The Americans is Homeland without the hawks or the hysteria

A thriller with a delicious setup - all credit to ITV for bagging it.

The Americans
ITV

When the FBI raided the New Jersey home of Vladimir and Lidiya Guryev – also known as Richard and Cynthia Murphy – in 2010, there was widespread amazement among their neighbours. Richard and Cynthia? Russian intelligence agents? Surely not. “They couldn’t have been spies,” one local told the press. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

In The Americans (Saturdays, 10pm), a series vaguely inspired by the arrest of “Richard and Cynthia” (here, we have “Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings”) and eight other Russian operatives, hydrangeas have yet to put in an appearance, blooming or other­-wise. However, we have been treated to the sight of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) delivering a plate of brownies to a family across the street. “Home-made!” she trilled as she handed them over, brownies being almost as important to the American psyche as driving everywhere and super-sizing at the drive-through.

At her side during this important mission and wearing a smile as wide as Texas was her husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys), who is something of a fan of country music. Moments earlier, we’d seen him at the mall, strutting his stuff in a shoe shop where he was buying cowboy boots.

Boy, you have to hand it to the KGB, don’t you? The curriculum back at HQ must be quite something: how to wear a disguise; how to send secret messages; how to kill your enemies; how to bake brownies and line-dance.

Still, this is a great series: slick and entertaining. It’s a touch preposterous that an FBI agent just happens to be Elizabeth’s and Phillip’s new neighbour; of all the suburban streets in Washington, he would choose the one where a couple of Soviet spies have been embedded for the past 16 years.

However, it would be churlish to complain about this, given how delicious the setup is. It’s 1981: Fleetwood Mac are on the stereo and Ronald Reagan is in the White House. The spies wear high-waisted jeans and (for her) the garment formerly known as “a body” – a ridiculous, stretchy top pulled tight by means of plastic poppers between the thighs.

I like the central ambiguity of the series – we inevitably find ourselves rooting for the two Russian agents, hoping they won’t be caught – and I love the tension that flows from a marriage in which one partner is far more devoted to the motherland than the other (Phillip periodically flirts with the idea of defection).

The couple’s all-American children, Henry and Paige, know nothing of their parents’ origins, which makes Elizabeth’s ascetic tendencies – she disguises her socialism as a kind of parsimony – rather confusing. “Mom doesn’t like new things,” says Phillip, as if her politics were just a matter of taste.

The flashbacks (I usually dread flashbacks, being fearful of bad wigs) are well done. In the first episode, we saw the two of them in the USSR in the early 1960s having their marriage arranged by a KGB colonel; then we saw them arriving in the US in 1965, Elizabeth still unwilling to sleep with her new husband, despite this being a vital element of the role she had agreed to play (children will be the best disguise of all).

In their motel room – look, air conditioning! – they discussed their first impressions of the satanic US. Already Philip was doubting what his masters had told him. America wasn’t so bad, was it? His wife was unimpressed. “There is a weakness in the people,” she said. “I can feel it.”

How fantastic that it’s the female character who is the true hardliner and thus the one who finds it easier to kidnap, kill and even warn the high-ups in Moscow of Phillip’s deficiencies. And yet they are bonded: by their children, by their exile, by the memory of their youthful political optimism. Who will crack first?

All of this seems much more interesting to me – and much less dubiously freighted – than the saga of Carrie and Brody in Homeland and all credit to ITV for bagging it. (The Americans is made by DreamWorks and has already been recommissioned for a second series.) This is Homeland without the hawks or the hysteria – and much better for it.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans".

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era