Sex, Spies, and Videotape: Why ‘House of Cards’ Has Nothing on ‘The Americans’

You know that Washington, D.C.-based drama, the one with all the murder, sex, intrigue, and timely political innuendoes? No, no, not House of Cards. The one with all the wigs. You know, The Americans. With tonight’s debut of season two of FX’s spy thriller The Americans just two weeks after the second season of Netflix’s ...

Photo: FX Networks
Photo: FX Networks

You know that Washington, D.C.-based drama, the one with all the murder, sex, intrigue, and timely political innuendoes? No, no, not House of Cards. The one with all the wigs. You know, The Americans.

With tonight’s debut of season two of FX’s spy thriller The Americans just two weeks after the second season of Netflix’s buzzy, bingeable House of Cards, the comparisons are inevitable. Maybe it’s because we’re so starved for entertainment that actually offers a compelling window into international relations that we — well, at least the staff here at Foreign Policy — so enjoy these shows, despite the fact that their diplomatic drama is mostly window dressing. (A disgraced, corrupt Chinese mining mogul with the ear of the Communist Party working with an American energy tycoon on a mining project, House of Cards? Really?)

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not a fair comparison. The Americans complements House of Cards. In fact, The Americans is the antidote to House of Cards. While House of Cards is obsessed with high office and overt power, The Americans succeeds by intimately focusing on the personal.

The Americans, for the uninitiated, is a period drama set during the Reagan-era 1980s and traces the professional and personal lives of the Jennings family: Elizabeth (Keri Russell), Philip (Matthew Rhys), and their two children, mild-mannered suburbanites who run a Dupont Circle travel agency by day and by night spy for the Soviet Union. Elizabeth and Philip are deep undercover KGB operatives in an arranged marriage who were secretly smuggled into the United States a decade earlier. Much of the first season focused on a cat-and-mouse game between the Jennings and their neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counterintelligence agent.

The Americans and House of Cards may take place in the same city, but not in the same world. The Washington of House of Cards is driven by sheer, unrestrained greed — it’s all smoke-filled rooms, executive offices, marble hallways. The Washington of The Americans is, in its own twisted way, driven by love — of family and of country, and the characters’ conflicted loyalties to both. It takes place in suburban bedrooms and the offices of midlevel federal bureaucrats, not the corridors of power on which House of Cards is so fixated. People in high office are scarcely present in The Americans. President Ronald Reagan is seen only in news stories. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger is a disembodied voice — one tape-recorded in his bugged office. Unlike House of Cards, a soap opera built on its capacity to shock, the characters in The Americans do everything in their power to act normal — trying to manage their conflicting loyalties to the people and ideals they care about.

FP watched the first two episodes from the new second season; minor spoilers from the first season follow.

The Americans is, at its heart, a family drama, even if it requires preposterous hijinks. Much of the first season dealt with the dynamics of Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage. After more than a decade of acting like a loving couple, they finally became one, despite Elizabeth’s stronger commitment to the Soviet cause. The new season finds Stan Beeman, the FBI agent across the street, ambivalent about his marriage. He has been forced out of his home for having an affair with an informant, Nina, an attaché at the Soviet Embassy. Nina, meanwhile, feels betrayed after the FBI declined to bring her into the United States and give her citizenship ("exfiltrate" is a shopworn term on the show) and has begun spying for the embassy: a triple agent. Meanwhile, Philip is still trying to juggle his marriage to Elizabeth with his marriage to Martha, a source he has cultivated in the FBI’s counterintelligence office and who believes he’s an FBI agent named Clark probing the office for moles.

The second season opens with Elizabeth returning to what is, for the first time, a happy, loving marriage with Philip. Driving back to Washington from a safe house where she has been recuperating from a gunshot wound, she nearly hits a doe and its fawns startled in the headlights of her car. Elizabeth and Philip rendezvous with another deep-cover KGB couple for a routine operation that goes off the rails and demonstrates how fragile their family’s security can be. Meanwhile, their teenage daughter, Paige, is growing suspicious of her parents, and Elizabeth is still struggling to balance her love and loyalty for the Soviet Union with her love and loyalty for her American children.

"How are we going to live like this?" Elizabeth asks at the end of the second episode. The deer-in-headlights scene is ominous: Something is coming, and she is trapped in the middle, a mother trying to protect her children.

While the characters and their internal conflicts have the feel of authenticity, the actual espionage on the show, at times, can be silly. Although Soviet agents were known to use sex to extort secrets, the show has a tendency to go overboard. "Let’s just say it’s contrived," John Prados, a historian at the National Security Archive, told Vulture last year. But a show about Soviet spies listening to radios — or Russian spies reading newspapers and going to PTA meetings, as was the case with the 2010 espionage incident that partially inspired the series — wouldn’t make for as exciting a show.

The international politics depicted are less contrived and are secondary to the personal lives and loves of the characters. It’s 1981, the Soviets are in Afghanistan, and in the new season’s first episode Philip, disguised as a Charlie Wilson-esque Texan in a yoked sports coat and ten-gallon hat, meets with a pair of mujahideen. "We love America. With your guidance and the help of Allah, we will drive the godless Communists from Afghanistan," a mujahid tells him. "It’s good to have the same enemy." But the mission doesn’t seem essential to the plot; the scene is more a matter of explaining Philip’s mood later in the episode than about great-power politics.

Similarly, one of the first season’s best episodes dealt with the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Reagan. What made the episode compelling was Philip and Elizabeth’s scramble to try to find out what would happen next and the cultural disconnect between their lives in the West and their overseers in Moscow. Historical events, for the most part, happen off-screen, and the show avoids the trap of clumsily relying on these moments to drive the plot. (For a counterexample, go back and watch the let’s-bludgeon-you-with-the-historical-significance approach of Pan Am.) The Americans thrives on understatement — fitting for a show about spooks. Historical events are incidental. They inform the show, but they’re rarely essential to the plot.

That was the intent of Joe Weisberg, the show’s creator and a veteran of the CIA. "The most interesting thing I observed during my time at the CIA was the family life of agents who served abroad with kids and spouses," he told Time magazine last year. "We already know how the Cold War ends. Nobody knows how this marriage will end." At its core, The Americans is about people reconciling their loyalties to the people and ideals they love — for example, the Jenningses’ duty to spy for the Soviet Union and their duty to protect their children, or Beeman’s feelings for the Bureau and his source clouding his feelings for his family. The show has heart, making its Washington more The West Wing than House of Cards. (That might be by design: The new season’s first episode is directed by Thomas Schlamme, who was an executive producer for The West Wing‘s first four seasons.)

And that’s its strength. Frank Underwood, the protagonist of House of Cards, is an outright villain motivated only by power. The Jennings and the other characters on The Americans are driven by something more. Even as they kill Americans and steal secrets in a quiet war against the United States, it’s clear that wanton greed isn’t part of the equation. "I see all that money in your bag; you didn’t spend a penny. You didn’t do it for the money; you did it for something much bigger," Philip tells a source. Elizabeth, called out to help a new Cuban spy, tells her in a rare moment of sincerity, "Your revolution is beautiful. It’s a foothold for us in Central America. We’re here to help you. Call anytime." And then there are the children to think about.

You don’t have to agree with their ideals, but at least they have them. And that makes for a much more human, much more watchable Washington.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster