Communism, The Americans, and the Nature of Evil

The Americans, FX’s new TV series about KGB sleeper agents living in America in the early 1980s, has drawn mostly rave reviews. I have a somewhat mixed reaction. On the positive side, I thought that Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are extremely effective in the lead roles of Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, KGB agents who were inserted into the United States at a young age so they can pose as “ordinary” Americans while carrying out their espionage missions. While it is easy to dismiss this scenario as fanciful spy fiction, the KGB and its post-Soviet successors really did use sleeper agents of this type.

My main criticism of the portrayal of communism in much of Western popular culture and intellectual discourse is that it tends to ignore or downplay communist crimes and atrocities, as most recently evident in the fawning obituaries of the late British communist historian Eric Hobsbawm; a lifelong Nazi sympathizer would never have been so lionized by mainstream media and academia. To its credit, The Americans avoids this mistake. The Jennings’ superiors and the KGB generally get a uniformly negative portrayal. If anything, the KGB agents portrayed in the series actually commit more violent crimes and assassinations than actual KGB operatives in the United States did (in part because such activities greatly increased the chance of agents’ getting caught).

My biggest reservation about the series is that a key part of its premise breaks down if you think about it carefully. What makes the show work is that the Jennings (unlike their superiors) are in some ways sympathetic, and often portrayed as basically good people who happen to be in the service of an evil cause. The problem here is that, by the time the series starts in 1981, they have already lived in the United States for some 15 years, and have had a chance to see for themselves that the people are vastly freer and better off than those who live under the communism system they lived under in the USSR. Given that blatantly obvious reality, the Jennings would have to be either stupid (which they are clearly not) or willfully blind to see that they are in fact working for the wrong side in the Cold War. Moreover, as is pointed out in the very first episode, they could easily avoid punishment for their crimes and ensure themselves and their children (who are unaware of their parents’ true identities) a comfortable life by defecting and agreeing to cooperate with US intelligence agencies.

Matters might be more complicated if the Jennings were not communists, but believers in some ideology that is indifferent or hostile to individual freedom and material abundance. When radical Islamist Sayyid Qutb lived in the US in the 1940s, he came to hate America precisely because it was freer and wealthier than his native Egypt, which he (correctly) believed drew Americans away from Islamist-like values. Communism, by contrast, is not an ascetic ideology. Far from rejecting freedom and prosperity, its central claim is that it offers a superior way of achieving both. The Jennings’ many years in America (combined with their earlier experience growing up in the Soviet Union) should have led them to realize that that claim is baseless. Obviously, the United States circa 1981 was far from an ideal society. But it was so clearly superior to Soviet communism by communism’s own purported standards that the choice between them should not have been a difficult one for anyone who endorsed those standards and was genuinely knowledgeable about both nations.

Phillip, who is portrayed more sympathetically than Elizabeth, to some extent does realize the above. He seriously considers defecting. The audience, I think, is supposed to view him more positively as a result. To me, however, it makes him seem worse rather than better. To a greater extent than Elizabeth, he knows he is doing evil. Yet he keeps right on doing it, despite the fact that he could easily stop at little cost to himself or his family. Even if Elizabeth refuses to cooperate in his defection, he could probably cut a deal under which she would get immunity in exchange for his spilling the beans to the FBI. If you think about it carefully, the protagonists of The Americans come to seem like evil people serving an evil cause, rather than sympathetic servants of evil masters.

There are great TV series and works of literature that have villain protagonists who are utterly evil and unsympathetic, but seem interesting for other reasons. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a classic example, and House of Cards is a good recent one. But The Americans extensively relies on creating audience sympathy for the protagonists and it suffers when that sympathy is lost.

That said, this is clearly one of those cases where people’s reactions to a show are likely to be influenced by their own experiences and commitments. If I was not as steeped as I am in this particular subject, I might not have thought about the characters’ morality as carefully as I did, and might have perceived them differently – as many other viewers obviously did. And, my reservations notwithstanding, I still find the show interesting enough to keep watching.

UPDATE: I have made a few stylistic changes to this post.

UPDATE #2: I would like to briefly respond to two issues raised in the comments. First, it is possible that the Jennings are motivated by Russian nationalism rather than communism. Committed nationalists often support “their” country against rivals even if the rival is morally superior. The problem is that neither of the Jennings actually mentions nationalism as a motivation for their actions, whereas Elizabeth, at least, often refers to communism, including her hope that her children will grow up to be “socialists” (and, if they do, she suggests, she won’t mind if they think of themselves as Americans rather than Russians).

Others argue that the Jennings’ views are an understandable (even if not ultimately proper) reaction to the seeming bellicosity of the Reagan Administration. The problem with this theory is that their service to the KGB (and their extensive experience of life in the US) long predates Reagan’s election in 1980. They were doing the same kind work in the era of 1970s detente, and under Jimmy Carter.