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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.