With Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men off the air, FX's The Americans is now the most intriguing period piece on television. The show takes the audience to the distant Cold War era of the 1980s when the U.S./Soviet conflict dominated American life. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Soviet agents inserted by the KGB into the United States during the 1960s. Though raised in the Soviet Union, they speak perfect English and live the life of a typical American couple in the Washington, D.C., suburbs with their two children. Under the cover of running a travel agency and unbeknownst to their kids, the couple engages in cloak-and-dagger efforts to promote Soviet interests in the tense Cold War environment of the 1980s.
Like Mad Men, the backdrop for the fictional drama is enhanced by real-life events of the time. For example, a first-season episode revolved around the characters' reactions to the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Other now-forgotten issues that dominated discussion during the 1980s took center stage in the first two seasons, including Reagan's Star Wars defense program as well as aid to the Nicaraguan contras (Iran-Contra figure Oliver North even received a story credit for an episode!). The just-completed third season revolves around two key issues from the Reagan era: the debate over apartheid in South Africa and aid to the Afghan mujahidin in their battle against the Soviet Union. Early 1980s popular culture also rears its head in The Americans with references to Fantasy Island, the final episode of M*A*S*H, and the Commodore 64 computer.
Throughout the season, the Afghanistan conflict lurks and the writers appear to offer indirect commentary on our current conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. The KGB in the Soviet embassy in Washington watch a video of a mujahidin shooting a Russian soldier in what looks eerily similar to an ISIS execution. Elizabeth and Philip's KGB handler tells them. "Everyone's worried about the war. Kids are coming home every day in caskets," adding, "Reagan wants to turn Afghanistan into our Vietnam." Philip is often heard listening to news about the conflict and we discover that his son from a previous relationship is serving there.
Philip and Elizabeth are tasked with undermining attempts by the United States and Pakistan to support the Afghan resistance. Philip manages to blackmail a secular Pakastani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent named Yousaf to help him. "You're fighting barbarians," Yousaf declares, telling him the Pakistani army is becoming increasingly Islamicized. "Us now," Philip responds, "you next. And maybe sooner than you think," in what seems a not-so thinly veiled reference to Pakistan's contemporary problems with radical Islam, the roots of which can be traced to the CIA's war against the Red Army in the 1980s.
In the short term, Philip and Elizabeth manage to prevent the United States from sending Stinger missiles to the mujahidin. Eventually, though, the United States would provide these weapons to the Afghan rebels, giving them the ability to shoot down Soviet aircraft and helping pave the way for the Russian withdrawal. These events are more thoroughly depicted in the Tom Hanks film Charlie Wilson's War (2007).
Another central subplot of the season revolves around Elizabeth and Elizabeth assisting the African National Congress (ANC) in its fight against apartheid in South Africa. It's hard to believe today given the encomiums following Nelson Mandela's death in 2013, but the Reagan administration was a de facto ally of the Pretoria regime during the 1980s while the Soviet Union and the South African Communist Party supported the ANC. Claiming to follow a policy of "constructive engagement" with the government of prime minister P. W. Botha in order to bring about change, Reagan vetoed sanctions against South Africa, only to have Congress override his veto. "He [Reagan] calls the ANC terrorists while supporting Botha and his murderers," declares a South African agent recruited by Elizabeth.
In The Americans, the apartheid regime tries to get a South African student to bomb George Washington University in hopes the blame will fall on the burgeoning anti-apartheid movement, which was gaining momentum across the country. Although the 1980s are not remembered as a decade marked by campus activism, students across the country successfully fought for universities to divest themselves from South Africa, furthering the regime's international isolation. In the end, Elizabeth and Philip stop the plot and an ANC activist working with them kills the operative sent by the regime, placing a tire filled with fuel around his neck and burning him alive. Known as necklacing, the ANC often used this practice during the 1980s.
The success of The Americans hinges on the fact that the audience knows the United States won the Cold War and because memories of the tensions of the era have faded since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a result, we can sympathize (to a degree) as the protagonists struggle to balance their ruthless espionage with protecting their family. If we were closer to the Reagan years, it would be difficult to identify at all with the dilemmas facing two Soviet agents fanatically trying to undermine the American way of life.
Though espionage is an important part of the The Americans, many critics argue that the family drama is the essence of the show. Suspicious that something about her parents did not add up for the first two seasons, Philip and Elizabeth's youngest daughter, Paige, demands to know their secrets and her parents reveal their true identity. In the season's final episode, which takes place on March 8, 1983, Paige tells her trusted pastor that her parents are really Russians while Elizabeth and Philip watch President Reagan give his famous "Evil Empire" speech that denounced the regime they serve. Though the audience knows the United States won the Cold War, we still want to know what's next to come on The Americans.
Robert Fleegler is an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the 20th Century (2013).