While the US may struggle with its own history of espionage, its CIA and FBI have nothing on the KGB. The Soviet security agency has been one of the great faceless ‘villains’ in the American imagination since World War Two. Since so many of the Cold War’s ‘battles’ took place behind closed doors, some of the conflict’s key moments – and even players – may be unknown to history. Hollywood usually responded to this lack of information about ‘what was really happening’ by portraying the Cold War as a battle against Russians who are villainous caricatures – with the KGB as a one-note, shadowy threat. The US TV series The Americans, which begins its third season on 28 January, challenges that notion by giving Soviet agents a familiar face – one we are supposed to empathise with. This is a radical shift in perspective, the full implications of which haven’t been examined as closely as they should.

In the series, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are Soviet agents posing as a quiet suburban family in the early 1980s. As The Americans explores the agents' ongoing missions to disrupt US interests and juggle other daunting orders from their handlers, it adopts the twisting structure of a classic espionage tale. The disguises they wear when assuming different identities, marked by innumerable ridiculous wigs, wouldn't feel out of place in an episode of The A-Team or Alias.

But the show has a distinctive edge thanks to creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent, whose storylines continually emphasise the similarities between the spies and their American foes. The result is a subtle parody of American suburban life: Philip and Elizabeth grapple with how best to raise their children, navigate infidelities and jealousies, deal with ‘bedroom problems’ and intrusive neighbours. It’s the stuff of soap operas, except that this nuclear family has a hand in events that might actually go nuclear. The bad guys don't just look like ‘us’; they struggle like us, too.

Seeing red

A few years ago, Sleeper Cell, another programme on US TV, attempted a similar concept but set in the present day — with Islamic terrorists fighting the CIA on American soil. Yet its plot felt hyperbolic and out of touch with reality. The lure of dramatic embellishment also holds back other popular shows about domestic terrorism such as Homeland and 24, which offer escapist fantasies about American security measures but struggle to top each increasingly outlandish plot point with events that are even more extreme.

Though it’s set in the past, the timing for The Americans couldn't be better. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, US culture has grown more paranoid than ever about what its government is willing to do in the name of security. The Americans’ KGB agents may use unsettling tactics including seduction, blackmail and murder – but their opposition in the US doesn't exactly take the high road. In fact, the FBI uses many of the same techniques as the KGB. And when an FBI supervisor meets his KGB counterpoint on a chilly street and says, "You target our people, we target yours," it's hard to determine which side can claim moral righteousness. A scene like this would have been unthinkable in American pop culture of the 1980s, with its strict divide between us and them, heroes and villains. Just think of jingoistic films like Red Dawn, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. The Americans projects contemporary fears about government overreach into the past.

Shades of grey

A revision of the typical Hollywood perspective on the Cold War fits in well with the mood of television today. Since Breaking Bad, the medium has been drawn to anti-heroes. But The Americans goes one step further. By the end of Breaking Bad, there's no doubting Walter White's intrinsic villainy, but in the case of The Americans, nothing is certain. Both sides are passionate about their cause and prisoners to it.

And the show even subverts the idea of patriotism itself by engaging with the messy humanity behind national conflicts. Philip is accused of liking life in the US too much, while Elizabeth weighs her duty to Mother Russia against her maternal instincts. (Her two children remain in the dark about their parents' missions.) The dinner table silence that concluded the second season followed the revelation of the couple's orders to turn their daughter Paige over to the KGB, who will force her to become a spy and face terrible danger. With the Jennings divided between professional and personal obligations, the season finale contained an unnerving sense of ambiguity about what might happen next.

The Americans makes history personal – and maybe even turns these Russian spies into the good guys, as it becomes clear that they are captives of their home country’s government as much as they are its agents. Far from being yet another ‘us v them’ story of the Cold War, Philip and Elizabeth’s escapades ultimately have us questioning the idea of national identity itself. That’s how you make the Cold War burn with new relevance.

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