On ‘The Americans’ and the burden of secrets

The Season 5 finale of “The Americans” airs tonight (May 30, 2017) on FX.

In 2012, I joined many liberals in laughing off Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia remained the biggest threat to American interests. Russia? That’s Cold War thinking. We’re living in a bold new world full of complex threats.

Well, that’s only half right. The threats are complex, but we’ve since learned that the ghost of the Soviet Union is, in fact, a major player in a global conflict. But instead of fighting for nuclear supremacy, Russia jostles for narrative supremacy.

What is the truth? What is right? Who profits from the story being told, and what are the costs?

In retrospect, Romney was correct. Sen. John McCain said something similar over last weekend.

However, these thoughts come to me not only because of the constant drumbeat of news. We’ve all heard about President Trump and his administration’s possible connections to Russian power brokers. Russia-driven “fake news” caught fire in a field of existing cultural angst, allowing Trump to best a long-favored opponent in the 2016 election. “Fake News” has even become Trump’s biggest lament about American media. No, the internet hardly needs more idle speculation on these matters (the investigations will provide the substance, or lack thereof). Rather, these thoughts culminate from my rather silly recent obsession with a couple of TV shows.

Tonight, the FX drama “The Americans” concludes its fifth season. Set in the 1980s, the waning years of the Soviet Union, the show documents a fictional version of the final covert salvos of the Cold War. A pair of highly trained Soviet spies deploy to the United States. They pose as a real family, running a legitimate travel agency in suburban Northern Virginia. All the while they recruit sources, gather information, kill and deceive.

Over the years, however, their “cover” becomes real. The spies, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, actually fall in love, despite their strange line of work and emotional entanglements. They love their real children, even if they were conceived in a lie. Even though mom and dad regularly commit unspeakable deeds, the family faces the same questions of love and loyalty that quietly pervade most families. Now their children must choose whether to enter their parents’ flawed world, or somehow create a new one. That is, if you can call it a choice at all.

Under it all, what is “true?” How far get you get on an idealized version of the truth? Philip and Elizabeth are just serving their country, after all. Just like you and me. We cheer for the enemy, because they are like us.

If all this rings familiar to readers of this blog, you might recognize it as one of the key elements of another FX show, “Fargo.” In its third season, Fargo features a villain with unclear ties to Russia. V.M. Varga peddles falsehoods as a means of exerting power over others. Though I’ve had some reservations about this season, I love the “ripped from reality” theme of Russian meddling with the truth. These themes weave into the news and tonight’s episode of “The Americans.” “It’s just a story,” says the communist official in Fargo’s first episode this year. He’s speaking about the truth.

I write about Northern Minnesota. That’s why people come here. But these stories remind me of some key figures in recent local history.

I am reminded of the late Congressman John Blatnik of Chisholm. He was a state senator who volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII. Ultimately, he became attached to the OSS (precursor to the CIA) in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, the land of his parents’ heritage. He led an American force touring with Tito’s partisans, arguably the most effective underground resistance force of the war. The partisans did not treat American agents especially well. Nevertheless, Blatnik earned respect for his ties to the Iron Range labor movement and knowledge of Yugoslav languages.

Returning home, Blatnik ran for Congress and struck up a friendship with fellow WWII veteran John F. Kennedy as they commiserated over their dramatic war stories. When Kennedy spoke to the largest-ever recorded crowd squeezed into the Hibbing Memorial Arena in 1960, Blatnik grinned by his side.

Documenting that day’s events was the pioneering editor of the Chisholm Tribune Press, Veda Ponikvar. Ponikvar, another first generation Yugoslavian-American, served as a top secret communications officer during WWII. Again, her knowledge of her parents’ languages provided value to America, a country she never doubted was hers.

Both Blatnik and Ponikvar lived long lives, tied to the ups and downs of the iron mining industry and the political machinations of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Yet they both died with deep national secrets they never told. I often wonder about these secrets when I research people like them.

What is the truth?

There is the truth we believe and the truth that is. The bigger the gap between the two, the more we are deceived.

Meantime, I’m not a television critic. I’m not a national commentator. I’m just a simple country writer living in the woods of Northern Minnesota.

Or AM I?

I know after binging five years of “The Americans” in six weeks I’m looking over my shoulder far more than before.


  1. Pat Schoenfelder says

    Three of four of your regular commenters would certainly think you are a left over Soviet plant.

  2. David Gray says

    Aaron’s no Chekist.

  3. Just want to clarify a little on the heritage of John Blatnik and Veda Ponikvar. They were both of Slovenian heritage (like me). When the immigrants first arrived here, Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (very complicated history), and so the immigrants came in as Austrians. Yugoslavia came into existence after World War I as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Some Slovene territory was forfeited to Italy, Austria, and Hungary. After World War II, the monarchy was abolished and Yugoslavia became a socialist country made up of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia and ruled by the dictator Josep Tito until his death in 1980. The 6 territories of Yugoslavia had very different cultures, religions, and even languages, and after Tito’s death, it was difficult to hold the country together. Slovenia was able to leave the Yugoslav coalition in 1991, followed by Croatia and then the war in Bosnia, and thus the break-up of the country that was arbitrarily formed after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
    But, outside of this history, both John Blatnik and Veda considered themselves to be of Slovenian ancestry.
    There are no doubt other aspects of their backgrounds, as shared in the article. But American Slovenians have been proud of their own special heritage of music, food, customs, religion, etc.
    I have been fortunate enough to visit relatives in Slovenia and to understand something of this heritage in relation to the land where it was formed.
    And how is the land where we live now forming us?

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