'The Americans'
'The Americans'

Even Russian spies can't dis religion on American television.

That's an odd lesson from the second season of "The Americans," a show that has built its well-deserved reputation by crossing boundary after boundary, which were once immutable on advertiser-supported networks. (Season two spoilers abound.)

Start with the fact that we actually identify with "Phillip" and "Elizabeth Jennings," the aliases of the deeply undercover Russian agents who are the protagonists of the series. In drama, we always identify with the protagonists, no matter their allegiance or what they do. (In this, former CIA agent and series creator Joe Weisberg follows Aeschylus, who fought at Marathon but wrote "The Persians," our oldest extant drama, from his enemies' point of view.) 

The Jennings' peculiar marriage -- arranged by the KGB, supportive of honey traps, and subject, at least in Elizabeth's case, to unauthorized desire -- does not merely accept extra-marital sex: it actually demands it.

How they deal with this -- precariously -- is fascinating. Both are jealous and both accept what the other does. They kill but not with impunity. They justify their actions as acts of war (and Weisberg is explicit that they are simply doing what we do in return, an attitude typical of former agents) but at huge emotional cost. Killing is seen as both horrendous and a fact of Cold War life, leaving us, the audience, standing on extremely unstable ground.

Questions of loyalty and belief are inevitable aspects of any spy drama. In season one, "The Americans" dealt with such questions in a traditional espionage manner. Phillip is a bit too comfortable with America's materialist comforts; neighbor/FBI agent Stan falls in love with a Russian woman, fissuring a marriage whose rules are violable while placing Stan in a position where (as of last week's episode, SPOILER ALERT) seems about to have to choose between loyalty to his lover and to his country.

But this season, an even more interesting test of beliefs comes into play: the Jennings' daughter, Paige, has been seduced by an Evangelical church. On the one hand, this is a beautiful, series-specific, story: the Jennings marry and have children so as to go undercover as a typical American middle-class family. To maintain their cover, they have to raise their children with values that are contrary to their own.

Of course, children often do not share their parents' value system. (Think of the generational shift on gay rights as an obvious example.)  The story resonates because, like the series' treatment of extra-marital sex, it examines a social issues obliquely, and with a dramatic center. What do you do if your child begins to believe in something that is antithetical to your core values?

Yet this is one instance where "The Americans"' solution is not reflective of the problem it raises.