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Displays of Secrecy

IN THE YEARS that the Mad Men were perfecting their language, the Cold War was being fought. Eventually it was won, and therefore it could be treated as if it had never taken place. The bottom fell out of the market for espionage fiction, which had depended on the concept that national secrets were vital. John le Carré had nothing left to write about. When he had, movies and TV shows based on his books were artistic news, and some of them still look good in retrospect. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the best starring role Richard Burton ever had, and the BBC TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still potent in box set form, with Alec Guinness showing the male actors of the future how to do an enigmatic smile: even Gary Oldman, who attempted a frozen face when starring in the movie remake, was Jim Carrey by comparison. It should also be mentioned that out of the several attempts at a Kim Philby chronicle, the best from back then remains the best today. It’s the 1977 Granada production Philby, Burgess and Maclean, with Anthony Bate and Derek Jacobi. Bate, playing Philby, was plausible at being plausible, and Jacobi, who went on to be a compulsory cast member of any spy story for about fifty years, has never been better than he was as Guy Burgess, although saddled by the all-too-faithful script with the problem that Burgess, in real life, used to conceal his secret role by stumbling into London pubs, ordering a round of drinks, shouting “This is on the KGB!” and then throwing up into his own lap.

But unlike Madison Ave, the Cold War, from the viewpoint of the show-runners, was a case of there being no future in the past; and in the twenty-first century there have so far been surprisingly few flashbacks to the age of Mutual Assured Destruction, perhaps partly because of a general assumption that it really had been MAD, unlike the Mad Men, who were the cold warriors that not only fought the battle but left a heritage: the market world that we live in now. Yet there is a lingering awareness among intelligent people that the nuclear face-off between the two superpowers was no less serious a business just because the rockets never flew, and that the espionage effort from either side had been almost as vital a matter as John le Carré, in his prose of portent, said it was.

This awareness is what gives a show like FX’s espionage thriller The Americans its strange authority. The tale of a married couple of Soviet-born sleepers living in Washington in the 1980s, it puts a big investment into getting the period detail right. It would be a handicap having to wheel on so many vintage automobiles, but there is a freedom in being able to stage a clear-cut battle: the KGB versus the FBI. (This being homeland America, the CIA has no jurisdiction, and does not feature, even though it was an ex-CIA officer, Joe Weisberg, who conceived the series.) The Red Sleeper theme is an automatic winner, because secrets have to be kept and a lot of hiding has to be done. (Still well worth watching, the 1977 Don Siegel movie Telefon, the story of a whole bunch of widely scattered Soviet sleepers who went into action as human bombs when they heard a stanza from a Robert Frost poem on the phone, was the second-best movie Charles Bronson was ever in, after The Magnificent Seven. Almost forty years later, Angelina’s truck-jumping epic Salt was living off the same plot.) On the point about the nail-biting tensions of a life of concealment, The Americans saddled itself with an unnecessary weakness right from the start. To accomplish their schedule of spying and assassinating, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) have to do a great deal of identity alteration, much of it accomplished by the wearing of wigs. As anyone knows who has ever needed to wear a wig professionally, putting the thing on so that it looks plausible is a task comparable to putting toothpaste back into the tube, and some of the wigs in The Americans are already starting off as looking pretty implausible anyway. Also, there is no mention of a secret lockup elsewhere in the city limits. Therefore they are keeping their wigs, along with their guns and other items of professional kit, concealed in the family house. Somehow their children never find the stuff. As a father of two daughters, I found this deeply implausible. In real life, children find everything in the house. Try a stunt like that and the day would soon come when your children would show up at the breakfast table wearing wigs and carrying a gun each. In The Americans it has never happened, but I am still sold on the casting. Rhys is a good Welsh actor blessed with the rare gift of adaptable teeth, and Russell is impossible not to adore, especially when she is plotting to kill someone while subtly registering her anxieties about her growing attraction to capitalist values. If you need a beautiful fanatic teetering on the verge of doubt, she’s the actress you are looking for. Just remember that the FBI will take a long time to find her. While the insidious couple rack up killings and wreak havoc, the leading FBI investigator Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is living in the next house, and takes ages to catch on. Admittedly, when he comes to visit, he is never confronted by a couple of armed children wearing wigs, but he still might have tumbled sooner if not distracted elsewhere in his work. He is distracted by yet another Soviet operative, the insanely lovely triple agent Nina Sergeevna Krilova (Annet Mahendru): no gun, but she doesn’t need one. She has a complete range of high-tab Western lingerie, in various items of which she floats from one side of the screen to the other, touching the air with perfume. Stan, himself a married man, succumbs.

