When The Americans debuted back in 2013, aging culture warrior Brent Bozell denounced FX and known left-wing sympathizer Rupert Murdoch for making “heroic defenders of expansionist communist tyranny” the protagonists of their latest series. Describing this choice as “morally sick,” he castigated the show and its creators for whitewashing “Communist genocide.”
Bozell may be a moralizing right-wing blowhard, but you can’t really blame him for being shocked. When else, after all, have we seen “nice-looking fictional Marxist-Leninists” portrayed with relative sympathy on American television?
In the United States, mass cultural depictions of communists have long been uniformly one-dimensional and propagandistic. This was at least part of the joke behind the “Mao Tse Tung Hour” from Paddy Chayevsky’s Network: in 1976, few show concepts would have been more outrageous than one following the exploits of an insurrectionary communist cell.
Even now, more than twenty years after the end of the Cold War, knee-jerk anticommunism remains a staple of American popular culture and mainstream political discourse. If only for these reasons, there is something thrilling about watching Soviet agents outsmart the FBI every Wednesday night.
But as with all objects of mass culture, texts that seem progressive, especially when it comes to capitalism, are also simultaneously vehicles for latent ideology. Without ignoring the genuine differences between The Americans and other mass cultural treatments of the Cold War (and communism generally), we ought to inquire why attractive communists are suddenly on our TV — and what precisely they’re telling us about the US of 2015.
Set in the early Reagan era, The Americans follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), two KGB agents living secretly in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Trained to blend in seamlessly, the married couple has started a family and is the picture of middle-class success.
Unbeknownst to their neighbors (including FBI agent Stan Beeman, played by Noah Emmerich), Philip and Elizabeth spend their nights (and much of their days) planting bugs, seducing government bureaucrats, and stealing intelligence secrets — all while raising two children and weathering their own marital issues.
Now in its third season, the show appears to be a reexamination, even a critique, of American assumptions about the Cold War. Its Soviet protagonists are not mindless drones or ideologically blinded zealots, but recognizably human figures troubled by the loss of human life, discomfited by moral ambiguity, and concerned for the safety of their family.
Even Elizabeth, the hardened agent whose disgust at the United States reinforces her devotion to the Soviet Union, is unable to fully compartmentalize the barrage of endless lying and ruthless realpolitik required by the cause.
Spying aside, the Jennings’ domestic struggles are mostly indistinguishable from the conflicts and compromises of everyday married life. These aren’t left-wing automatons programmed to spout revolutionary slogans at regular intervals: they’re loving but flawed parents, committed but antagonistic spouses. They’re us, basically.
Perhaps more radical than this humanization of the Soviet enemy, The Americans presents communism not as a laughably utopian ideology or as an inherently totalitarian doctrine but as a rational political tendency given the tenor of the times.
Gregory, a former black radical and Elizabeth’s doomed ex-lover, sees his involvement with the KGB as an extension of his civil-rights activism. Unlike the old anticommunist line, which depicted the Civil Rights Movement as a Soviet plot to undermine the United States from within, The Americans portrays black activism as an autonomous movement in which particular members embraced Marxism as a logical outgrowth of the struggle for legal equality.
Elizabeth recruited Gregory, but this was hardly the result of seduction or subterfuge: he was a willing participant who asked for nothing in return. One could make the same argument about the idealistic Nicaraguan agent Lucia, whose work with the Soviets is a product of her support for democracy in Latin America — which, she rightly reminds the audience, the US has unceasingly worked to undermine.
Gone then are the Manichaean binaries of the McCarthy era, during which the US envisioned itself as an altruistic defender of freedom abroad and painted the Soviet Union as a “red fascist” dictatorship bent on world domination. No, the “blowback” of 9/11 and the depraved interventions of the “war on terror” surely contribute to this depiction of the United States’ actions during the late Cold War as questionable at best, actively harmful at worst.
And yet, there is something deeply disturbing about The Americans, a sense that it presents recent history through adversarial eyes to toughen us, to encourage us to absorb certain moralistic criticisms of capitalism as a means of acclimation to deprivation and toil.
By presenting the Soviets as worthy adversaries pursuing a noble but futile cause, the show encodes their assessment of the United States as perceptive and prescient. But the “capitalism” the characters lambast is less a structure than a symptom: they see the US as a nation weakened from the inside by consumerist luxury.
In focusing its critique on decadent mass consumption rather than exploitative production, The Americans uses Soviet speakers to valorize the virtues of austerity. This is its ideological prescription: that Americans — well, some of them, anyway — must forego consumptive pleasures to strengthen the nation and its economy.
