“The Americans” – Inspiring Russophobia in the 21st Century

Some Things:

  1. There are spoilers in here.
  2. I am not Russian, not that it should matter (although I’m probably on some CIA watch list at this point).  I took a Russian history class once back in my community college days, that’s about it. (Dr. Richard Trimble taught it, and it was awesome.)

When Mitt Romney remarked that Russia was our worst foe on CNN last year during his campaign, my friends and I had a good chuckle at his expense.  Born in the post-Cold War era, we are unfamiliar with the anti-Russian sentiment of the former governor and some of our parents.

That is why, when I saw the series premier of the Americans on FX, I was blown away.

(If you have yet to see the show, check it out.)

Ok, FX, we get it.  Homeland, the Showtime espionage thriller about a CIA agent and a US marine, is wildly successful.  You wanted to cash in on some of that.  And hey, it was only a couple years ago that some Russian sleepers were rounded up in Yonkers.  Besides, you made it a period piece, set in 1981: smack-dab in the middle of the Cold War.  So it’s all good, right?

Nope, not even close.  The unforgivable rampant Russophobia ruined this show for me.  It is most evident when comparing the two main characters.  Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are Russian spies who have been living undercover in the US for over a decade.  They have two children and an FBI agent for a neighbor (who saw that coming?).  Despite the fact that they are both Russian spies, their likability is very much in congruence with how “American” they seem, not in terms of heritage but characteristics.  I find that, in the pilot at least, the more relatable characters are more American and the less relatable are Russian.

The Jenningses

Philip

  • Philip is an American sympathizer, as evidenced by his desire to defect and turn Timochev over to his FBI neighbor (which he doesn’t do out of love for is wife – awww). Also seen when he first comes to America and notes that “everything is brighter.”
  • Possesses more impulsive but ultimately more endearing qualities than his partner/wife, including an openness with his affection, playfulness with his children, and fierce protection of his family.
  • In general, seems more emotional, open, and (ultimately) American.

Elizabeth

  • Elizabeth is very loyal to Russia, saying that she would “lose everything before [she] betrayed [her] country.”
  • Less endearing characteristics: in the first scene in which we meet her, she is prostituting herself for information.  In moments with her children, she is distracted and distant.  She also blatantly challenges her arranged marriage with Phillip.
  • In general, she’s a colder character, less emotionally accessible and less likable.

I do not find these differences coincidental.  The majority of the rest of the characters in the show demonstrate the same split between Good (American) and Bad (Russian).  Beeman, the American FBI agent, is still a slightly two-dimensional character at this point, but he seems like a nice-enough guy.  Timochev is Russian, and he’s a rapist/woman-beater whose death leaves the audience satisfied.

The question I have yet to answer is, why now?  Although the lines between “us” and “them” are not so neatly drawn as in, say, a Bond film, they are still there in the Americans.  What does this show say about our cultural understanding of Russians in America?

fx_americans_keyart_p_2012

I have been told that I am not giving the show enough credit, and that further episodes will reveal it as an allegory that shows the struggles and triumphs of both sides of the story.  I hope that such is the case.

In the meantime, I’ll stick to Homeland.

Veronica
Twenty-three year old NYC resident, undergraduate at Fordham University, journalist-in-training at WFUV, freelance writer, amateur philosopher, occasional photographer, music-enthusiast, Abe Lincoln fangirl.

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