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An American Expert on Russia Offers His Review of 'The Americans'
April 10, 2018  | By TVWW Guest Contributor
 

[Editor's Note: Guest Contributor, James Heinzen, is Professor of History at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, specializing in the history of modern Russia, and lived in Moscow for a time. His most recent book is 'The Art of the Bribe: Corruption under Stalin,' published for Yale University Press.]

WARNING: Possible spoilers…

The sixth and final season of The Americans takes a leap into a new world. From the dreary and colorless Soviet Union of the early 1980s, the show’s creators have moved us up three years to 1987, and a new, more hopeful era. Gone are the grey, ailing old Soviet leaders whose portraits in previous seasons hung in the KGB headquarters in Moscow, and in the Soviet Embassy in Washington. A new, visionary, and polarizing man has become the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.

The new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has bold ideas -- to reform the languishing Soviet economy, putting food on the shelves of stores and trying to fight the corruption and black markets, as we learned last season. Who can forget Martha, staring at the bare shelves as she contemplated her new life in Soviet exile? Meanwhile, the KGB agent Oleg investigated the Moscow food supply system, trying to root out its rampant bribery and figure out where all the food was going.

But Gorbachev is shaking things up in other ways as well. He challenges the power of the doddering old Russian men who have ruled for decades, including those who control the KGB. His vision is to liberalize, loosening state control and allowing for some elements of capitalism, such as small stores and businesses. These challenges, however, threaten the power of the entrenched bureaucrats and conservative party leaders, including in the army and the KGB.

In the new season, a rift within the KGB between those who are on board with Gorbachev’s reforms and the hard-liners who resist him mirrors the growing divide in the Jennings’ own household. Phillip, tired and disillusioned by 20 years of spy work, has chosen to throw himself into the travel agency business full time. Like many of his countrymen back in Russia, he has spent the past three years trying to learn how to be a capitalist, with decidedly mixed results.

In some hilarious scenes, a chipper Phillip tries to motivate his puzzled employees with line-dancing outings and motivational speeches, an awkward combination of EST-inspired lingo and small-business seminar-speak. Yet his business is not doing well, and Henry’s tuition payment is late.

Phillip seems encouraged by Gorbachev’s reforms, while Elizabeth hates them, confused by Gorbachev’s overtures to the United States. She thinks the new leader is a dangerous wild card.  “There’s trouble back home,” she warns Phillip.

And a powerful undertone of the season so far is that the Soviet Union to which Elizabeth has unswervingly dedicated her life is changing quickly, in completely unexpected ways. Like many in the KGB, she is deeply suspicious of Gorbachev, afraid that his schemes will weaken the Soviet Union in the face of the American enemy. She remains committed to doing anything to preserve what she remembers as the country of her birth.

Yet the new Russian leader is trying to take Russia in a drastically new direction. So what cause is Elizabeth risking her life for?

At the same time, some Americans in the State Department fear that the reliable Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan has gone soft in his old age and is caving in to Gorbachev’s charm offensive.

And the Jennings’ daughter, Paige? The second episode, entitled “Tchaikovsky,” sharpens its focus on the family problems, made more profound by the fact that Paige is ever more part of the family spy business. She even witnesses a gruesome death after impulsively running to her mother’s aid during an operation. Ever the professional, Elizabeth is furious that Paige left her post to help her Mom. In a remarkable scene that opens the third episode, Elizabeth explodes at Paige, her face pale and contorted, made up to make her look almost monstrous.  Although the conversation takes place in the Jennings house, she yells at Elizabeth to “go home!” Home, for Paige, is now her own apartment, while Elizabeth still thinks of the USSR as home.

In a moving, even tragic scene, the lonely, somber tones of Tchaikovsky play as Elizabeth explains to her daughter that agents sometimes must have sexual relationships with their targets in order to get information. Trouble back home, indeed.

The major issue that has framed the season so far is the increasingly out of control nuclear arms race, which the Soviet Union was losing. Gorbachev (right) will soon come to the United States, to Washington DC, to hold a summit with President Reagan to negotiate reductions in the number of intermediate-range nuclear weapons stationed in Europe. This so-called INF Summit infuriates conservatives in the KGB. In the show, Elizabeth and her team are gathering intelligence on Americans and Russians who serve on each country’s negotiation team.

But Inside the Soviet Union, this cooperation with America infuriated many hard-liners who were concentrated in the army, in the old guard of the Communist Party, and in the KGB. They were afraid that Gorbachev was betraying and weakening the Soviet Union through his reforms. The KGB is itself divided about Gorbachev’s attempts to reform Russia.

The characters of Arkady and Oleg support the reformers. They are hoping for Gorbachev to succeed. They want to protect Gorbachev’s ability peacefully to negotiate with the United States to reduce the threat of nuclear war. Oleg, now a family man who has been out of the KGB for three years, has been sent by Arkady to Washington to work undercover and protect the improving relationship with the United States that the conservatives in the KGB want to derail.

In a key moment, Phillip and Elizabeth remind each other that they haven’t lived in Russia for 20 years. As the old Soviet Union begins to deteriorate, the question at the heart of the final season of this Cold War drama is drawn even more starkly: What cause, exactly, are they fighting for?

 
 
 
 
 
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