A postmodern reading: Where's Henry?
The Americans, 2013-2018 (FX, Amazon Prime)
Review by Peter Hulm
For many viewers The Americans was the best television series ever, and it offers a devastating picture of unthinking U.S. self-confidence about its place at the top of the world until the mid-1980s while it took our planet to the brink of nuclear war.
At the same time, the series' dramatization of the terrors of being a Soviet citizen at that time rewrites the high-school textbooks about East-West aggression — and for this at least should be prescribed viewing for all high-school children in the States. Its feel for the (fast-food) pleasures and frustrations in American life (such as the inhumanity of grinding jobs) is perfectly gauged.
No wonder it earned only mediocre early viewing figures (and was kept onscreen for the full six seasons by FX's commissioning producer, though seasons 4,5 and 6 had often fewer than 1 million viewers). It signally failed to celebrate the American dream.
I could go on about its achievements — the stellar acting by both Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as well as Noah Emmerich and all the others, its marvellous period decors and clothing, its sure pitch in timing, and its continually meaty stories in the conventional television soap format of running several narratives in parallel.
If I had to single out some of the most heart-rending stories apart from the principals, they would be the tales of Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru), Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), and Gabriel (Frank Langella) as well as Stan's. But let's do this postmodern*.
On this count, the central character in The Americans is Henry (Keidrich Sellati), the continually absent teenage son of the Jennings spy couple (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys). We discover in season 6 that the writers, mainly ex-CIA officer Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, beat us postmodernist critics to it.
Early on, everyone in the household continually protects the teenage brat from knowledge of his parents' activities, even his sister Paige (Holly Taylor). A large number of the conversations about spying start with checking that he is not around. We don't learn much about him, except for his obsession with computer games, until season 5.
In the meantime (season 5), when his father has taken what he wants for breakfast, and his mother offers him her toast, he protests that it doesn't have enough fruit jam on it and tosses it into the wastebasket while his sister complains she would have eaten it. He tells her she can take it out of the garbage and eat it if she wants.
Given that season 5 is about research into a grain that could resist all insects and save the world from hunger, it is hard to ignore the point the authors are implicitly making. They are no slouches as getting their themes to resonate across the most unlikely scenes in the series.
Henry, in fact, is our modern American hero, skilled in technology but centred only on himself and unconcerned about his impact on others. His closest confidant is the FBI agent next door, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), portrayed as a well-meaning but rather clueless counter-espionage investigator.
The picture we get from Henry is of an ungrateful innocent who knows nothing of the planetary issues swirling around his head. Meanwhile, his parents are concerned with saving the world from Reaganesque or Reganesque politics.
The spies' life — in intelligence and in business — starts to come apart when Henry moves away to boarding school. And Stan the FBI agent only starts to suspect his neighbours when they go off suddenly when the boy has come home for Thanksgiving. It's incredible to Stan.
Joe Weisberg has made no secret that his main concern was to depict the family life of a pair of spies, such as those found in the Illegals Program exposed in 2010: "The Americans is at its core a marriage story". But it's a remarkably knowing series. Thus we learn to tap into children's recognition that the activities of their parents are a largely a mystery, and for parents that the boredom and routine of daily life suddenly gains meaning if we imagine ourselves carrying out those actions to hide from the world that we are spies. The conformist predictability of all our actions suddenly has value.
The ideology of The Americans, deftly inserted in the drama, is the seductiveness of all that outsiders find most banal in American life — from its soporific television to its cuisine, from its car culture (how much time do the characters spend in automobiles?) to its insensitive politics, and the dangers of NOT blinding yourself to what is happening around you.
What makes The Americans different from most series, such as television's ubiquitous police specials, is that the authors are not Henrys. Each aspect of the ideology is challenged by another element in the story, including the 1970s group therapy movement EST, an evangelical priest (another amazing performance, by Kelly AuCoin), a Russian orthodox priest's belief in the obligations of a "man of God" (Konstantin Lavysh), and a dying painter (Myriam Shor) who tries to jolt Elizabeth into self-expression rather than self-denial.
None of the savvy, street-wise characters manage to save themselves. In season 6 the victims include the Russian sports star Gennadi (Yuri Kolokolnikov) and his wife (Darya Ekamasova) — a couple of hilariously brilliant performances of innocent deviousness. But they give us an alternative view of the system compared to the high and worrying seriousness that characterizes Philip and Elizabeth, Oleg and Tatiana (Vera Cherny).
Other critics have noted that The Americans may be the children rather than Philip and Elizabeth. But Paige (Holly Taylor), the long-time dutiful daughter and potential second-generation recruit, seems as much an enigma to the authors as to her parents. After she condemns her mother as "a whore" for seducing a young man to obtain information, she tells Stan the FBI man to take care of Henry, when they challenge him to stop them leaving. She gets into her parents' car to join them in the escape to Canada, then gets off the train on the U.S. side of the border (without telling them), as if she has suddenly/finally turned her back on their life and has decided to be an American. Then she appears back at the now empty Russian safehouse, unbottles some vodka, sits down and takes a shot. What's her future? We are left in confusion and, so it seems, are the authors, though this was the episode that won an Emmy writing award for Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg.
