What does The Americans have to do with time travel, Felicity, and political imagination? More than you think.
“We shudder to recall the times through which we have lived, the Recent Past, about which no one wants to think.”
—Tony Kushner, Homebody/Kabul
The Americans is historical fiction that doesn’t play its setting (D.C. suburbs in the 80s) for nostalgic yuks. The premiere may have scored a tense opening scene with Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” but the show isn’t winking. Even as one forlorn youngster falls asleep playing a neighbor’s Atari, his parents stare with loathing at Ronald Reagan on the television and declare, “He’s a monster.” It’s a show that addresses an historical moment and treats it not as an opportunity to reminisce about how far we’ve come but to consider the ways in which the world we live in now is the same as it ever was.
The show is historical fiction operating with two central conceits: relationships and politics. Elizabeth and Phillip (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are KGB spies who were paired in the Soviet Union before they infiltrated the U.S. to pose as American travel agents, and the portrait of their marriage makes clear that even the most intimate relationships are potential sites of performance; there will always be moments in which we pretend to be other than what we are to get what we want. This angle isn’t just limited to Elizabeth and Phillip. There’s also Clark (Phillip, in a floppy wig) who marries the unsuspecting Martha; Stan, a scrupulous FBI agent whose marriage provides little solace after returning from years of undercover work with white supremacists; and Nina, a secretary at the Russian embassy who was blackmailed into spying on her superiors, then sleeps with Stan, then turns double agent when she learned he was responsible for the murder of her colleague.
Many critics have read the show as a commentary on marriage, but I’d argue that the The Americans takes Elizabeth and Phillip’s politics as seriously as their relationship, perhaps more seriously than any other American television show has taken the perspective of Soviet communists. Elizabeth and Phillip aren’t brainwashed lemmings, Manchurian cyphers, or cartoonish maniacs. Instead of condescending to them, The Americans treats Elizabeth’s and Phillip’s ideologies as both legitimate and human: attractive in some respects, muddy in others, and occasionally horrific.
The political heart of the show is Elizabeth, who has been characterized as the more strident of the two agents (though Phillip’s body count and the cragged mask of rage Matthew Rhys has pulled across his face over the course of this season does a lot to balance the scales). “It’s nice here. It’s easier,” Elizabeth says when cornered by Phillip about maybe enjoying their quintessential American lifestyle, before countering, “It’s not better.” (Like most of Elizabeth and Phillip’s furtive conversations, this one takes place in their basement laundry room, a space that has particular resonance because Elizabeth’s father was a miner. She, too, finds herself below ground.)
Earlier, she tells her second-season protégée Lucia, “Your revolution is beautiful.” Lucia is a young Sandanista working to undermine the U.S. training of Contras. Elizabeth says beautiful in a way that makes it sound like possible, but Lucia’s revolutionary politics are inextricably tied to her thirst for revenge. When that threatens to undermine the broad social change Elizabeth believes in, Elizabeth does nothing to save Lucia when she’s strangled to death. Through Elizabeth, we see The Americans as a story of the pain of living with a political imagination. Just when you thought you’d made a friend, Beecher from Oz comes in and ruins everything.
But why now? And why the 80s? What is it about our current historical moment that begets a show about KGB spies battling for a vision that we know will soon fall apart? Of course, there’s the rich materiality any dramatic series likes to revel in (everything is so plastic, so analogue—the 80s: it was a different time!), but I think it also has something to do with a sensitive college student in New York City named Felicity Porter.
Bear with me. There’s every argument to be made that the ghost of Felicity Porter (played by Russell on the WB from 1998-2002) was exorcised back in season one when Elizabeth savagely beat the KGB handler she suspected of betrayal, screaming, “Show them your face! Show it to them!” There’s no going back to Dean & Deluca and Heather Nova-ridden mixtapes after that. Still, if The Americans is Russell’s best work to date, there is no escaping the fact that it is a career re-defining performance. Hard then for some of us to completely keep out of mind the hours spent on Tuesday evenings at the turn of the millennium watching very young twenty-somethings spill their hearts all over each other.
Still, Keri Russell is a fine actress, and I’m reminded of Felicity not because of any residual trace of its title character in The Americans’ Elizabeth, but because of the peculiarly affecting way the series ended its four-season run when, with five episodes left to go, it abandoned realism (insert joke about the size of those Manhattan dorm rooms here) and sent its heroine back in time. The show had fulfilled its series order and filmed an appropriate finale in which Felicity ends up with her on-again, off-again paramour and they move across the country together after graduation. But the network surprised producers with an order for a few more episodes, and so, cheated-on and broken-hearted, Felicity flees back to New York where her witchy roommate Megan performs a spell that sends her back to the beginning of senior year to make all the right decisions.
Felicity went off the air in 2002, and it doesn’t feel off-base to suggest that by sending its New York City-living heroine back in time one year, it was exploring not just what guy she wanted to be with but what world she wanted to inhabit. Even scored by the plaintive strings of late-career Suzanne Vega, even on the WB, time travel in 2002 had everything to do with 2001. Was Felicity television’s most sophisticated response to 9/11? Maybe not, but I don’t remember it being in very good company (see The West Wing’s morality play “Isaac and Ishmael”), and its point remains: the present will always be able to blindside us—it’s only in the past that we can really imagine a different future.
Which brings us back to The Americans. The show isn’t really asking us to believe in the world that Elizabeth and Phillip say they’re fighting for. It knows they are compromised tools of an ideological state just as deranged as Reagan’s. Nevertheless, it engages with a political imagination the same way that Felicity dealt with a traumatized one—by looking at a past both recent and not. In doing so, it asks us to empathize with people who have a different vision of the future. When Elizabeth and Phillip dress up in one more stringy wig, sucker one more lonely mark, scribble down one more code, we remain fascinated not just because of a timeless fixation on the tropes of espionage but because they say something that we can imagine to be true: “It’s nice here. It’s easier. It’s not better.”
 Elizabeth and Phillip’s disdain for organized religion in general does little to mitigate the casual anti-Semitism hurled at a captured Mossad agent this season.
 More associations: Felicity’s cusp-of-adulthood confusion at times recalls the central spy Cupcake in John Hollander’s Reflections on Espionage. All those missives Felicity records on tape and sends to the unseen mentor voiced by Janeane Garofalo? Come on.