When Americans– which I have come to consider to be perhaps the best TV show I have ever watched – came to its conclusion last week, I watched what I wrote in 2013 when it was new and, in my opinion, pretty silly.
Real spies in deep blankets couldn’t walk around town in funny wigs sleeping with their springs and slaughtering their enemies, but getting home in time for dinner and even surviving for six weeks, I thought, yet Philip and Elizabeth Jennings had been there for decades. Predicting more “misunderstandings and reversals and delusions” in season two, I admitted that “I cannot describe this plot without my imagination hearing the doors of the boudoir open and close as dispelled nobles push nubile maids under the beds. “
But over time, the series, which is set in the 1980s, grew and my wife and I, thank goodness, never stopped watching it. The car chases drain their welcome, but the show’s runners realized that the drama of trying to keep a marriage and a family together never gets boring. And they understood that the end of Americans we needed one that focused on the plight of the family. We all know what happened in the Cold War; but Philip and Elizabeth Jennings and the two beautiful children they had raised had laid me in my bed imagining probable scenarios.
Thinking back to my five-year column, I came across something more resonant now than it was then. I was saying that John le Carré somehow paved the way for Americans by reducing the Cold War to its size. Instead of the forces of good and evil meeting in an eschatological showdown that the whole world dreaded, the Cold War was for Le Carré only “an elaborate and deadly game played by their cynics and our cynics”. I continued, “and because the cynics, even if they don’t care who else is hurt, have no intention of hurting themselves, he made the world a better place. security.”
I quoted Le Carré when I was thinking of the novel that made it famous: “The merit of The spy from the cold, then – or his offense, depending on where you were – wasn’t that he was genuine, but that he was believable. Even though this novel doesn’t portray the spy game exactly as it was, it does portray it in a way that readers readily accept – perhaps gratefully. Authenticity is something we leave to the experts to write essays; credibility is what our hearts tell us to be true. Just a passing point in 2013, it’s a much more urgent distinction now. We have a president who says a lot of things that his flock seems credible. If they’re credible, they don’t have to be true. The truth is a secondary question.
The last episode of Americans contained one or two twists and turns that called into question the authenticity. But credibility won: we weren’t going to let a moment or two of illogicality spoil a good show. In fact, the greater the illogicality, the more energetically I resisted being distracted by it. The moment given was dramatically true, or poetically true, or whatever you mean. By the last hour of season six, I had fully embraced Americans, and as long as the fate of the Jennings family seemed right to me, the tricks that organized it made no difference.