Pop Culture

Two Questions: Slay and Selena Talk About “The Americans”

Trigger Warning: The episode had a rape scene, which we discuss at some length.

Slay Belle and I can have marathon chats about pop culture, sometimes in concert with two or three unrelated conversations. This past week, we both checked out the pilot for the new FX show, The Americans, and asked each other two questions about it. Read on to find out what we said. 

Promotional photo from FX series The Americans, featuring Keri Russell

Selena: First Question. The Americans is getting a lot of praise from critics for authentically recreating 1981, an era we haven’t seen a lot of in movies or TV. How well do you think the show captures the era, and how does it add to or detract from the plot?

Slay Belle:  Its funny, because we know it’s the ’80s because they tell us and the whole Russian angle, but all of the choices made in costuming and hair skew really far away from what’s presented as a traditional ’80s look. There’s no neon, there’s no shoulder pads. The leather dress Russel wears in the first scene is very current. If you stripped out the references to Reagan and didn’t see any of the cars, I’m not sure you’d be able to guess it was ’81. I didn’t even see any lingering ’70s influences either. It’s an interesting choice and obviously deliberate, but I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Selena: Neon was late ’80s, like’ 85-’87-ish, IIRC. They did capture the high-waisted jeans pretty accurately. Russell’s hair should have been layered, though, if not feathered.

Slay: Yeah, I know I was mixing a lot of the era’s fashion statements in that comment, which is why I mentioned the lingering ’70s influence. Its just such a weird set of impressions they’re trying to communicate. “This is the ’80s. But don’t be distracted by it!”

Slay: First question. Why the Russians, why now? The Cold War is sort of a neo-con wet dream. So why are we going back to telling *this* kind of story? Is it because its a simpler adversary tale? The last time we could stand up and say,”‘We were good, and the Bad Guys were Bad” and we didn’t have to have a nuanced discussion about it?

Selena: I think that’s exactly it. The Russians we believed were out to kill us all in the ’80s may or may not have ever existed, but it was the last time the whole country bought into a common enemy, and, for that matter, a common hero. (Reagan.) I think it’s an interesting premise – we’ve never had “enemy” spies as protagonists in US pop culture, that I recall. We’ve had plenty of dramas (and comedies) with “our guys” in the lead, but never from this perspective.

Slay: I wonder if this is their attempt to muddy up the discourse on that period. So if we talk about problems with Muslim terrorism or other issues American has abroad, there’s a concerted effort to talk about the complexities of problems, where we are culpable, where we sometimes get involved in things we shouldn’t be involved in, where we back dictators for our own interests.

So as the show develops, there’s probably two broad approaches they can take – 1) we see the Russians being brought over to our way of life and sympathizing with us, as we already see the husband is leaning or 2) that we are exposed to why the Russians hated *us* and are made to confront our own culpability in the Cold War. That would be a bold move to take. The Cold War is so hands-off in terms of mass media deconstruction.

Selena: I would be very impressed if the series used the Cold War like MASH used the Korean War. I don’t think it’ll happen, but I would be very impressed.

Slay: Second question. Do you think these kind of sleeper agents, or the ones in Salt, are mostly an urban legend? Yes, there was a long term cell of Russian spies busted a couple of years ago, but were there really whole families infiltrating high level government jobs or was it just a story we were told to keep up hating “Them?”

Selena: That’s a great question, and one I’ve thought about since I watched. (I may have asked my dad if he was an undercover Russian spy. He claims he is not.) My common sense part thinks that infiltrating the suburbs seems like a big waste of Russian resources, unless bake sales and block parties were a lot more interesting than I remember. My story-loving part thinks it’s a really intriguing idea, even though I can’t see the purpose behind it. THERE MIGHT BE SPIES IN THAT SPLIT LEVEL RANCH! DRIVING A VOLVO WAGON.

Selena: Second question. Do you think the rape scene was necessary or gratuitous (or somewhere in the middle)?

Slay: The rape scene. Ugh. I can not even begin to tell you how over I am using rape as a character motivation for women. Other things happen to us, you know, that we can feel deeply about. That we can harbor grudges over. Given Russel’s obviously deep seated belief in her job, why couldn’t she have just wanted to kill the Captain because of his betrayal of country? And the line he says to her about how “they were allowed to have their way with the cadets” as one of the perks of rank felt so obviously shoehorned in there as way to keep us hating “Them,” who would do something like that to their own operatives.

Selena: I (liked seems like the wrong word, but whatever) liked that it was a *violent* scene, and not a “sexy” scene. It was clearly about power and violence and not about sex, which is something I think a lot of people don’t seem to get about rape. I don’t know if it was needed, though, like you. And I was a little bothered that Mr. Spy had to step in and do the actual killing, and that’s how we learn he cared about her. It’s like that Firefly: Browncoats Unite special, where one of the writers talks about a planned episode where Inara gets raped by a ship full of Reavers, and THAT’s what makes Mal respect her. BETTER WAYS, TV WRITERS. BETTER WAYS.

Slay: I agree with you totally on that. The scene was not sensationalized at all. We didn’t get any confusing focus on her body or her “sexiness.” I mean, she was in sweats. When he wrestled her to the ground and told her to “try harder,” I really thought he was going to say something along the lines of “If they get you in this position, *they* will rape you”, which seems a… eh, I don’t want to use “plausible,” but I can see where that would be a conversation to have with a female agent. But, no, they just went straight to assaulting her.

Selena: I love our chats.

Slay: Me too.


If you’d like to check out The Americans, FX is playing the pilot on their website, and it looks as though they’ll be streaming all the episodes this season. New episodes air on the FX network on Wednesday nights, during multiple viewing slots.

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

4 replies on “Two Questions: Slay and Selena Talk About “The Americans””

I am very over the use of rape as a character or plot device. I read the book The Sparrow recently, which features a somewhat graphic rape scene, and I came away feeling shell-shocked and violated myself. After that, I decided firmly that I would never ever use rape in any story I may end up writing. Like you said, there are better ways.

(This isn’t to say that rape should be excluded from all media because it should be talked about, but for me, personally, I can’t do it.)

Hmmm, I’m not sure books and media should come with trigger warnings. Here’s why: books are there to expand our experience. There are plenty of books with troubling scenes I might not read because they include rape or murder or abuse, but the exploration of those things is important to understanding the experience, especially when done well. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I avoid movies and books if I’ve heard rumors of troubling scenes, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to challenge myself as a reader. And I think there is something to be said for a work of fiction that doesn’t warn us when something bad is going to happen because when we don’t get the warning, there’s a different set of emotions that happens.

That said, like Slay, I’m over the use of rape as plot device. It’s being used as often as the magical pregnancy trope.

Leave a Reply