Spies And Their Families: On "The Americans" And In Real Life

Deep Mysterious Forest Yurei Ghost Appear
Deep Mysterious Forest Yurei Ghost Appear

As the son of a Russian spy who helped pass secrets from the Manhattan Project, I have more than an academic interest in the critically-acclaimed television show "The Americans" (on the FX network). It is about two Russian spies, who were sent to America under false identities, and were directed to marry by their handlers. The couple, Philip and Elizabeth, now have two children, the adolescent Paige, with whom I personally identify rather strongly, and the younger Henry. All are being gradually drawn ever further into patterns of mainstream American life, even as the parents constantly murder, seduce, lie, betray, and pass deadly secrets. They have been forced to reveal their true identity to Paige, who is starting a romantic relationship with the son of their neighbor and apparent friend Stan Beeman, an FBI agent. I will not, however, go into further details of the plot, which has more twists and turns than Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Though set in the 1980s, "The Americans" has, in many ways, the ambiance of the 1950s and early 1960s, and it resuscitates genres that were popular in that era. The focus on the foibles of a family might make the show a sitcom, if its vision were not so pessimistic. The complexity of the plot, which blends political and amorous intrigues, and the slow pace of resolution, make the show, in many respects, a fairly conventional soap opera.

The inspiration of the show is an incident in summer 2010, when a sleeper cell of Russian spies was uncovered by the FBI. Eight children of the spies suddenly discovered that their lives had been largely a charade, and they faced an uncertain future with their parents under arrest. I was interviewed by the press a few times about the incident, and it seems possible that my remarks could have provided some of the inspiration for the show. I told ABC News, "It takes a great deal of time to find the human being in your mother or your father who is a spy. You, in effect, like everybody else, have to break through their cover." I told Sky News in the United Kingdom, "A pretty intense paranoia is just about inevitable and you simply cannot address the causes of it because you can't talk about this very openly. Because you can't talk about something that looms so large, there is not anything like the communication that there ought to be in the household. In the beginning I was in a state of denial, and went through periods of anger and sorrow. I now have some sympathy for the position he was in."

The creators of the show, particularly writer and former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, understand how an element of deception carries over into every aspect of a spy's (or agent's) life. This can generate a very intense longing for authenticity, both for the spies and, especially, for their children. Everything in the society seems phony. With so much information missing, life seems bereft of inner logic.

But, in the show, these basic insights can be obscured by the sensational events that are constructed around them. The life of an actual spy might have a few moments of high drama, but it is not often very exciting. It certainly is not filled with constant violence, which would at the least attract plenty of unwanted attention. The deceptions, while continuous, would be a lot less melodramatic. The brisk pace of the action in the show will not encourage most viewers to dwell much on philosophical or cultural implications. If they did, they would probably realize that elements of the plot are a bit absurd.

One word that is conspicuously absent in the show is "Communism." By the 1980s, which is when the show is set, that belief, which had once inspired people to incredible sacrifices, had already lost most of its force. When Elizabeth and Philip explain their spying to Paige, they invoke nationalism, saying they are doing everything for their country. But, even if their ideological fervor had faded, Elizabeth and Philip would have been ex-Communists at least. The story of their disillusionment might be hard for many people today to understand, yet, if presented convincingly, could have lent the protagonists greater pathos. As depicted, they are not terribly different from a Mafia family.

For many generations of Communists, organized religion was anathema, yet much of that hostility may, in retrospect, have been due to what Freud famously called "the narcissism of small differences." Both Communism and Christianity tend to view society as irredeemably corrupt, and participation in its institutions as sinful, and both offer the prospect of absolution to all who join their ranks. As people felt more compromised, their longing for purity would increase, and so would their loyalty, though only to a point. Both Communism and Christianity also saw history as leading to apocalyptic conflict, which would end in a world of peace and harmony.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I was, however, amazed at how quickly Communism seemed to merge with traditional faiths. The Russian Communists made their peace with the Orthodox Church, while the Jewish ones became Zionists. The once-mighty Italian Communist Party was absorbed into the mostly Catholic Christian Democrats. In "The Americans," Paige initially causes her parents much distress by joining the church of Pastor Tim, one of the very few unequivocally positive characters. The Soviet authorities, afraid he will reveal the identities of Philip and Elizabeth, come close to having Tim assassinated, but decide against it, fearing that Paige might turn against them completely. At the end of the fourth season, even Elizabeth may be starting to be drawn into Pastor Tim's church.

