The Americans, a dark, tense, action thriller with comic touches, has been hailed by many critics as currently the best show on television. The story, created by a former CIA spy, centers on two Soviet agents posing as an ordinary American couple, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, in 1980s Washington DC. They have two teenage children who know nothing of their clandestine occupation and function as part of their cover story. The Americans and Philosophy brings together diverse philosophers who take a close look at the metaphysical and ethical aspects of the The Americans. The Jenningses believe they are living in a decadent capitalist society and draw emotional uplift from their dedication to a higher ideal. Just one step ahead of the FBI, they practice murder and seduction as instruments to further the goals of Communist subversion. This gives their lives more meaning and more excitement than those of the other people around them, and serious questions arise as to whether their lives can be truly fulfilling and ennobled. Quaint-looking 1980s culture plays a conspicuous role in The Americans, an example being the psychotherapeutic self-awareness cult known as est, which features in the story and also serves as an allegory of espionage, as est (along with ancient philosophy) asks the question, Do our secret, inner lives truly align with how we act? The gadgetry of espionage, including the poorly adapted but actually historically accurate “mail robot” of the 1980s FBI, prompt speculations about the interaction of humans with artificial intelligence. Philip and Elizabeth’s genuine horror when they find that one of their children is praying and attending church brings out the ambiguities in the popular notion of brainwashing and indoctrination. Since the Jenningses’ children enjoy a comfortable life with many opportunities, can it be true that they are immorally exploited? Knowing that all weapons of war are intended to kill and maim, can we uniquely stigmatize some weapons (such as the biological weapon called “Glanders” in Season Four) as unacceptable? All governments practice the duplicity and deception of espionage, but special problems arise when continual lying invades personal relationships. Is it true that in the modern world, devotion to the state has become a “sacred fiction,” like a religion? Lying is everywhere in The Americans, but much of the lying is very similar to everyday deception: parents often withhold from their children facts about the parents’ jobs which might cause needless anxiety, and tell their children apparently harmless fibs like saying that Santa Claus exists. The boundary between criminal lying and everyday lying is a continual irony in the script of The Americans. Can the demands of a lofty cause, even the survival of freedom or justice in the world, justify the deliberate killing of an innocent individual? Such questions continually bombard the show’s protagonists, while existentialist philosophy poses the question: Is Elizabeth truly free to quit being a spy?
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