Tuesday, 31 July 2018

i finally finish watching 'The Americans'


I've just finished watching The Americans on Amazon. It's been a six series box set almost impossible to have watched in real time because of all its weird scheduling.

Slightly based on a real situation, Russia sends spies to the USA to become part of the American fabric. Known by the FBI as illegals, the series centres on a couple living in suburban Falls Church, just a few miles along the I-66 from Washington D.C. A KGB Fred and Wilma next door to an FBI Barney and Betty.

Add family members, Russian agent controllers, an FBI office and the Russian Residence in Washington, and there's a great recipe for a series.

The two Russians (Philip and Elizabeth) are mostly American in their behaviour, except when on their espionage missions. There's plenty of breakfast table scenes, working at the office and so on. Then, unlike this publicity shot, they don elaborate disguises and do everything from surveillance to assassination. No-one they interact with ever notices their sometimes dodgy looks and that thing about 'the wig enters the room three seconds before the person' doesn't seem to apply.

Their teenager-ish kids don't ever spot anything untoward, even with the late night working frequently required by one or both parents.

Set in the 1980s through to around the start of the 1990s, the period seemed almost older. No smartphones, clunky old cars, cassette and diskette operated computers, distressingly jagged nightmare-inducing geometric wallpaper. The era worked well to support old-school spy-craft, with buzzy walkie talkies and chalk marks on post boxes. Oh yes, and crazy walls full of paper.

There were some colour palates at play too. Moscow was often shot in a bluer hue, Washington got greys and some of the house interiors were almost 1970s browns. The soundscape buzzed and clicked. Air conditioners, car engines ticking as they cooled, city hubbub, tumble dryers, diskette head seeks, only the black screens were properly quiet.

The making of the series between 2013 and 2018 overlaps recent events in the USA, with the series featuring Cold War prevalence and various players with sharp personal memories of World War Two and the Vietnam war. The Russian central control frequently reference famines, sickness and the huge USSR death toll from World War Two. By the end of the series we're around the time of perestroika and arms limitations. As 21st Century USA gets ready to spend huge new money on military and borders, there's a worrying parallel with the earlier situations in the series.

I never really found the main protagonists likeable. They were watchable with their unplugged backstory. Understandable because they had been wrenched from Russia to suddenly become Americans. We could then see their acceptance of American lifestyle and its choices and surpluses. A contrast sharpened through another character, who was exfiltrated from the USA to go to live in an empty shelved Moscow. A distancing from what was becoming a changing Russia too. Philip and Elizabeth had memories of how it was, but not what it was becoming.

There's also a coiled spring ruthlessness in these two main characters. They both kill reflexively and in the case of Elizabeth, in later scenes we see her mantling over bodies like some bird of prey.

There's various ways that this kind of show can end. The last couple of series set up questions about life in Russia and USA, through character discussions. Then we have some all-important show-downs and some clever directing. The sort of scenes that could go in a number of directions.

I won't dwell on the actual ending. It's in an episode called START, which could itself signify an intriguing character's reboot, or maybe George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

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