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Dead Tree Alert: Wed Menace; or, the Marital Politics of The Americans

FX's Cold War drama has the action of a thriller like Homeland, but the melancholy and ambiguous shadings of a character study like Mad Men.

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Craig Blankenhorn / FX

Brief spoilers for last night’s The Americans follow:

My column in this week’s print TIME magazine is about FX’s The Americans, and I’m glad we picked this week to run it, because last night’s “Duty and Honor” continued a run of fantastic episodes. In the column (subscription required), I look at why, even though The Americans shares so many features with other cable dramas (protagonists with secret lives, espionage and betrayal, family as metaphor for work and vice versa), it feels so distinctive and fresh.

One reason, I think, is that while we’ve seen plenty of dramas that ask us to identify with antiheroes or villains, this one embeds us with an actual enemy, represented by characters who do terrible things not out of greed but idealism. This is where The Americans’ period setting comes in handy:

The show begins at the beginning of the Soviets’ end. In the second episode, the Jenningses bug the home of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger–a ruthless mission that involves poisoning his housekeeper’s son and withholding the antidote–to eavesdrop about a secret defense project: the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. The ballistic-missile shield may not have killed the U.S.S.R., but the symbolism is clear. We are watching a drama about the dinosaurs, and they have just glimpsed a distant asteroid.

Knowing this gives The Americans an air of tragedy it’d be hard to pull off on, say, a show about al-Qaeda sleepers. And historical distance–30 years’ worth of bygones–gives the show room to build an intimate picture of marriage as a partnership and a struggle. (Creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer, drew loosely on the 2010 Russian spy-ring case involving several married couples.) Elizabeth and Philip, whose cover is running a travel agency, are the ultimate working couple, with a division of labor that would shame most dual-income households in the Sheryl Sandberg era: they share the child-rearing and the hand-to-hand combat.

“Duty and Honor” focused on another strength of the show: its attention to what it means to live a life of fake-but-maybe-real relationships. Can you cheat on a fake spouse? Can you will a cover relationship into reality? Can you trust your oldest love? When Philip has a flash of insight and asks Irina whether their “son” is real, it’s heartbreaking—he seems to mourn not just the marriage he and Irina couldn’t have, not just the son he briefly believed he had, but the fact that he lives a life where this question—”The boy. Is he real?”—is natural and automatic.

Spy stories often use metaphors of ghost and shadows, but The Americans portrays the secret-agent life as something like a dream-state or a hallucination. As in a dream, you are both creating the fiction and being deceived by it; a love, a child, an entire past can shift from real to fake to uncertain. It’s interesting that Irina never directly says if the child is real or not—”Only duty and honor are real”—as if to say that it’s beside the point. He’s as real as he needs to be in that moment.

The Cold War espionage makes The Americans exciting, and last night’s was no exception. But what makes it emotional and gorgeous is how it portrays Philip and Elizabeth’s Twilight Zone reality. It has the action of a thriller like Homeland, but the melancholy and ambiguous shadings of a character study like Mad Men. For a TV spy story, it has a moody, charcoal-shaded loveliness—a Russian temperament amid an American entertainment. As Nina tells Stan toward the end of “Duty and Honor”: “You Americans, you think everything is white and black. For us, everything is gray.” On The Americans, gray is beautiful.