The Weekend’s Viewing: It’s not easy being a deep-cover KGB agent in Eighties America

The Americans, Sat, ITV / Spying on Hitler’s Army: the Secret Recordings, Sun, Channel 4

The scene that summed up The Americans came when Elizabeth popped out to the garage of her suburban home in Washington.

Up against the walls was all the usual bric-à-brac of American middle-class life, the snow shovels and bikes and fridge freezer. And in the trunk of the car, gagged and strait-jacketed, was a top-ranking Soviet defector, recently kidnapped by Elizabeth and her husband, Phillip. The plan had been to return him to the Motherland but after another of their colleagues was injured in the operation, the Jennings miss the boat (literally) and have to keep him in cold storage until they can work out an alternative. It’s really not easy being a deep-cover KGB agent in Eighties America. Particularly when your daughter comes home from school after you’ve had a long night honeytrapping a presidential security adviser and tells you that her homework is to write  a paper on how the Russians always cheat at arms control.

The Americans began with an action scene that played like a cross between a music video and a Grand Theft Auto mission – the kidnap, accompanied by a pulsing soundtrack and a lot of hand-to-hand chopsocky and fast driving. But it’s really interested in quieter stuff. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Phillip, recruited in Moscow in the early Sixties and groomed for a perfect cover. They are part of a Soviet espionage elite, so deeply embedded that they’re virtually undetectable. Even the counter-intelligence agents hunting them aren’t convinced they exist: “They’re not  allowed to use a word of Russian once they’re here,” one man says to a colleague, “C’mon. Someone’s been reading too many spy novels.” But the Jennings do exist, juggling driving junior to hockey practice with dead drops and wet jobs.

It’s an interesting idea to build a classic them-and-us drama around the enemy perspective, but unfortunately The Americans doesn’t  have anything like the daring of Homeland, which led the way  with this secret suburbia theme. Elizabeth is the ideologue of the two, always intent on completing the mission. Phil shows signs of going native, praising the electricity supply and the amount of closet space. But there’s no real danger that Elizabeth’s mistrust of capitalism might have some force behind it. In one of the flashbacks to their arrival in the Sixties you see them checking into a motel and marvelling at the air conditioning. But Elizabeth isn’t entirely seduced: “There’s a weakness in the people. I can feel it.” A better drama would have made you wonder whether she might actually have a point. This one simply plants the line as evidence of intransigence and then concentrates instead on Phillip’s touching emotional susceptibility to the American way.

Conflicted loyalties and faltering beliefs were also at the heart of Spying on Hitler’s Army, an account of wartime eavesdropping on high-ranking German PoWs that began with the ludicrously over-hyped claim that it was: “One of the most audacious operations ever carried out by British Intelligence.” Oh sure, they wired a stately home for sound and then... the sheer nerve is just breathtaking... transcribed the resulting recordings! It was very interesting though in its account of political arguments between German generals and the chilling matter-of-factness with which prisoners talked of experiences of atrocities on the Eastern front.

General Heinrich Kittel indignantly shared a memory with a fellow officer of a mass shooting, his outrage, it slowly became clear, deriving only from the unseemly openness of the business and the possibility that the mass grave might pollute his troops’ water supply. Not all officers were so  morally numb. When the assembled prisoners were shown the first newsreels coming out of the death camps, one of them commented bitterly: “That’s the only thing about the Thousand-Year Reich that will last a thousand years.”

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