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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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster