The Cold War Mom in 'The Americans'

Earlier this year, the television show The Americans ended its five-season run on the FX network. The Cold War-era drama followed two Soviet KGB officers posing as a married American couple. Smita Rahman, the Frank L. Hall Professor of Political Science at DePauw University (and a 2007 JHU grad), published "Honor Among Spies:The Cold War ‘Mom’, Family, and Identity in The Americans" in the journal Theory & Event. The essay examined the conceptual nexus between honor, espionage, and the formation of identity in the show, particularly in the show’s portrayal of motherhood. Rahman joined us for a Q&A about her article and the presence of television critique in academic.

What was the process of developing the article?

I am working on a book on the politics of honor in contemporary visual and literary culture. I'm interested in exploring the enduring significance of the seemingly archaic concept of honor in popular culture and our political discourse. Often, honor serves as a kind of aspirational ideal, but more often it serves as a kind of anesthetic to dull us from the tragic condition of everyday politics. It seems to be a balm that is liberally applied during these trying times that often has the effect of oversimplifying our responses to our contemporary political challenges. I have been a fan of The Americans since its first season. I thought it was a remarkably well-written and directed show with some of the best acting on television. Of course, it seemed particularly resonant in recent years with all the focus on Russian interference in our political process. I figured out a year or so ago that I simply had to write a chapter on it for my book. I was thinking about the show and its intersection with my research an awful lot. It got to where it was interfering with my viewing of the show because I would keep hitting the pause button to comment on some aspect of it that touched on honor and duty. I ended up writing a slightly longer draft chapter for the book and an abridged version of that became this article.

How important is The Americans’ use of Elizabeth as the one focused on honor?

I think it is significant in a number of ways. First, as I point out in the article, it connects to a long trope in American visual culture that focuses on the "Cold War Mom". Mothers are often cast in these films as the site of corruption and subject formation for their children (most famously in The Manchurian Candidate). Elizabeth continues in that tradition but also recasts it in important ways. She is, of course, the one that recruits her daughter into the life of espionage but unlike in many of those Cold War era films, we get to see her as a  fully formed and flawed person. She is not a cartoonish villain at all. Rather she's a complex and carefully calibrated amalgamation of violence, sexuality, honor, and yes, deep maternal affection. Second, I think it is wonderful that the show makes Elizabeth the exemplar of patriotic honor and duty, a role that is usually almost always reserved for men. It allows her to fuse the honor of serving her country with her duties as a mom and her desires as a woman and it is fascinating to see those tensions play out within her. Keri Russell is so fantastic in this role and you can see all the myriad tensions of being Elizabeth play across her face and even in her body language throughout the show. It is a refreshing change from the military man of honor trope who rarely lets you in past his medaled exterior. I like how the show puts her husband, Philip (played masterfully by Matthew Rhys), in the tragic and perennially doubting role. Elizabeth has to hold the whole thing together while he goes off line dancing and quits the spy business to run the travel agency.

What does it mean to see serious examinations of television shows appearing more commonly in academia?

I think it shows clearly what many of us have argued for a long time-- that  politics is not separate from culture but rather that culture feeds into politics and vice versa. People have been writing about films for quite a while but I think there is increasing attention to television in recent scholarship. It might have something to do with “peak tv”  and its prevalence in our culture and the decline of cinema’s cultural and political purchase. In general, I think there is an increased focus on the politics of popular culture in political science now-- you see this with the creation of a full section devoted to Politics, Literature and Film at all our major conferences and increased publishing in this area-- but it is also important to note that people like Anne Norton have been doing this since the '90s. The rest of the field is finally catching up. 

What made Theory & Event the right venue for the article?

Theory & Event  is probably my favorite journal to read. It always publishes innovative and interdisciplinary work and whether it is something like the special issue on Ferguson, or the various articles on neoliberalism, or complex approaches to sovereignty, it is always a must-read journal for me. I've always found it to be "untimely" in the best sense, which is to say, the Nietzschean sense, of acting on our time for a time to come. From its very first issue I have always been drawn to its complex and wide ranging approach to theorizing the event. It publishes cutting edge pieces and allows authors to take more of a chance in their writing than in some other venues and has always been more open than most to publishing analyses of popular culture. When I was writing this article this was always the only journal I hoped to publish it in.

What TV show has your attention these days?

I am obsessed, as are many others, with Game of Thrones. Indeed, I have written a chapter for my book on that show. It is such an ambitious and layered (and flawed) show and I love how it takes on big ideas in tragic and compelling ways. I have been watching Westworld, though I am not nearly as impressed. It gets too lost in its own rabbit holes for my liking. I'm looking to fill the gaping Americans size hole in my viewing schedule right now!