The Americans on FX Intersected Hockey and The Cold War


There’s not a lot to criticize when it comes to The Americans, whose final season debuts Wednesday on FX. It’s technically brilliant and emotionally engaging with an unsurpassed attention to detail. Several critics have called it the best show on TV, and it’s hard to argue.

But, in a show featuring Soviet spies embedded in America posing as run of the mill Northern Virginia travel agents in the early 1980s, didn’t the showrunners miss a huge opportunity skipping past the Miracle on Ice?

The main narrative begins just months after the United States upset the mighty USSR hockey team at the 1980 Olympics. Philip Jennings and his American-born son, Henry, who knows nothing of his Russian heritage, are huge hockey fans. Henry wholeheartedly supports the hometown Washington Capitals. Philip has perhaps become a bit too accustomed to the American lifestyle for his wife and spy partner, Elizabeth, a true believer in Mother Russia. Daughter Paige is a normal American teenager developing a social conscience.

Seeing each family member’s reaction to the US victory could have been fascinating, particularly as hockey became a running theme throughout the series.

Philip’s story in particular has always been about how the man balances his double life. His assigned mission is to undermine America by any means necessary. Yet he’s spent most of his life living as an American himself, making friends with the people around him and coming to appreciate the capitalist lifestyle that allows him to live in upper-middle class luxury.

During Philip’s very first conversation with another Soviet agent in the pilot episode he notes the Capitals game is going to start soon and asks his fellow Directorate S agent if he follows the NHL (it’s nearly 10 pm as they wait to abduct a man on a dark Washington street corner, but the Caps are in LA to play the Kings that night; again the attention to detail is incredible).

For Philip, hockey is his bridge to two worlds. It’s one of the few things Americans and Soviets had in common at that point. It’s a way to bond with his American son in a way that doesn’t entirely betray his roots nor the cause he feels he’s supposed to believe in.

As the series goes on, hockey comes to represent a happiness that’s elusive in that line of work. In the best of times, Henry and Philip, generally the cheeriest members of the Jennings family, would discuss the previous night’s game at the breakfast table.

When tensions in the marriage that began as an elaborate cover but developed into something more real begin to boil, Philip winds up in the self help group EST and buys into the suggestion to start hitting the ice again.

Later, when their KGB handler can see diminishing returns from the overworked and overstressed couple he offers them a “vacation,” an extended period with no new missions.

Flash forward a few months later and Philip, Elizabeth and Henry are playing hockey in the driveway. Elizabeth is actually laughing, one of the rare moments of pure joy in the entire run of the show.

Then Paige, still forced to deal with repercussions of her parents’ work, comes home. She’s left out of the game and the look on her face says she hasn’t been able to enjoy the familial bliss at all.

Last season, as the show began racing toward an end game, FBI agent next door Stan Beeman develops a Russian journalist as an asset. The feds marked her susceptible to American influence because she simply wants a better life for her son, but Stan and his partner are left perplexed when she finds both security and happiness in the arms of a former Soviet hockey star.

Did the KGB figure out a way to keep her in check? Could the relationship be legit? Is happiness real, or at best fleeting?

Or does it all go away with the speed of a slapshot.

* * *

I have a dream that, somehow, The Americans can have a happy ending. Philip can extricate his family from the spy life, yet quietly continue to live the normal suburban existence they’ve always appeared to.

I want the final scene of The Americans to be a flash forward, circa 2010. Philip takes the Metro to Chinatown where he meets a grown up Henry, leaving his job at FBI headquarters. They walk across the street to the arena where they see Paige and Elizabeth and the Jennings head inside to watch the Capitals play.

As the music swells a final time, Alex Ovechkin shoots and scores. The fans surrounding Philip jump to their feet while he simply smiles in wonder that one of his countrymen could be the most popular man in DC.

That won’t happen, of course. It’s hard to see how this story comes to a peaceful resolution. Even in real life we are seeing the Cold War never really ended.

But even as our diplomatic relationship with Russia is as strange and strained as ever, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields created a program in which we see these spies as human beings, even find ourselves rooting for them.

That’s a miracle even Herb Brooks could appreciate.