The Americans: an immigrant story

Rothman-TheAmericans-1200
The Americans, a show about Russians wearing (a lot of) wigs.

The recent debacle surrounding Trump administration and its suspicious Russian connection has been the story for few weeks in American media, and The Americans, FX’s series of Russian couple posing as the Russian sleeper agents in Reagan’s America, understandably finds itself in a very strange position: a show that was supposed to be a nostalgic throwback to 80s feels dangerously current for the viewers and creators alike. Critics have found some parallels between the show and the current America, but mostly in the opposite way: Soviets were bogged down in a nightmarish war in Middle East that was destroying their economy, something that many Americans of 21st century can certainly understand. But now the parallels aren’t really about “the other way around,” and basically every single critic that reviewed Season 5 has brought it up in some way or the other.

The show however draws parallel in less political way to Trump administration, or even, the general idea of American ideal regardless of era, which I believe is being ignored more or less with the elephant in the room getting all the attention. The Americans has been called a lot of things before being a spy thriller, from metaphoric representation of marriage to a contemplation on the idea of faith and beliefs, but from the start, the show has been one of the most unique and penetrating immigrant story on TV.

Ever since the show’s first debut in 2013, there has been a shift in TV industry to at least try to put a spotlight on minority groups: Transparent comes to mind first, and Fresh off the Boat is another great example of an immigrant story. The Americans however does not have a synopsis that is directly related to those themes of identity and identity politics, but instead, the show allows these themes to play a subtle role that become more and more prominent as it progresses.

The Americans may be about secret Russian sleeper agents trying to destroy America from within by posing as Americans, but that also means that the two anti-heroes of the show, Phillip and Elizabeth (inerestngly named after the current British Royal couple), are immigrants. Their motives behind the immigration may be different from other usual immigrants, but they make their living in the country, they live American lives with American friends and children who consider thmselves Americans. This discrepancy between their original identity and the newfound identity is one of the basic cornerstones of any good immigrant story; the show just twists them make them irresistibly interesting while revealing new perspectives not explored in other works.

The interesting ethnic dynamics are in full-swing in a lot of small episodes throughout the series. One of the earlier missions in the series introduce an African American communist whom the couple recruited in 60s Civil Rights Movement. Having never been to Russia, this character regardless believes it is a better society than America that still perpetrates racist institutions upon its minority populace. This character incidently is called to help the main couple track a hispanic woman–who turned out to be the secret wife of one of their late colleagues, who was a Russian-posing-as-American just like them.

This early setup, which lasts an episode very early in the series, lays bare the American myth of Cold War: us and them was never just us and them. The battle of ideologies was not just about ideologies, but also identities. This is not only the American myth, but also the Russian myth as well; later in the series, the show spends considerable time in detailing the unfortunate life of a Russian Jew–a refusenik–forced to detach himself from his identity and work for the oppressive Soviet government, which Americans attempt to exploit. On the other hand, Russians are more than willing to fight against South African apartheid, with the main couple allying themselves with an ANC freedom fighter who does not hesitate to necklace a South African operative that was trying to sabotage anti-apartheid groups in American colleges.

The cultural myth of Cold War puts the era as one of extreme binary: in political science, Cold War represents the most striking example of a bipolar system. The Americans, while fully aware of that political binary, individualises the era based on people, their identity, their beliefs, and how the multilayered and multifaceted interaction between all of them affect their struggle to survive the extreme circumstances that a lot of these characters find themselves in. Whereas shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones pits the characters against each other in a very noticeable fashion, usually based on greed or survival, The Americans is a slow descent to suicidal madness–one that is motivated by their dogmatic ideologies and conflicting identities. Game of Thrones gets messy when people die; in The Americans, death of a prominent character sometimes bring a sigh of relief, and it leaves the messiness to people who are left behind.

This perpetual cycle of madness makes transparent the tragic comedy of Cold War, or any ideology-driven conflict, for all to see. Many immigrant stories are about survival stories or success stories–The Americans, on the other hand, shows an immigrant story that us immigrants have refused to acknowledge for so long. The cultural, social and ideological crises are given a whole new layer with identity struggle, and reveals how dehumanising experience it is to find one’s own humanity in a life of paradoxes.

Deep down, a lot of immigrants understand the immigrant experience of other immigrants who are from completely different background. The culture may be different, but the internal struggle is almost always similar.

In season 4 of the show, Elizabeth, the hardline of the two main characters, befriend a Korean American named Young-hee, who is the wife of the man the couple needs to approach to gain a crucial intellience regarding American bioweapons that may or may not threaten Soviet Union. It’s not just how well the show describes the Korean immigrant family and their life that impresses me (though it certainly is very much spot-on). This season-long spy work leaves no dead bodies, but nonetheless provides one of the most soul-crushing experience in recent televison, with Elizabeth having an affair with the husband and faking her pregnancy and ultimaetly suicide, which leaves the Korean American family in ruins.

Elizabeth, usually the stern supporter of Communism and any method that is required to bring its glory, finds herself in emotional agony as she will never see her friend, whose family she has effectively destroyed. While she may be posing as a typical American, she herself is also an immigrant, and the friendship with another immigrant reminds herself when she was in her shoes. This identification between immigrants plays an important role in revealing a very different side of Elizabeth–no matter how much she trained to be the perfect American wife, she is still a Russian in America. It is not surprising that Elizabeth cooks Korean stew at home for one evening, something she would never do with any other job since that would be bringing the job back home. Despite being a Russian, Elizabeth sympathesises with a Korean, one of the most anti-communist people, because they share the pan-immigrant identity.

Season 5 only seems to pick up from the previous season in telling its unique immigrant dynamic. The season starts with a a scene that most immigrant can sympathesise: an Asiant immigrant boy fluent in English approaching a Russian immigrant who can barely speak a single word of English. Of course, this is another instance of elaborate spycraft at work: now posing as foster parents for the teenage Vietnamese boy (who is also a spy), they befriend a Russian family that has recently escaped Soviet Union. The father is understandably unhappy with the USSR, his son never wanted to leave his country, and the mother is busy trying to find the middle ground. Phillip and Elizabeth, along with their “son,” shares hatred of the father–how can he hate his own homeland? To Philip and Elizabeth, the post-war generation that was trying to survive with nothing and still went on to serve their country, the father’s complete denial of his own identity is bewildering, but also hits them where they feel most vulnerable. Their conflicted identity, an internal struggle that was building to a boiling point for last 4 seasons, has been covered up by their committment to the Cause, the ideology–and yet, they see a man without an ideology, unaffected by the same dilemma they find themselves in. To them, this man presents a dangerous alternative, one they may want but cannot bring themselves to be.

In that sense, The Americans truly is a timely show for Americans. To non-immigrants, it’s a show about perfect Americans who are also immigrants; to immigrants, it’s a show about immigrants who are also perfect Americans. It is an immigrant story that modern-day America not only needs, but deserves.

Advertisements