What ‘Homeland’ Could Learn From ‘The Americans’

Homeland’s war may be hotter than the Cold War in FX’s The Americans, but Showtime’s spy drama, which returns for a third season this fall, could learn a few lessons from the latter.

05.02.13 8:45 AM ET

When The Americans debuted on FX earlier this year, the Cold War–set espionage drama, which became as much about the arranged marriage between its main characters Elizabeth (Kerri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) as about their undercover activities, felt like a welcome replacement for Homeland, Showtime’s war-on-terror drama, which started off strong and spun into implausibility in its second season. The Americans could suffer the same fate in its own second season, falling prey to sappy and unconvincing romances and escalating and improbable spy plots. But for now, The Americans’s strong first season offers some potent lessons for how Homeland can recover its footing in its third year.

Most television shows about geopolitics depend on the idea that someone really is trying to destroy the world, and the hero is the only person who recognizes the threat, and who knows how to stop it. It’s a recipe that makes for excellent television drama, but a rather paranoid approach to the world at large, and one that generally makes the case for giving the government more power rather than less to fight the enemies that are all around us. Homeland juiced that equation by making its main character, CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), bipolar so that the people around her saw her erratic behavior and then her mental illness rather than her insight, and doubled her—and our—sense of vindication when her suspicions about Marine turned terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) were proved right.

The show at least had the subtlety to end its first season with Brody deciding not to detonate a suicide vest in a bunker with the vice president and many other top officials in United States security agencies. The message there was impressively nuanced: the threat of al Qaeda–style terrorism was real, the show acknowledged, but Homeland differed from its peers by suggesting that acts of terrorism weren’t always easy to pull off, in part because of the complex motives of the people who were recruited to become terrorists.

But in its second season, Homeland sounded rather more simplistic notes. Rather than portraying Brody’s struggle with whether or not to carry out an act of terrorism, the show had him kill the vice president in an improbable plot involving a hacked pacemaker. And in the finale, an unknown terrorist sneaked an enormous amount of explosives onto CIA grounds, an act that would be rather difficult in real life, and bombed the memorial service for that same vice president before blaming it on Brody. We were back to the same old world where our enemies were everywhere, and they were diabolically clever. And Carrie, presumably, has been fully redeemed from her Cassandra status so she can bring her visionary insights to the war on terror.

But as we saw in The Americans this season, Homeland might be better off if it questioned the state of play between al Qaeda and the United States—and if Carrie could be wrong once in a while without ending up in electroshock therapy. Where Homeland always posited Carrie as a brilliant person who was stifled or ignored by much of CIA bureaucracy, except for a sympathetic but skeptical Saul (Mandy Patinkin), The Americans has presented a more nuanced portrait of the ways both individuals and institutions work with the information they have, and how they make the errors of judgment and tactics they make.

Those mistakes have terrible consequences, as when the KGB loses contact with an assassin they’ve hired to kill American scientists, and as a result, can’t countermand his orders. His killings, and the death of FBI agent Chris Amador (Maximilian Hernandez), which came about for personal reasons when he decided to spy on his ex-girlfriend Martha (Alison Wright), convince the FBI to escalate with a campaign of assassinations run by the CIA in Moscow. “There will be no sanctuary, no safety. Not even in their own homes. We’re going to find them. And we’re going to kill him,” declares FBI agent Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas), thinking he’s responding to a deliberate provocation, when in fact he’s ordering lethal force in response to a series of blunders.

And where Homeland suggested that Carrie’s alienation from the CIA was personal, first on the grounds of her affair with her boss, David (David Harewood), and then on the grounds of her mental-health issues, The Americans pulls back to argue that institutions have their own reasons as a whole for what they trust and what they don’t. All season long, Phillip and Elizabeth have taken terrible risks and done terrible things to gain intelligence on what appeared to be powerful breakthroughs in the American anti-ballistic program. But in this week’s finale, the mysterious colonel suggested something else: that the program is either a deliberate decoy created by America’s defense community to terrify the Soviets or the result of dramatic errors and overestimations by American scientists. “We don’t know yet if the KGB is even going to believe Phillip and Elizabeth’s intelligence,” the show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, said of its second season. “Will they be sent off to gather further intelligence?” Whatever happens, it’s a conflict that explores why the Soviet Union might want the threat of a Star Wars missile-defense system to be real, and what happens when individuals within larger systems come up against their organization’s embrace of an irrational or destructive idea.