Season four ends with an enigmatic bit of Christian symbolism. William Crandall, another Soviet agent, has stolen a sample of a deadly pathogen that could be used in biological warfare. He is preparing to pass it to Philip, who he has arranged to meet in a park at night, when he becomes aware that FBI agents are trailing him. He tries to evade them by hiding and then by running, but to no avail. When he realizes that escape is impossible, he cuts the palms of his hands, infects himself with the pathogen, and then walks out into the spotlight, with his hands raised in surrender. It is an image of the crucifixion, and the wounds on William's palms are the stigmata.

William had, for some time, been having doubts about his mission, but his motivation here is far from clear. If he was trying to distract the attention of the agents away from Philip, killing himself was hardly necessary. If he had planned to commit suicide on capture, a cyanide capsule would have brought a quicker and less painful end. It also seems a bit odd that he should have made wounds on his palms rather than, say, simply swallowing the pathogen directly. And prison, had he been captured in a relatively healthy condition, would have been no less bleak and lonely than his life seems on the outside. Later, as he is gradually dying, he tells the FBI agents, "My secret power, as it were, became a curse. I was alone. Isolated. I'd reach out to people, not friends, exactly. Maybe acquaintances, more like. But there was always a distance. A barrier. ...." Perhaps infecting himself with the pathogen was, or appeared to be, a way of overcoming his alienation.

My impression is that the suicide was probably an impulse of the moment. He was taking on himself the fate that, in his work, he had been preparing for others, as an act of atonement. This symbolism is powerful, if not fully explainable, and it suggests that Joe Weisberg and his colleagues had ambitions to a gravitas well beyond that of the usual soap opera. It might be that they were deliberately attempting to give the show a Christian message. Very likely, they were simply using religious imagery to endow "The Americans" with an epic dimension.

"The Americans" attempts to use the conventions of popular entertainment to convey the seriousness that we traditionally associate with high literature. There are two seasons yet to come, and it is too early to say how well the creators have succeeded. The show requires considerable suspension of disbelief, and the gravity of the material can seem incongruous alongside the conventions of commercial broadcasts. I am not, however, particularly troubled by the many unexplained details or even the lapses of coherence, which, paradoxically, can even add to the impression of realism. When it comes to espionage, so many people have been trying to obscure the truth, and for so many different reasons, that much will always prove strange and unknowable.

I experienced this in writing my book Stealing Fire: Memoir of a Boyhood in the Shadow of Atomic Espionage. As soon as something was down on paper, I would often begin to doubt it, not in terms of strictly factual accuracy so much as the ambiance and tone. One cannot seriously undertake such a project without constantly probing both one's own motives and those of others. The few answers that one obtains are almost immediately overwhelmed by a new avalanche of questions. No matter how conscientious one may be, the boundary between history and myth remains obscure. I tried to tell my tale austerely, so that it might be a foil to the romanticized accounts of espionage as adventure or martyrdom that fill the media today. How well I have succeeded is, of course, for others to say. Linguistic austerity was not an option for Joe Weisberg, writing as he was for public television, but the basic dynamics in "The Americans" seem true to life.

As a people, we are still very far from coming to terms with the events of the Cold War, and clandestine activities from the period still generate plenty of rumors, speculation, and revelations. One friend has told me that she was long puzzled by the way, whenever she traveled, she would be immediately placed at the head of the line at customs and her bags would not be searched. It turned out that her father, unknown to her, had been an agent of the CIA and placed a secret code in her passport. Quite a few people I have met suspect their parents or relatives of clandestine activity, on the basis of mysterious documents, encounters, or papers. This is surely a reason why "The Americans" resonates for many people, and perhaps the series can help us understand a difficult period in our history. I am glad to see a little of my experience find some resonance in American culture. The show has given me an opening, and maybe even an excuse, to share my story with others.