Mel and I have a new television obsession. It’s The Americans on FX and we’ve become devoted watchers. As children of the 80s, we love the whole world of the show, and we are particularly attracted by the conceit that dangerous international espionage could have been taking place under our very noses when we were growing up in our milquetoast suburbs. My only complaint with the show is that practically nothing looks like it is actually set in Washington, DC or its suburbs. They shoot somewhere in New York I guess, which is too bad because it is the only part of the show that feels inauthentic. They nail the 80s clothes, music and cars; as well as the Cold War fever-pitch that Reagan whipped the country into. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are excellent as Elizabeth and Philip — the KGB agents who are living so deep under-cover that they blend in with the rest of the suburban families in their neighborhood. But they are textured and complex characters who struggle with the line between the lies necessitated by their assignments, and the authentic relationships they have living as a family, both within their is-it-or-isn’t-it-fake marriage and their very unfake children who live life completely oblivious to their parents’ true identities. [spoilers ahead]
Like many couples, Elizabeth and Philip have differing attitudes toward work. Elizabeth is ideologically committed to her role as a KGB officer. She’s devoted to the mission and trusts in the chain of command to issue orders which she is not to question. She believes that America is a shallow, materialistic society bent on the destruction of the USSR. Philip is less absolutist in his attitude, but no less effective. He seems more motivated by devotion to people than to the advancement of a Soviet espionage agenda. He’s ready to defect during the pilot episode, but abandons that plan because the ex-KGB agent about to bring him in had raped Elizabeth during her training as an agent. Whether it is Philip’s sense of justice, his genuine love for his fake wife or something more calculated, he kills the defector, rather than follow him out of the KGB’s employ.
He is skeptical of the orders that come from Moscow. When events begin to spin out-of-control in the wake of the Reagan assassination attempt, he believes their job is to help prevent a war between the Soviet Union and the USA rather than gain the advantage for the USSR in an inevitable war. He is motivated by protecting his family and when Elizabeth tells him she’d rather kill herself than be captured by the FBI, Philip tells her that if they catch him he’ll cooperate so quickly that the Feds will be at their house within an hour — presumably to protect the kids and arrest Elizabeth. He contrasts the openness of the American press and political system with the fact that it takes the USSR weeks to even admit that the leader of the country has died. He’s a skeptic. A bit of an outsider. And that made me think, maybe he’s Jewish?
During the pilot episode we see a flashback to the moment that Philip and Elizabeth met for the first time in some drafty Kremlin office. Just prior to that scene, Philip, while waiting for the meeting to commence, considers a wallet photograph of a woman, and then after staring at it wistfully, tears it up and throws it in the trash. On a simple plot level, this is clearly some sort of love-interest who obviously will show up later in the series (this coming week’s episode in-fact). But I like to read it on a slightly deeper level. This act of tearing up the photo is a physical separation from Philip’s “old life.” Whoever he was, whatever was possible or impossible in that life no longer exists. He gets to re-invent himself.
And Philip flourishes as a reinvented American. It is a difference between himself and Elizabeth that the show emphasizes again and again. His ease in the American milieu is part of the reason he was put through a torturous mock-interrogation by the KGB to test his loyalty. Elizabeth by contrast, is subjected to some rather weak “psychological” manipulation by being placed in a closet covered with photos of her children.
I know that the idea of a Jewish KGB operative during this period is a somewhat ahistorical proposition. While there were plenty of Jewish spies earlier in the 20th Century, following the Doctors’ Trial it became pretty clear that Jews would remain outsiders in the Worker’s Paradise. It would have been tricky to find enthusiastic volunteers. On the other hand, Markus Wolf was the Jewish head of the East German foreign spy agency for many years — so it’s not impossible. In fact, Philip may be constructed partly along the lines of Markus Wolf’s own spying methods, according to his Washington Post obituary,
Mr. Wolf said he was likely to be remembered for his prolific use of sex to gain secrets, whether in the form of brothels to trap Westerners or by procuring wives and mistresses for loyal soldiers or by cultivating “Romeo spies” to target the lonely office secretaries and bureaucrats who had access to important, restricted documents. The intention was to steal hearts and then secrets.
So it could be that show creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields had Markus “Mischa” Wolf in mind when they created Philip? They haven’t been asked, but they are both Jewish and in an interview with the Jewish Journal:
both men said they were also inspired as children by stories of Jewish agents and covert operatives: for example, Eli Cohen, the Israeli who was caught and publicly hanged in Damascus in 1965, and Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli assault commander killed in the 1976 top-secret raid on Entebbe. “I got a book of his letters for my bar mitzvah, and his story just bored into me and made me feel like he was the kind of man you’re supposed to be — an intellectual and a hero,” Weisberg said.
So maybe Philip is a Soviet version of The Man Without a Face? Weisberg is a former CIA agent who would be very familiar with Wolf and they have certainly incorporated his tactic of using sex to gain access to secrets as a standard (and steamy) feature of the show. Perhaps we’ll learn that Philip comes from a Wolf-like family, Jews who survived the Nazis thanks to the Soviet Army and became fiercely loyal in-return. Perhaps Philip has always felt distrust for the Soviet State even as he operated from the heart of an agency that was central to its identity. Perhaps he is so successful in impersonating an American because he is the quintessential American: an outcast from somewhere else who through hard work and luck gets access to circles of power that would have been unimaginable in the “old country.” I’ll enjoy seeing the show unravel these questions.
But we may not see them arise this season. In that same Jewish Journal article Fields said,
“We wrote a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season,” Fields said. “Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”
Imagine if in the end, Philip doesn’t become a double-agent for the CIA, but instead the Mossad? How awesome will that be?