When it comes to capitalism, then, The Americans wants to have it both ways. The show praises the objective goodness of American capitalism and simultaneously chastises it for consumptive excesses. This ambivalence is made manifest in an ongoing ideological conflict between the Jennings: Philip feels no guilt for enjoying the United States’ proliferation of consumer goods while Elizabeth loathes such indulgences, partaking only to keep up the pair’s cover.
A key exchange from the second season succinctly encapsulates this dispute. After Philip purchases a Camaro Z-28 and Elizabeth expresses her disapproval, he confronts her:
Philip: Don’t you enjoy any of this sometimes? It doesn’t make you bad at what you do. It just makes you a human being. Don’t you ever like it?
Elizabeth: That’s not why I’m here. We have to live this way, for our job, for our cover. You know how I grew up. It’s nicer here, yes. It’s easier. It’s not better.
In a recent piece for Slate, Sarah Archer unpacks the Z-28 exchange. Archer contends that Elizabeth’s rejoinder “is supposed to be a radical one for American audiences,” for whom the equation of “nicer” and “easier” with “better” is presumably self-evident.
With reference to the famous “Kitchen Debate” between then–Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and then–US Vice President Richard Nixon, she argues that the consumptive focus of the show visually accentuates the difference between partaking in the American mass consumptive “lifestyle” and enjoying the American “way of life.”
“Obsessed as we may be with technology and newness,” Archer writes, “freedom — The Americans tells us — is a necessity, not a luxury appliance.” If this interpretation is accurate (and I think Archer is on to something), then Elizabeth, KGB agent and devotee of Soviet socialism, here speaks in defense of austere “freedom” to the American audience of 2015.
One might expect Philip, the agent most comfortable with the United States, to be the weekly deliverer of distilled ideology. But again and again it is Elizabeth whose ascetic judgments are given free rein. Far removed from Khrushchev’s confident pronouncements that the Soviet Union would soon deliver mass consumption to all, her communism is one in which socialized scarcity produces individual vigor — while capitalist plenty leads to a frail and complacent population. As she says of Americans in the pilot episode — not long after experiencing an air conditioner for the first time — “There’s a weakness in the people. I can feel it.”
In the season three episode “Open House,” Elizabeth and her protege Hans link this verdict on the American character to capitalism’s production of “false needs.” After a training session in counter-surveillance, Hans mentions that he has to leave to TA an economics class. Summarizing the day’s lesson, he states: “You can live without wants. But you can’t live without needs. This society is very focused on wants.” Elizabeth, in apparent agreement, replies with a quote from Marx’s 1844 manuscripts: “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”
In an ironic and knowing segue, Hans then asks for her opinion on stonewashed jeans: he wants to buy a pair. “I don’t know much about fashion,” Elizabeth insists. Incredulous, Hans observes that she’s always fashionably dressed. Yet Elizabeth’s consumption of American goods is only a means to undermine the country’s consumerism: she instrumentalizes fashion in order to destroy it.
As her misappropriation of Marx implies, the desire for new and better commodities is said to produce a stratified population of obsolescent humanity. Therefore, popular longing for the novel and the opulent must give way to a selfless frugality in service of the greater good. According to The Americans, consumption is capitalism’s primary contradiction: both evidence of the system’s success and vulnerability, it remains dangerously unresolved.
But The Americans has to go to absurd lengths to maintain this questionable image of the US as a nation defined by lavish consumption. As Archer’s observations imply, this is one respect in which the show reproduces a common American myth: the claim that despite being a period of deep cultural paranoia, the Cold War was also a time of general affluence in the United States, whose high standard of living and vibrant consumer culture proved the benefits of “free enterprise” over Soviet planning. In fact, whole populations of color were shut out of the “Keynesian consensus,” and the nuclear family’s supposed stability rested on unwaged female labor.
But if claims of Cold War prosperity are easily debunked upon close examination of the 1950s and 60s, they’re even less convincing for the early 1980s. After embedded liberalism’s collapse, the policies we would now categorize as “neoliberal” were rapidly stratifying American society, a process leading directly to today’s grossly unequal distribution of wealth.
Yet apart from a few stray references, you would hardly even know that the United States was experiencing one of the worst recessions of the twentieth century. The violent economic restructuring of the Carter and Reagan years — the social welfare cuts, the usurious interest rates, the rampant joblessness — is almost entirely absent.
Even the show’s Northern Virginia setting functions as a way of shoring up this mythology, since it ensures that the economic conflicts of Marion Barry’s DC remain oddly out of sight. Instead, the Jennings’ reside in a suburban paradise straight out of the Eisenhower era. The scenes we do get in DC proper either take place in plush government buildings or portray a city remarkably similar to how it looks today: a gentrified playplace of the white, wealthy, and powerful, replete with artisanal tea shops.
