'The Americans,' Soviet spy thriller and Trump era hit, heads for finale

Washington (AFP) –


Tensions between Washington and Moscow are at an all-time high. US intelligence sees Russian spies around every corner, disrupting government, and stealing secrets.

The hit TV series "The Americans" began its run five years ago, but found new relevance in the era of Donald Trump, with the various investigations into Moscow's interference in the 2016 election and spy chiefs constantly evoking the Russian threat.

Set at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, it sees a pair of KGB agents deep undercover as a couple living the suburban American dream.

After six seasons, "The Americans" wraps up an award-winning run with its final episode Wednesday.

The show's stars -- Elizabeth and Philip Jennings -- are on the run and caught up in a plot by their own agency to destroy the looming historic summit between president Ronald Reagan and Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev that could lead to the end of the Cold War.

What happens -- will Stan, the FBI counterintelligence agent who is the Jennings' neighbor, finally expose them? Will they escape? -- is a secret kept by broadcaster FX as tightly as the White House nuclear codes.

But after it ends, the show's deeper theme, of the havoc wreaked by the competition between Moscow and Washington, will linger in a US capital consumed fears that Russian intelligence manipulated Trump's election and possibly even coopted the White House.

- Lauded for realism -

The show's premise was simple: how the Jennings -- actors Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys -- live under deep cover in a suburban Washington home, raising two children in American schools, keeping the house clean and the pantry stocked, while taking orders from KGB bosses to steal top government secrets, eliminate rivals, and remain hidden from US spy chasers.

Torn between allegiances as simultaneously hard-bitten Russian operatives and comfortable, middle class American parents, they have to navigate a marriage forced on them by their KGB bosses, deal with angsty teen children, and parry factionalism back in the home office in Moscow.

In the final year they are caught up in the split between old-school communist and the reformers represented by Gorbachev, which leads to murder and mayhem in the last episodes.

While Hollywood is replete with spy shows and movies on the subject -- the often over-the-top "Homeland" another recent hit -- Washington intelligence officials laud "The Americans" for its realism.

That comes, in part, from deep cooperation between FX and real spies. Series creator and executive producer Joe Weisberg spent three years with the CIA before turning his hand to writing.

His idea got the go-ahead not long after the 2010 arrest of a dozen Russian deep-cover operatives in the United States. A number of former US spies are advisors.

- 'The way we did it' -

Much of Washington, where the intelligence community is an elite like billionaire financiers on Wall Street and tech czars in Silicon Valley, is enamored with "The Americans." Even new CIA director Gina Haspel, a three-decade veteran of covert services, is a fan.

"'The Americans' gets the tradecraft and the technology of the 1980s generally right," said Jonna Hiestand Mendez, who was a married, undercover CIA operative in Europe for years before becoming the chief of disguise at the agency.

"The script is littered with dead drops and communication protocols, disguises and cyanide pills, secret writing and signals that were used for impersonal communication with your agent or your team. It is all properly executed; it is done the way we did it."

In a recent Washington Post column, she called the sex and violence of the show "over the top and gratuitous," noting that, though trained to shoot a variety of guns, even from moving cars, in three decades she never carried one.

At the same time, she said, "The Americans" captured the mundane stresses of the life, "a thoughtful exploration of the necessity to manage the daily deception that is part of the job of a spy."

Not all in Washington are fans. Former FBI director James Comey, who oversaw his share of counterintelligence investigations, including the Russia election meddling probe, told PBS last month he avoids the show, as well as "Homeland."

"Why do I need that stress," he asked. "It's like, 'I'm gonna die.' Why do I need that? I get that all day long."