFK met Khrushchev, the president felt strong-armed

Now, decades after the Cold War’s end, the Russians are back as archenemies on the world stage and the sound stage. Two of television’s most popular and critically acclaimed shows — “Homeland” and “The Americans” — have Russians as antagonists, disrupting democracy on screen in parallel with real events.

But this time, the Russians are different.

In the case of “The Americans,” about Russian spies embedded in suburbia as travel agents who sometimes kill people in very creative ways, the enemy is depicted in a more three-dimensional, almost sympathetic way. Viewers are tempted to root for the commies. On “Homeland,” which this season mirrored real Russian meddling and hacking with an attack on the presidency, the enemy develops as ruthless yet principled and aggrieved.

“There is a more complex and nuanced view of the Russians — or at least these Russian characters,” said retired Gen. Michael Hayden, a former NSA and CIA director who consults with “Homeland” writers. “Before, there was a theoretical certainty —  Marxism bad, totalitarianism bad. The Russians didn’t need much explaining.”

The new, nuanced portrayal is driven by two forces shaping modern life.

For one thing, Russia is not an existential threat to humanity.

“Russia has been a Class-A irritant for four or five years now,” Hayden said. “But it’s at the level of irritation and disruption, not apocalyptic level.”

The other force, say cultural critics, is the transformation of television from episodic to novelistic.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, television shows didn’t have the narrative arc they do today. Each episode had the same characters, but the story lines didn’t unfold over time. It was essentially just the same story over and over again, in slightly different forms. (Other episode titles from “I Led 3 Lives” include “Commie Dies,” “Confused Comrades,” and “Communist Cop.”)

“They are villains in a classic sense, but they’re not characters who we are encouraged to understand or identify with or empathize with,” said Michael Kackman, a University of Notre Dame professor of television history who studies Cold War culture. “Whether it’s ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Breaking Bad,’ these kinds of shows build these large, complicated worlds and then really deeply mine the emotional struggles of multiple characters. And you can empathize with them.”

“The Americans,” by the show creators’ own admission, lucked into the Russia moment. The show was originally conceived as a nostalgic look at the lives of real-life Russian spies who lived in the United States for decades as Americans. But the show, now in the middle of its final season, has taken on new cultural meaning amid investigations into Russian meddling in the recent presidential campaign.

“We think the show is not about wanting people to pick sides and choose the Russians over the Americans,” show co-creator Joe Weisberg told the Observer recently. “We’re asking people to look at what it’s like to be a soldier behind enemy lines.”

Ex-spies infiltrate Hollywood as espionage TV shows and movies multiply

“Homeland” is a different story.

The show premiered in 2011 and for several years the story lines held up a mirror to the terrorist threat in the post-9/11 world. Plots are informed by a tight relationship between the show’s writers and the intelligence community. Before every season, stars Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin travel to Washington with the producing team for what they call “Spy Camp” — a series of meetings with intel operatives who brief them on geopolitical threats.

“We are fictionally tilling in the same soil as the world is living,” said show co-creator Howard Gordon.

During the past season, which concluded Sunday night, the story centered on Russian meddling into the presidency, though amped up for dramatic effect. (A general is killed. The 25th Amendment is invoked. And so on.)

But the show also deftly portrayed the old Russia vs. the disruptive and needling new Russia, whose operatives engage in sophisticated hacking and are driven by decade-old grievances against the West. They just want their country back.

At Korean summit in DMZ, ‘deranged’ ax murders still cast a shadow

In an interview, Mandy Patinkin, who plays intel mastermind Saul Berenson, said he pushed the writers to make this season not just a funhouse mirror of reality, but to accomplish, he said, what reality apparently cannot.

“The mirror needs a moral, a lesson that offers something in a poetic, artistic sense,” he said. “Don’t tell me a story that doesn’t have a moral.”

Patinkin, speaking before the finale, alluded to such a moment in the last episode. Now that it has aired, it appears (SPOILER ALERT!) Patinkin was referring to the show’s divisive and politically crippling president doing something totally out of character, but with character. Resigning.

“I’m ecstatic,” Patinkin said, “over this final episode and the offering it makes in terms of a moral possibility … about what you, as a leader, might consider doing to change the status quo.”

Roll credits.

Read more Retropolis:

The former Soviet officer who trusted his gut — and averted a global nuclear catastrophe

What if the president ordering a nuclear attack isn’t sane? An Air Force major lost his job for asking.

‘I am ready’: Mata Hari faced a firing squad for spying — and refused a blindfold.