In the first season, Gregory’s Philadelphia, not nearby DC, becomes the stand-in for urban divestment, deindustrialization, and poverty, where such problems can be conveniently — and racially — displaced as “exceptional” challenges of the inner city. Rather than being the product of specific policy decisions, urban poverty is recast as either a generational legacy of the past or, in line with the ideology of the show, a product of consumerism itself.
According to Elizabeth’s worldview, after all, it is the American lust for things that perpetuates such poverty. And Gregory, for her, is the ideal image of sacrificial dedication to a higher cause. As he declares just before his death: “I never wanted too much really. I just wanted to live for something. And I’ve done that.”
Americans’ creator and ex-CIA man Joe Weisberg has spoken openly about the show’s critical attitude toward consumption. When it debuted, he framed his spy drama as a critique of both the United States and the Soviet Union, but categorized the divide between them as one between consumerism (not capitalism) and socialism.
“These were really competing value systems,” Weisberg told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “And there’s no question that repressive socialism failed, but unbridled consumption hasn’t exactly led to great satisfaction — and one problem is how do we express that dramatically.”
Leaving aside for a moment the laughable idea that “unbridled consumption” currently exists for anyone but the rich, Weisberg’s statement suggests that he shares Elizabeth’s appraisal of the United States. But just in case their loyalties were unclear, Weisberg and showrunner Joel Fields have repeatedly stressed that they have no intention of rehabilitating “oppressive communism” despite their own dim view of consumption.
Instead, they assure us, The Americans is designed to bring the complexities of Cold War geopolitics and international tradecraft down to the familial level, so viewers learn to “root for this couple and this marriage, and that the Jenningses can find their humanity in this horrible situation.” It is striking how many reviewers have uncritically praised this narrative technique, which, while compelling for any parent in an age of flexible labor and exploding childcare costs, comes with its own ideological baggage.
The Jennings’ lives are indeed a microcosm demonstrating how “forces beyond our control” impact familial relationships — but the show offers no corrective to these intangible and objective dominations save for the family itself, which must take an eternally reactive stance against the vagaries of social structures. Subject to the strategic whims of the Soviet and American intelligence apparatuses, the Jennings are constantly reshuffling their daily schedules to accommodate both their work in espionage and their reproductive labor as parents.
In this sense, commentators are right to see a reasonably accurate portrayal of contemporary parenthood (although the protagonists are gainfully employed, unlike a lot of us). But this frenetic state of affairs is in no way criticized. It simply is: and no one appears more capable of navigating the ever-shifting anarchy of daily life than Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. Engaged in a continuous struggle to maintain the nuclear family amid the vicissitudes (and inevitability) of work, they are heroic figures. Yet when we root for them, as Fields and Weisberg ask us to, what exactly are we rooting for?
In the US of 2015, we are continually bombarded with the idea that the country’s problems can only be solved by the bearing of greater and greater burden at the bottom of the income scale.
Health care is not a right, we are told, but a commodity to be purchased after intensive (and bewildering) study. The struggle for a living wage is futile, it is said, for increasing it would only bring about job loss. Higher education — indeed, education period — is described not as a public good but as a personal investment, whose properly quantified and ever-increasing “market price” must be paid upfront by the potential beneficiary.
And consumption? When it isn’t being unilaterally slashed through wage and job cuts, it’s being actively policed, lest someone make a choice deemed inefficient or inappropriate by the state.
The Great Recession is technically over, yet still we are commanded to make do with less, as the ubiquitous “lifehacks” of tech discourse remind us. The much-touted recovery has been little but the normalization of the crisis, a restructuring of the global economy on the backs of working people.
The Americans is thus a sort of guidebook for workers in the secular crisis, advising us to pay no heed to what we covet, since an ill-defined “freedom” or “satisfaction” matters more than mere things. Virtue, the show suggests, resides in the ceaseless struggle to accommodate ourselves to capitalism.
One can appreciate the dialectical fiendishness of using communist agents to shill for austerity, but apart from such aesthetic qualities, The Americans is a very ominous work. Brent Bozell may have seen it as a harbinger of creeping socialism, but with its moral critique of consumption, praise for austere living, naturalization of precarity, and fetish for the family as a locus of social integration, The Americans is far more sympathetic to today’s increasingly repressive capitalism.
We should see it, I think, as a reminder that capital, even when using unlikely messengers, attempts to stave off crisis through appeals to reactionary nationalism, immaterial liberty, and virtuous sacrifice. However “collective” the valences of such appeals, they are little more than thinly veiled justifications for unnecessary and individualized hardship at the bottom amid jealously guarded wealth at the top.
We’ve been subject to austerity from above. Perhaps it’s time for an austerity from below. After a glorious expropriation of what once was ours, we’ll bask in an egalitarian opulence truly deserving of the term “mass consumption.” Just imagine all the great TV shows.