In addition to these larger institutional issues, Homeland would do well to follow The Americans’s lead and remember part of what made its first season compelling: the show’s commitment to showing us what motivates terrorists as well as CIA agents. Homeland’s execution of Brody’s backstory, his conversion to terrorism after a young boy he’d become attached to was killed by a drone strike, could meander into the sentimental at times, but it was a powerful acknowledgement that American policy could badly misfire. But with Brody on the run in Canada and Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) dead, Homeland needs another perspective on the war on terror, if only to give Carrie a genuine challenge to work on, but hopefully because the show is genuinely curious to explore the ways in which the CIA and terrorist organizations approach each other, and make assumptions and mistakes about each other.

One of the challenges will be to get that new dynamic into place with characters we haven’t met before. The Americans has given us both a chilly pleasure and a slow burn in the proximity of its antagonists. Phillip, Elizabeth, and the rest of their family live across the street from Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the troubled FBI agent who by the end of the season is hot on their trail, though his affection for the Jenningses blinds him to their identities as the husband-and-wife team he’s hunting. Homeland was probably wise to abandon the idea that Brody could get away with having decided not to carry out a terrorist attack and live out his life as a congressman with a positive influence in the war on terror. Both that scenario and also his volatile romance with Carrie were simply unsustainable. But Homeland might learn from The Americans that a long investigation might serve its purposes better, letting us see Carrie develop relationships with new sources and an obsession with a new target, now that Abu Nazir is out of the picture and unavailable as a source of fixation.  

And that goes for each show’s personal relationships as well. On Homeland, Carrie’s family has essentially been in the picture when it’s convenient for the plot, like when her sister gets her medication on the sly, or her father, who himself suffers from bipolar disorder, tries to encourage his daughter. But there’s no real sense of larger emotional attachment there, whether it’s Carrie’s desire to protect them, or her sense of how they might feel about her infatuation with Brody, her target. And the show’s developing idea that Brody and Carrie were somehow soulmates seemed designed more to make use of the actors’ undeniable sexual chemistry and the show’s need for a big romance rather than any true affinity between the characters. However alienated Carrie is from the institution of the CIA, it was odd that she’d put aside her disgust at Brody’s decision, however unfulfilled, to attack his own country. When she asked him, “Why do I feel this way?” at the end of the show’s second season, she might have been speaking for all of us.

Conversely, on The Americans, the espionage stories often serve family stories in both the Jennings and Beeman households. One of the things that made The Americans stand out early was the way it used the conditions of Phillip and Elizabeth’s arranged marriage to flesh out issues all couples face, whether it was things they didn’t know about each other’s pasts, including that Elizabeth was raped in training, the secrets they keep from their children, or the tensions of working together and disagreeing over appropriate strategies. The stresses of hiding also affect Stan, whose relationship with his source Nina (Annet Mahendru) interferes with his marriage, already strained by his time undercover and his difficulty discussing his experiences in the field. And Phillip and Elizabeth are left wondering if a formal wedding might have cemented their union after Phillip, in disguise, marries Martha, who believes he works for another security agency.

The Americans is committed enough to fleshing out all of the characters in both families to give the children independent storylines. Homeland fleshed out Brody’s oldest daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor), by making her relationship with her father key to his decision-making processes as he’s considered carrying out various acts. But his son Chris (Jackson Pace) fell prey to television’s tendency to underdevelop the male children of antiheroes—the show might have been better off without him altogether. The Americans, by contrast, has shown Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) at the mall, talking to her father about fashion magazines, escaping from a hitchhiking gone creepy with her brother Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and flirting with Matthew Beeman (Daniel Flaherty). There’s no waste in those storylines: the show knows that milieu and external attachments are as important to the world it’s building as spycraft itself. 

Homeland could stand to remember those kinds of emotional stakes as it considers what Carrie is fighting for. Carrie’s war may be officially hotter than the Jenningses’ cold one. But The Americans is a powerful lesson that a body count isn’t the only thing that matters, especially if you really get to know the people on both ends of the barrel of the gun.