At the end of the 3rd season of The Americans, KGB agent Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) sits on the edge of his bed, motionless and downtrodden, disgusted with his life and his evil actions. As he begins to tell his beloved wife and fellow KGB agent Elizabeth (Keri Russell) how he feels, Ronald Reagan appears on their television. In a now-famous speech, Reagan boldly declares, “let us be aware that while they [Soviet Union] preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.” The camera focuses on Elizabeth, eyes aflame, as she stands shocked and smoldering staring at the television.
Created by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg and set in the 1980s, The Americans is the fictional story of two Russian-born KGB agents who live illegally in the United States under the assumed names of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. They live in suburban Virginia, have two children (who don’t know the real identity of their parents – at least until the 3rd season), and own a small travel agency. However, as KGB agents, they also conduct clandestine espionage, lie to everyone, run long and short cons, trick greedy and sex-starved bureaucrats into spilling confidential secrets, and kill anyone who gets in their way. The show is masterfully written and superbly acted, and the praise it continues to receive is well deserved. However, The Americans is not only well made, but is also deeply compelling because it asks fundamental questions about human nature.
It can be said that the Soviet Union collapsed because of its constant and persistent attempts to change human nature. It did so by creating a comprehensive system of coercion, terror, and indoctrination. Through a systematic reconstruction of society, the Soviet Union sought to recast humanity in an imagined utopian image. This “new” human being was known as Soviet Man. Medical schools in the USSR even came up with a different species name for this new human: Homo Sovieticus. In 1974, the Polizdat wrote in The Soviet People that this new man was “a man of the Collective … a man infinitely loyal to his socialist multinational fatherland … there is nothing that does not concern him, be it an event of global significance or simply the life of his neighbors on the same landing.” With such a sweeping vision of the world, Soviet Man was to replace ordinary man by overcoming all that is pernicious in human nature and uniting his will with the state’s.
Philip and Elizabeth, who were trained to be the new breed of Soviet Man, constantly find themselves struggling with the sacrifice demanded of them for the cause of international communism. The care and worry about the rightness of their mission and the state of their own souls constantly weighs heavily on their minds. Nowhere is this better expressed than in their own family. They love their children and wish nothing but happiness and a bright future for them. However, their Soviet masters see the children as assets to be exploited: two natural-born American citizens who can be employed by any agency and obtain the most vital of state secrets. As the children move into adolescence, the parental love Philip and Elizabeth have for them begins to outweigh their love of the state and the mission they serve, prompting them to level warnings at their KGB bosses that their children are off limits.
As intelligent and ideological as Philip and Elizabeth are, they seemed to have completely misunderstood, or forgotten altogether, that the state was a part of the family in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party formed the third leg of the “Red Triangle” which connected parents to their children. Russian historian Mikhail Heller notes that the family, as any good communist knew, was a “family collective” which was “proclaimed to be ‘a family of a superior kind’” – and one completely at the mercy of the Party. It was the Party that decided all familial questions and regulated even the most intimate relationships. (Soviet citizens used to joke that the USSR “had organized the manufacture of triple beds because ‘Lenin is always with us.’”) Philip and Elizabeth’s boss reminds them: “[Your daughter] isn’t just yours, she belongs to the cause. The world. We all do. You haven’t forgotten that, have you?”
Whittaker Chambers notes in his masterpiece Witness that communists “were dedicated revolutionists whose primary allegiance was no longer to any country—nor to those factors which give a country its binding force: tradition, family, community, soil, religious faith.” Instead, he continues, “Their primary allegiance was to a revolutionary faith and a vision of man and his material destiny which was given political force by international Communism.” With their vision of worldwide communism, achieved through “semimilitary discipline,” nothing was impossible. As the saying went, “There is no fortress that the Bolsheviks cannot take.” Philip and Elizabeth are a fictional experiment testing that assertion. Although trained to be the new breed of Soviet Man, the Jenningses find themselves struggling with their allegiances and succumbing to love, traditional notions of morality, religion, friendship, and loneliness. At one point, Philip, trying to come to terms with having had to seduce an adolescent girl in order to gain access to her CIA-agent father, tells his KGB boss that the immoral act is repugnant to his conscience. His boss glibly replies, “Conscience can be dangerous.” By watching the intense personal struggles of the characters, it becomes apparent that there is a fortress the Bolsheviks cannot take: the human soul.
The Americans is compelling television because it questions the assumptions of a nearly forgotten communist regime bent on changing human nature. Those questions, in term, move the audience to weigh the fundamental desires we feel as human beings: When does love of country outweigh love of one’s own? What can a country ask of its citizens? How much evil can one do without losing one’s own soul? At the close of the 3rd season, the Jenningses aren’t ready to give up their fight for the cause and the motherland, but they are beginning to express their doubts. They persistently find that moral questions which were supposed to be resolved by becoming the unshakable Soviet Man aren’t so easy to answer. Watching the struggles of Philip and Elizabeth each episode is a reflection on just how strong human nature is, and therefore how unnatural communism truly is.