‘The Americans’ returns with the cathartic ‘Dead Hand’
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. FX The Americans gallery.

During the 1980s, the Soviet Union steadily lost ground against the United States economically, in large part due to the disparity in military spending. The U.S. spent lavishly to maintain and expand military bases along the border with the Warsaw Pact, forcing the Soviets to try and keep pace.

The not-so Cold War bled Moscow by other means, for the U.S. funded anti-Communist regimes in South and Central America, as well as provided arms to the mujahedeen battling then-Soviet ally Afghanistan.

That, and U.S. repeated disruptions of the Soviets’ effort to expand their natural gas supply, and worsening bureaucratic corruption created worsening economic conditions for ordinary Soviets.

By 1987, Prime Minister Gorbachev was eager to speed up negotiations between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. to reduce each country’s strategic arms, even if, it seemed, his country would be more impacted by terms of the proposed START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)

Enter Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, suburban D.C. travel agency owners and long-time Soviet illegals. In season six’s opener, “Dead Hand,” Elizabeth (Keri Russell) has had to step up her spying since Philip effectively retired during the three-year gap since season five’s timeline.

Philip (Matthew Rhys) looks rested and engaged in building up the travel agency and cheering on son Henry’s hockey team. Henry (sharp-shooting Keidrich Sellati) is enjoying life at boarding school, while older sister Paige (Holly Taylor) is attending college and working on Elizabeth’s support team of homegrown spies.

All is well, except for Elizabeth. She’s drained by all her wig-changing undercover roles, whether as a home health nurse for the ailing wife of a START negotiator or in various stakeouts of U.S. officials.

She’s trying to find out as much as she can about the U.S. side of negotiations, so wiped and wired that when she arrives home she cannot register Philip’s desire to talk with her. Sleep isn’t just beckoning, it’s screaming in her ear.

But during a mission in Mexico City, she learns all too much about the dangers the START negotiations pose. Soviet General Kovtun from Strategic Rocket Forces meets with her in a cantina and reveals that their country is working on a highly secret system called Dead Hand, intended to issue an automated retaliatory strike against the U.S. if Soviet leadership is decapitated.

Kovtun is concerned that Gorbachev’s negotiator will offer Dead Hand as a bargaining chip if Reagan’s Defense department ends the Star Wars missile defense program. (In real life, Dead Hand was never finalized.)

Gorbachev’s opposition fears that the U.S. could attack the Soviet Union before Dead Hand goes into effect, or attack the Soviet Union when Dead Hand is cancelled. Either way, Kovtun implies Elizabeth’s home country is in deadly danger.

To underscore that point, he presents a necklace containing a cyanide capsule. She must find out what Gorbachev’s negotiator is up to, and if captured, she must die rather than reveal her mission. She cannot tell Philip about this assignment.

At one point, in a dialogue-free montage blessed by Crowded House’s gorgeous “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” we see the differing lives this couple is leading, the wall steadily building between them.

In another storyline, we see former KGB officer Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) happy in Moscow with his wife and new baby. He’s visited by former boss, Arkady, who’s a Gorbachev loyalist concerned that Gen. Kovtun’s faction will derail START negotiations.

Burov is being set up in the narrative as being a hero, given his concern about corruption at home. He’s a compromised person trying to find the right path forward for his country.

He ends up in the U.S., seeking to enlist Philip in spying on his own wife. It’s a tough sale, yet Philip’s through-line is the safety of his family. He may well dive back into the family’s true trade.

(I’ve long suspected that Oleg and Philip might be secret half-siblings, but in the ten episodes allotted for the series’ final season, that’s a plot line probably not destined to be explored.)

Meanwhile, Elizabeth serves the motherland, despite her immense fatigue. She is also intent on protecting her daughter—at one point she shivs a sexually harassing security guard who had stolen undercover Paige’s ID—but in the absence of help, she may not be able to prevent Paige’s exposure to the brutal side of spycraft.

As Americans, we have tended to indulge in thinking we need not concern ourselves with politics beyond seasonal elections, and that money exists apart from the forces that controls it.

For many citizens, the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency has sparked intense concern about our nation’s health, but in the 1980s setting of The Americans (off-screen) Donald Trump was just an amoral, mob-connected real estate developer supping like many of his peers at the trough of corruption.

Trump hasn’t changed since then, and the global military-industry complex President Eisenhower warned us of in the 1950s, which Reagan expanded in the 1980s, and subsequent presidents maintained, are evidence of our leaders’ failure to value our people as being more than consumers and armed services enlistees.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, no peace dividend was issued for Americans, and the U.S., by backing President Boris Yeltsin’s various schemes in the 1990s, continued to be a disruptive force in the Russian Federation.

To this day, military spending continues to gulp down the lion’s share of our federal budget. So while the divide increases between the fictional Philip and Elizabeth, the issues entwining both nations have not gone away.

The Americans airs Wednesdays on FX.


Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.