There's plenty at stake on tonight's season-two finale of FX's The Americans. If you're the gambling sort, take the over on body count (2.5), goofy wigs (7.5), shocking betrayals of one's country (1.5), and sparingly deployed and thus even more badass '80s-pop-classic montages (0.5; last year's finale did "Games Without Frontiers," it was rad).
But those stakes are, as always, deeply personal: Aside from a few nods to real-life early-'80s spy-type affairs (stealth technology, the Contras, Afghanistan, ARPANET), this is largely a show about Russian spies posing as a normal American family, where the fight to keep that family together overshadows the fight to, y'know, bring down America. But I've been rooting for that family to keep it together for so long that I'm now actively hoping they bring down America, too.
What the hell: Let's let the Russians win the Cold War this time.
The Americans is fantastic, by the way: tense without pummeling you with that tension, 24-style; sexy without inundating you with boner-jam gratuitousness, True Detective-style. All the cheeseball, junior-high-minded T&A Game of Thrones can throw at you goes limp in the shadow of just one fully clothed, no-contact dishwashing scene in the kitchen of titular sham-Americans Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) that I'm at pains to even describe.
(OK, fine: She's trying to convince him to have sex with her while still in the guise of Clark, one of his many wig-driven American aliases, the one married to Martha, a heartbreakingly oblivious FBI secretary who had confided, drunkenly, to Elizabeth—who was in the guise of Clark's dowdy sister—that Clark is "a wild animal" in bed. "What kind of wild animal?" Elizabeth now inquires, re: the lovemaking technique of her only partially fake husband's completely-fake-husband alter-ego, while Philip just dries glasses and scowls.)
(Look, just watch this.)
Anyway, as ex-CIA spook and series creator Joe Weisberg has insisted, this is a fake-marriage-as-metaphor-for-actual-marriage jam, the Cold War intrigue merely standing in for plain old suburban ennui. Real-world events do intrude—the '81 Ronald Reagan assassination attempt briefly jolted the first season—but at nothing near Mad Men levels in terms of either frequency or ennui. In spare, sudden bursts of unglamorous violence, Philip and Elizabeth kill people (mostly American, plenty of them innocent), but the usual TV-antihero rules apply: You relate, and you sympathize. Just another hard-working American family.
The show thus far has roughly followed real-world history, even its fictions. Philip and Elizabeth steal submarine plans, which turn out to be sabotaged decoys, resulting in a Russian submarine sinking with 160 people aboard—unconfirmed but at least plausible. While the U.S.S.R's collapse is almost assuredly not the show's endgame, that Titanic-style sense of ultimate futility overshadows everything Philip and Elizabeth do: Their side is going to lose. It's like rooting for two players on the Washington Generals. But what would it even look like if they won?
You'll forgive me if I called up an actual expert/historian to help with this. Edward Jay Epstein is a journalist, professor, and deep thinker (good luck with his website) who has written about everything from the JFK assassination to the diamond industry. His most recent book is last year's The Annals of Unsolved Crime; his most important book for our purposes is 1989's Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA. He is watching The Americans and likes it OK. ("Compared to what?")
Like most authorities in this sphere, he thinks that Philip and Elizabeth do way more killing, recruiting, sexing, and general appearing-in-public than any actual "illegals" in their position would risk doing, but he concedes that the fact that he's never heard of some of this shit happening in real life might just mean that the people who did it were really good at keeping it secret. After all, Epstein has, over the years, written about plenty of "surreptitiously assisted deaths." (The CIA apparently calls them "SADs," which is awesome.) As a source once told him, "Any group of thugs can murder someone. It takes an intelligence service to murder someone and make it look like a suicide."
The Americans was inspired, furthermore, by the FBI's 2010 bust of the Russian spy ring led (or at least headlined) by Anna Chapman. This isn't entirely fantasy. "We know they have illegals," Epstein says, "and we know from the recent case that they put 'em together in families, because apparently singletons look too obvious." And thus, from a TV show's perspective, "Once they have the premise, who's to say that it didn't happen?"
The issue of how to break from reality and let the Russians win is thornier, and less emphatic and satisfying. This isn't the sort of show to end with some Planet of the Apes-type dramatic flourish where the Statue of Liberty is holding a hammer and sickle. But Epstein makes clear that even if The Americans hews to the truth, the "loss" won't be Philip and Elizabeth's: "We didn't win the Cold War by our superior spying and deception." Quite the opposite, really: "Russia was a sheep in wolf's clothing," is how he summarizes the situation.
"We were quite shocked when the Soviet Union completely collapsed," he says. "I think everyone in the world was shocked. There were no intelligence reports saying, 'Russia is far weaker than it looks, Russia can't last into the 1990s, the Berlin War's gonna come down.' So if we're just talking about the intelligence war, I don't think we won the war, and Russia's lost the war."
What's plausible, then, as an alternate-universe scenario, is that The Americans depicts the Russians keeping the sheep-in-wolf's-clothing bit running even longer. Stan the lovelorn FBI agent handing over stealth technology to protect Nina the conflicted KGB ingenue—a very possible outcome tonight, perhaps soundtracked by, oh, I don't know, REO Speedwagon's "Keep on Loving You" or something—would be a fine start. Say they're the ones who wind up with a missile-defense system, say the Berlin Wall doesn't fall in time to inspire a Jesus Jones song, say Reagan (the show's shadow villain, via televised speech footage the characters occasionally, hilariously get to seethe at) doesn't live to claim victory. It's not exactly a chilling parlor game on par with "What if the South had won the Civil War," but it sure beats Red Dawn.
"I think what you do with deception, it's not that you change history, but that you delay inevitable outcomes," Epstein says. "The people who were going to win don't necessarily lose, but they don't win when they're supposed to win, and so you buy yourself time."
The Americans has been renewed for a third season, of course, so there you go: more time. It's disappointing that the show doesn't depict a universe where you can succinctly imagine how to flip a Cold War L into a W, but that's in keeping with the exquisite subtlety of it all. Epstein likens it to a chess match, where turning an inevitable resignation into a stalemate is victory enough. You'd think that wouldn't make for riveting TV, but, well, scroll back up and watch 'em do the dishes again. "The whole beauty of The Americans is because we never found something out, doesn't mean it didn't happen," Epstein reiterates. Or that it couldn't.