The Americans, Technology and Standing Reserve

As we have discussed topics like the Cold War, and specifically the technology and remnants of the Cold War, I wanted to bring the class’ attention to The Americans, which in my opinion is one of the best programs currently airing on television.  The Americans takes place during the tense years of the early 1980s and follows Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings in the Washington D.C. area.  Philip and Elizabeth are for all intents and purposes a normal suburban couple, with two children, a Chevy, and a travel agency.  In reality, they have been planted illegally by the USSR to spy on the United States and no one is aware of this, not even their children, or their neighbor who happens to be an FBI agent.

While the show is first and foremost about the ‘marriage’ between the two main characters, as Philip and Elizabeth are essentially treated as standing reserve by their Soviet handlers.  Their missions come before their relationship, as well as their family.  If a mission demands that Philip or Elizabeth have sexual relations with a target so be it, as their nation has supremacy over their marriage.  There is also the interesting tension between the ideology of the central characters.  Elizabeth is fiercely loyal to Russia and her cause while Philip, still loyal to Russia, begins to recognize the perks that come with American life.

The show’s relationship with technology is also one of interest.  A large portion of the Jennings’ assignments deal with the militarization of technology and projects like the Strategic Defense Initiative (or Star Wars), APRANET, as well as Radar Absorbent Material.  On the other hand, Philip and Elizabeth themselves don’t have the benefit of modern technology.  This is part of what makes The Americans so great, it is able to mine tension out of the fact that the two main characters don’t have cell phones.  This isn’t a spy show where most of the sleuthing is done behind a computer; the Jennings’ have to rely on disguises, cunning, and in some cases, their bodies, to complete their mission.


Spoilers for Season 2 follow


At the climax of the second season, the Jennings’ receive word from their handler that The Centre (the department in the USSR that handles implanted spies) plans to recruit Paige, the Jennings’ teenage daughter to their cause.  In other words, The Centre is claiming Paige as a resource, standing reserve, even though she never agreed to anything and is completely unaware to the true nature of her parents.  Elizabeth is excited about this prospect as she views it will give her increasingly rebellious daughter some direction, while Philip is appalled, he wishes for Paige to live a normal life different than the one he and Elizabeth are engaged in.


End of spoilers


The show also gives us the perspective of the FBI and isn’t afraid to assert that there are no heroes and villains in terms of the Cold War.  The FBI isn’t shown to be more moral than the Russians and that’s what makes everything so interesting, that the viewer can root for both Soviet spies and the agents who hunt them.  While this hasn’t yet been delved into on the program, the question must be asked: what happens to the Jennings at the conclusion of the Cold War?

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