What many series do unconsciously — using the excitements of drama to make the audience imbibe the ideology of the framework (think Shakespeare's history plays or the pseudo-feminism of Charlie's Angels) — Fields and Weisberg use to force viewers to question their responses.
This the critics have been slow to acknowledge, perhaps because it challenges the economics of their approach to television reviewing, which values the spectacular rather than the realistic. Elizabeth's bursts of violence are not shown for us to admire her super-spy skills or to see anything more than an immediate calculation of benefit on her part. Our understanding does not lead us to forgiveness. Philip, earlier seen as the weaker character, becomes more admirable in refusing to surrender his humanity for national ideology and professional commitment.
Mass art, as Noël Carroll has pointed out, often gains its effects by posing a question whose answer intrigues us. In The Americans the questions are clearly: Will they get away with it? Will they get caught? How bad are they?
Standard thrillers don't require much more than a simple answer. Here, however, we gradually learn that they cannot get away with it because they are already caught, in the system they thought they were promoting, and that their acts lead to the destruction of an essential part of their humanity until they challenge their mission — a continual demand on them in which they are continually likely to fail, as much with their children and friends as with their unseen bosses.
In his review of Jaws in Lacanian terms (following the ideas of Jacques Lacan), the cultural critic Slavoj Žižek describes the shark as the film's objet petit a, the substitute for all that is threatening to the spectator in their real world which cannot be articulated but needs to be suppressed: this could be Soviet threats, commercialism, unemployment, even death — or all of them together.
The film deals with this substitute for us and enables us to leave it behind when the film is over.
The Americans does not offer this comfort.
If we are to try to identify its objet petit a, we would have to see this as the spying adventures of Philip and Elizabeth. What did any of their killings and exploits achieve for the larger benefit of the Soviet Union? All the conspiracies were wiped away with Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to move beyond nuclear deterrence. The spying was Philip and Elizabeth's objet petit a enabling them to ignore all the problems with an increasingly corrupt system coming apart.
In reality, Moscow's paranoia continued, leading to the Illegals Program (the inspiration for the series) and Putin's efforts to sway American politics. But as the authors have noted, many Americans would dismiss a realistic account of these events as unimportant in the post-nuclear climate.
Postmodernism's concern to focus user's attention on the invisible ("the Centre"), the unspoken (Paige's many mistakes as dutiful daughter), the taken-for-granted (the parents' many changes of clothes), the "natural" (the FBI's demands on its staff) in revealing the underlying "grand narrative", against which all postmodernists are suspicious, provides some insights that are easiest to recognize when binge-watching.
Among them, many times when asked about the future or a judgement, Philip says "I don't know". The viewer, too, is confronted with their ignorance. We may not have an answer (the series moves too fast for to be likely to), but we are certainly forced to consider how much of such a life raises questions at every turn.
In fact, because of what we can call "the orchestration of knowledge" in the series (U.S. = ignorant, foreign, particularly Russian = knowing), Philip's journey into puzzlement is a marker of his becoming American in nature. Take the scene where Philip questions an American member of staff at his travel agency to draw out what he did right about hooking a customer. The man has no idea until Philip drags it out of him. Contrast this with the scene where he visits an old (foreign) employee he felt obliged to sack: the man reveals he was aware for years of the spy couple's strange comings-and-goings and secretive conferences in their closed rear office.
At this point I want to shift the terms of the discussion from what can be called an interpretive (or exemplary) reading of the series (the second adjective is Daniel Coffeen's term) to a post-interpretive (or immanent) one. That is, from a kind of reading that labels a work with a particular piece of jargon, and derives its meanings from these labels, to one that confronts the work directly on its own terms.
As the previous sections sought to demonstrate, interpretive readings can be extremely useful, often enlightening. However, they depend on the reader/viewer turning to an acknowledged expert for understanding and relying on expert explication to make sense of the experience.
But how much does it help us appreciate The Americans to know that the author had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency? Interesting, true, but not much of an addition to our aesthetic appreciation.
The alternative means of engaging with an artistic product might be called a direct reading. But it seems unlikely that any person coming to a major work of art, such as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon or James Joyce's Ulysses (two of Coffeen's examples), would be approaching them without any previous training, preconceptions or prejudices. Hence my term post-interpretive. You need to learn to strip away these assumptions in order to practise such immanent (of-itself) reading and the traces of an interpretive reading cannot help but remain in your mind.
Coffeen, Daniel. 2016. Reading the Way of Things: Towards a New Technology of Making Sense. Zero Books. ISBN: 978-1-78535-414-4.
* The postmodern typically highlights the unnatural in what seems obvious or unimportant, and how what seems difficult is used often to obscure significant points.