Themes of work and employment in “The Americans”

FX’s “The Americans,” the one-hour drama series featuring a husband-and-wife team as deep-cover Soviet spies operating out of a Washington D.C. suburb during the 1980s, came to the close of its superb six-year run last Wednesday.

If you’re unfamiliar with “The Americans,” here’s the brief rundown: On the surface, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings are juggling everyday suburban life, raising their two kids (Paige and Henry), and managing a travel agency. However, they are really Soviet plants, deeply involved in espionage and intelligence activities, which often require them to assume new identities in order to gather information and fulfill mission directives. To make things more complicated, their new neighbor across the street is Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent who does intelligence work. The relationships between the Jennings and Beeman families help to frame the entire series.

Indeed, “The Americans” is very much about relationships, however fraught with Cold War intrigue. And as I’ve written before, it’s also a show about managing one’s work life, under the most trying of circumstances. I’d like to build on that theme here, while keeping spoilers down to a minimum!

Raising their games

As I recall, early reviewers regarded “The Americans” as a very good cable drama, but most stopped short of tagging it as brilliant. However, it would finish as one of the most widely hailed series on TV today. Some pundits are rightly calling it one of the best ever on the small screen.

As I see it, this evolution in the show’s reviews goes much beyond its discovery by a more appreciative audience. Rather, from season to season we become witnesses to everyone raising their games, including the cast, directors, producers, writers, and crew. This final season, in particular, had an edge-of-your-seat genius to it. For some time it was known that this would be the show’s last run, and the ability to work within that timeframe paid off completely.

Call this a lesson in how to go from good to great.

Creating art

Last week’s episode ranks as one of the best series finales ever — perhaps the best in terms of beautifully resolving (or not resolving) multiple story arcs — and I’m guessing that it will be studied in acting and film school classes for years to come.

In particular, the critics have already gone gaga over the parking garage face-off scene featuring Philip, Elizabeth, Paige, and Stan. Yeah, it was that good. If there’s such a thing as an Emmy award for a single scene, then this gets it, hands down.

As for Rhys, Russell, and Emmerich, please give them Emmys for their overall performances this season.

Love at work

Romance between co-workers can be full of risks, challenges, and dramas. So it was with Rhys and Russell, on screen and off. Soviet intelligence authorities paired Philip and Elizabeth as a couple before they were planted in the U.S.; this was an arranged marriage purely for purposes of spycraft. They grew into love during the course of their working relationship.

Offscreen, Rhys and Russell became a couple too, and they remain together. This is a common occurrence in Hollywood, but one made more interesting because of the evolving relationship between Philip and Elizabeth.

From nostalgia to immersion

Especially for late Boomers and early Gen Xers, “The Americans” grabs us from the start by playing to our nostalgia for the 80s. You have the 80s music, clothing, hairdos, cars, gadgetry, and all that stuff.

To me it seemed a little over the top at first. But whether it was a crass strategy to reel us in via constant product placement or a deliberate use of commercial and cultural markers to establish the historical context, it did draw us back to those years. Once there, the nostalgic button-pushing would soon give way to the rich, ongoing drama and developing storylines. 

Masks at work

“The Americans” is about putting on masks at work, literally and figuratively. Here’s what I wrote about that aspect of the show four years ago:

The other day, it hit me that “The Americans” is, at least in part, about putting on masks at work. Elizabeth and Philip must wear these masks almost all the time, even with their kids.

In their work, they take on different roles, identities, and personalities. . . . Elizabeth and Philip have no purely authentic selves in terms of their structured lives.

Granted, most of us cannot relate to the lives of deep cover spies. But many of us have been in jobs where we couldn’t quite be ourselves. In fact, most jobs require putting parts of our personalities on the shelf. And in the cases of jobs done largely for a paycheck, big chunks of our personalities may be buried while at work.

At the same time, we may be expected to show qualities of friendliness, courtesy, or deference, even when we don’t honestly feel them. Organizational psychologists call this “emotional labor,” and it can be taxing.

Suffice it to say that Philip and Elizabeth expended more emotional labor than any ten regular people could provide in their aggregate lifetimes!

Moral and ethical decision making

With the Jennings, especially ice-in-her-veins Elizabeth, the moral and ethical code boils down easily to the ends justifying the means. The possibility of violence, of course, is an ongoing presence in many of the show’s story arcs, and the show has piled up a lot of dead bodies, often with ruthless dispatch.  But what sets “The Americans” apart are the many ruses, lies, and deceptions that constitute enormous interpersonal abuses, all in the name of duty. Good, decent people are swept into the web and changed forever.

Still, is this really any different from a well-paid CEO saying that we regretfully had to cut jobs of longtime employees to ensure the financial health of the company, when in reality the company simply chose to put shareholder earnings first? And don’t virulent displays of workplace bullying, mobbing, gaslighting, and harassment mirror the heartless psychological cruelties of Philip and Elizabeth?

Work-life balance

Folks, if you want a prime example of the obliteration of work-life balance, then Elizabeth and Philip serve it up grandly! Put simply, they have no balance. Almost everything is about duty and responsibility. For both, the job often comes first, followed by parenting. I don’t know if I can recall a single genuine vacation or trip, or even a movie and dinner, that didn’t involve their spy work.

Of course, the opportunity to make a difference sometimes requires personal sacrifices, including the loss of what we might call free time. With the Jennings, however, the sacrifices increasingly reach into their souls. 

Institutions as employers

Throughout the series, the relationships of individuals to larger institutions are significant.

Elizabeth and Philip seemingly have leeway in how they fulfill their orders, but they and other Soviet operatives must answer to their superiors in Moscow. In the land of the free, Stan, too, has wiggle room as an agent, but he must answer to the vertical, bureaucratic structure of the FBI.

Ultimately we have two sharply contrasting political ideologies, but when it comes to employment, top-down power relationships often prevail under both.

Politics and work

The Jennings are driven by political ideology, especially Elizabeth, whose commitment to the Soviet ideal remains strong through the heart of the series. Philip’s wavering has consequences for his work and their relationship.

In America, the business, public, and non-profit sectors certainly have their own true believers who bring a sense of mission to their jobs, grounded in ideological commitments. “The Americans” invites us to think hard about how rigid political and social beliefs can inform what we do for living, how we go about it, and the limitations of working in this mode.

Start at the beginning

If you haven’t tried “The Americans,” then the only way to do so is from the beginning. To be honest, I wasn’t immediately addicted to this show. As I suggested above, I think it started out as a very good drama before it grew into something spectacular. It took me a while to get sucked into its world, but once that happened, I was hooked for good.

Given that television binge-watching tastes are so individual, I won’t presume that “The Americans” is for all readers here. But if you want to give it a try, then it’s available on various streaming platforms and season DVDs, and I’m sure a series box set is in the works, too.

 

2 responses

  1. Great post David. I would only add that as with any long form, long running TV drama, there are mediocre seasons, good seasons and great seasons all relating to the writing, the story arc and the acting. It all came together for the Americans in the final season. The writing got tighter, the actors peaked, and the story arc was jammed with suspense. Stan and Paige both evolved with the series into significant players in the drama. The scene with Paige on the platform as the train left the station was riveting. Glad you liked the series. Sorry to see it end.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: