I just watched the series finale of The Americans. I won’t spoil it. What I will acknowledge is that despite its historical setting, the brutality in the series is apparently fictional–at least in terms of what happens to the spies. In fact, the series creator even trained in real-life intelligence work, until he decided it was just too boring a gig. That said, The Americans does point to the expense, the worry, and the constant calculation that went into managing information for both sides of the Cold War. The anxiety, as we know, was real. Both The Americans and the history it draws from are deeply sad. Even if we make the huge concession of putting the many US/Soviet proxy wars aside, people did die–or they spent their lives in prison, or they lost their careers. And all this is to say that although the espionage side of the conflict might have been more peaceful than what The Americans portrays, the cost of the whole war may be higher than we will ever know.
The saddest part of The Americans is that regardless of what happens to its principal characters onscreen, you and I know that the Soviet Union falls to disarray. From a western viewpoint, that could be a good thing–but only to an extent. New wars will emerge from the fall. Nuclear material will scatter to mini-despots and highest bidders. And despite how The Americans’ spy story ends in 1987, we have since realized that the espionage still goes on. This, in fact, is the most poignant part of the series finale. It’s not articulated, per se; it’s not a point of plot as much as it is a point of history–or even the present. The peace that all the spies fought for–the reforms from Gorbachev, the demise of a super power–all of that work has since lead either to a failure or a trick. After the rise of Gorbachev, the Soviet Union ended (failure), but the Cold War did not (trick). We did not win. We did not. Instead, as with The Americans’ parting image of a young spy in a safehouse, our adversary just started to wait. Russia is apparently good at waiting. They waited for years. Russia, after all, abided long enough to make 2016 part of the the same damn war. And one of the reasons why its patience has gone so undetected is exactly because the work behind it is not flashy. It is just too boring a gig. In fact, it moves merely through study, and query, and incremental control of what they choose to make into scintillating information.
(Originally posted June 14, 2018)