How 'The Americans' Explores A Crucial But Rarely Acknowledged Aspect Of The Immigrant Experience
NOTE: This post contains spoilers about previous seasons.
Last year, The Americans broadened from an absorbing portrait of a complicated marriage to an exceptional drama about a family in flux. Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) have always known that revealing their true identities to their American-born children could alienate them forever. But even those two master manipulators didn’t anticipate the final events of the Season 3 finale, when their troubled 14-year-old daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) shared her parents’ secret identities with someone outside the family: her trusted Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin).
The promising fourth season, which premieres Wednesday night, thus begins with the ironic situation the elder Jenningses find themselves in: As they strive to undermine the nation from within, they are forced to reckon with the betrayal of their family from one of its members. True to form, Elizabeth is ready to eliminate all potential threats through brutal efficiency, while Philip worries that his wife’s plan to kill Pastor Tim will further estrange or antagonize their already defiant daughter.
It’s that mix of high-concept novelty and extreme domestic relatability that makes The Americans one of TV’s best dramas. But for many viewers — specifically, those with recent (post-1965) immigration in their families — the improbable Jenningses might feel more recognizable than many other families on television.
They certainly do to me, as the daughter of Korean immigrants. That’s because no other show — or mainstream entertainment, really — explores as probingly the cognitive dissonance toward American imperialism that many immigrants and their children feel toward their adopted country. America may feel like home, but for many, it’s also a hostile and/or callous empire, and living within its borders after its "interventions" in the country of one’s origins is both a blessing and a surreal, often cruel reminder of history. Korea is the site of America’s "forgotten war," but for my mother, it’s where a tenth of her countrymen were killed or wounded because American and Soviet troops used the land where she was born as a chessboard for their ideological battles.
The American immigration experience is far from monolithic, of course, and my family's background can hardly be called representative. But it’s also undeniable that American foreign policy in the 20th century has been far-reaching and often bloody, and that many immigrants hail from countries where U.S. troops and advisers have done irreparable harm. Just look at the modern histories of Vietnam or Cambodia or the Philippines or Iran or Iraq or Mexico or too many Latin American countries to name.
The very recent diversification of TV has opened up new opportunities to examine the lives of immigrant families, mostly from the point of view of the second generation. But even shows as groundbreaking as Jane the Virgin, Master of None, and Fresh Off the Boat — all of which include prominent immigrant characters — have yet to explore that cognitive dissonance, partly because they are all tonally lighter shows, partly because they hew much closer to the idealized trope of the immigrant whose greatest virtues are hard work and gratitude toward America, and partly because none are as internationalist in scope as The Americans is. (The FX series probably also enjoys a degree of white privilege in its portrait of deceitful foreigners; Asian and Latino transplants still struggle to be seen as "relatable.")
The Americans is about as openly critical of U.S. imperialism (and mainline Christianity) as any TV show can be — a feat it achieves in part through looking at America through a Soviet point of view. Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg are damning when they want to be, as when Elizabeth denounces Reagan's support of South Africa’s apartheid government, or the Nicaraguan revolutionary Lucia (Aimee Carrero) movingly utters the names of the people killed by Navy SEAL Andrew Larrick (Lee Tergesen) before being strangled by the soldier in the second season.
Philip and Elizabeth’s anti-American sentiments also color their relationships with their children, deepening the cultural cleave between the generations. Last season, Elizabeth quoted Marx, proudly declaring, "The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people." It’s that very fear that Paige might become "useless" — i.e., just another American — that has led Elizabeth to make peace with the KGB’s plan to recruit her young daughter into the program, despite the fact that life as a female spy has garnered her more than a lifetime's worth of trauma (a rape at the hands of a higher-ranking officer, an arranged marriage, no semblance of a normal life, a series of injuries, and a high risk for premature death).
More mundanely (and relatably), Elizabeth voices frequent anxiety that her children will absorb the anti-Soviet propaganda in the air, as when, in last season's finale, Reagan announces plans to stockpile even more nuclear weapons to defeat the “evil empire” that is the USSR. If Elizabeth were able to talk more openly with Paige about her political beliefs, she might condemn the incendiary insult that is hearing the president call the country she’s from "evil" and threaten to enable mass civilian deaths in her homeland.
To be sure, Philip and Elizabeth are creatures of fevered anxiety dreams; in 30 years' time, their analogues might be ISIS recruits who gain entry into the U.S. by posing as Syrian refugees. But despite their negligible relationship to actual immigrants (and whether Fields and Weisberg intended this or not), The Americans depicts a bracingly new, if highly discomfiting, aspect of many immigrant lives, in which domestic comforts coexist uneasily with discontent about American foreign policy.
That’s perhaps why, of all the new developments in the upcoming season — Paige’s confidence in Pastor Tim, Philip’s unresolved guilt about a childhood crime, the arrival of a highly contagious KGB-designed disease, and the aftereffects of the discovery of the bug in Agent Gaad’s office — the one I’m most interested in is Elizabeth’s friendship with her new target, Korean-American housewife Young Hee (Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles). In a show full of doubles, the charismatic Young Hee might be Elizabeth’s most dangerous one yet: another outsider, but one who doesn’t let her foreignness dictate her sense of belonging in her new country, even when observing that other Americans don’t understand her needs. Switching fluidly between Korean and English and offering Elizabeth a fork and a glass of wine with her Asian dinner, Young Hee is the very vision of that cognitive dissonance smoothed out. Even as a newcomer, she’s happy and carefree in America, surrounded by the things Elizabeth has denied herself: a large, loving family and a cultural hybridization that reconciles America’s offerings with its limited political progress. That is, until Elizabeth brings her dark cloud over Hee's new home.