When The Americans—which I came to think of as possibly the best TV show I’d ever watched—came to its conclusion last week, I looked back at what I’d written in 2013 when it was new and, in my view, pretty silly.
Real spies in deep cover couldn’t gallivant around town in funny wigs sleeping with their sources and butchering their enemies but making it home in time for dinner and survive for even six weeks, I was thinking—yet Philip and Elizabeth Jennings had been at it for decades. Predicting more “misunderstandings, reversals, and high jinks” in season two, I allowed that “I can’t describe this plot without my imagination hearing boudoir doors slam open and shut as dissipated nobles shove nubile maids under beds.”
But over time the show—set in the 1980s—grew up and my wife and I, thank God, never stopped watching it. Car chases wear out their welcome, but the show runners understood that the drama of trying to hold a marriage and a family together never gets tiresome. And they understood that the ending to The Americans we required was one that focused on the fate of the family. We all know what happened to the cold war; but Philip and Elizabeth Jennings and the two fine kids they’d raised had me lying in bed dreaming up likely scenarios.
Looking back at my five-year-old column, I came across something more resonant now than it was then. I was arguing that John le Carré had in a sense set the stage for The Americans by cutting the cold war down to size. Instead of the forces of good and evil meeting in an eschatological showdown the whole world dreaded, the cold war was to le Carré merely “an elaborate and deadly game played by their cynics and our cynics.” I went on, “and because cynics, even if they don’t care who else gets hurt, have no intention of getting hurt themselves, he made the world feel safer.”
I quoted le Carré reflecting on the novel that made him famous: “The merit of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, then—or its offense, depending where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible.” Even if that novel didn’t depict the spy game exactly as it was, it depicted it in a way that that readers readily—perhaps gratefully—accepted. Authenticity is something we leave to the experts to write essays about; credibility is what our hearts tell us is true. Merely a point to be made in passing in 2013, it’s a much more urgent distinction now. We have a president who says a lot of things that to his flock feel credible. If credible, they don’t need to be true. Truth is something of a side issue.
The final episode of The Americans contained a plot twist or two that challenged authenticity. But credibility won: we weren’t going to let a moment or two of illogic ruin a good show. In fact the greater the illogic, the more feistily I resisted being distracted by it. The given moment was dramatically true, or poetically true, or however you want to put it. By the last hour of season six I had totally bought in to The Americans, and as long as the fate of the Jennings family felt right to me, the contrivances arranging it made no difference.