Meanwhile Ronald Reagan burbles suavely on the soundtrack, in his real-life role as president. The show could have been a farrago but isn’t, and through the three seasons I have so far seen it has come to deserve its eventual hundred percent rating on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. (This universally favorable critical reception might have helped inspire Spielberg and Hanks to team up with the Coen Brothers for the hit movie Bridge of Spies in 2015: as in days of yore, shadowy spies met in the mist on the Glienicke Brücke.) The secret of The Americans as a show, apart from the deadly secrets, lies in the interplay between married life and incipient nuclear war, two scenarios that each depend for any stability on the capacity to know what the other side is thinking. Show-runner Weisberg was probably putting it a bit high when he claimed that each is an analogy for the other, but the comparison seems valid enough when Philip and Elizabeth sweat under the pressure of how to tell their daughter, Paige, that she has been brought up as a rather special kind of American. The daughter is often the moral pivot in a box set drama, and all too often she is the irritating daughter. It’s an American secret: no other culture has such irritating daughters.

The irritating daughter in 24 plunges us forward into our present century, where there are two whole new wars going on. One of them is the war between one part of the CIA and another: a war that began with Three Days of the Condor but has now, in our time, become not a novelty but a given, to the point where the Bourne franchise of movies is about nothing else. The other war is the war of the occasionally united CIA against various forces that believe in Allah’s mercy and will kill us if we don’t do the same. These forces are often also at war with each other, but they are united in their overriding aim to kidnap the irritating daughter of 24’s Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland and his gritted teeth. He grits them while straining to decide whether he should torture his captured enemies a little bit or torture them a lot, but he grits them most when his irritating daughter Kim, played with an admirable semblance of unbearability by Elisha Cuthbert, is kidnapped. When one group of kidnappers is somehow induced to release her, she heads toward another group of kidnappers so she can be kidnapped again. (The kidnapped irritating daughter is a subset of the irritating daughter motif but does not apply to Zoe Bartlet in The West Wing, who was kidnapped but was not irritating.) Not merely because, as a father of girls, I regard the theme of the kidnapped daughter as too serious to fool with, I gave up on 24 early, having guessed—correctly, as it turned out—that it had been designed to impress Dick Cheney’s wife. There was also the fact that it had been made to look trivial by the first season of Homeland.

None of us predicted that Homeland, after its huge initial impact, would itself be reduced to triviality in little more than a single season, although we should have. At first blush, the story had everything, including a supremely irritating daughter. But when the hero Sergeant Brody (Damian Lewis, carrying all his tall authority from Band of Brothers) came back to the U.S. from his tortured imprisonment in Afghanistan and slowly revealed himself as a convert to Islam programmed to stage a suicide bombing against the American leadership, even the most riveted viewers realized that this might be a neat variation on The Manchurian Candidate but that Brody, win or lose with his mission, would be either blown or blown up after carrying it out. He could therefore have only a limited future as a character. This having proved true, beautiful but bipolar CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) became the center of interest. CIA veteran sage Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) did noble work in the wise-man tradition of Gandalf and Obi Wan Kenobi; Morena Baccarin as Brody’s wife was less lethal but even more alluring than the shape-changing alien lizard she played in V; and Morgan Saylor as Dana, the transcendentally irritating daughter, coped with the carpet burns when she, too, dropped to her knees in Islamic prayer, perhaps opening the way for a second suicidal explosion somewhere down the line. But plotwise all depended on Carrie focusing her scrambled brains in the interests of national security and world peace. Claire Danes seized the acting challenge with knotted hands and tossing head. Through more seasons than seems possible she has been devouring the screen, looking into every corner of it while speaking compulsively even when she is supposed to be inconspicuous in a crowded Arab market, nodding her head to mean no, shaking her head to mean yes. By now she has to do it without me watching, but I know she will bravely continue. Last time I looked in by accident, Saul’s gift for meaningful taciturnity—his essential verbal knack is to go on sounding wise no matter how wrong things have gone—had got him into bed with an elegant CIA female subordinate, but it wasn’t Carrie. Though Carrie no longer works for the agency, nevertheless she was outside in the Arab market, still attempting to be unobtrusive by looking around like a Tourette’s victim and shaking her head like a dervish.

Carrie is a bright operative but can never seem to grasp that the word “covert” is meant to mean they can’t see you. To be persuasive on screen, the covert personality needs a capacity for cool. The arch exponent of this for our time is Kevin Spacey. In The Usual Suspects he had looked like Kevin Spacey with a limp, but perhaps he was really Keyser Söze, criminal mastermind. In K-Pax he looked like Kevin Spacey with a distant stare and a phenomenal ability to chalk equations on a blackboard, but perhaps he was really from a faraway galaxy. So when he arrived in the leading role of House of Cards, he already had a solid track record of perhaps being someone else. He was immediately credible as a careerist politician because he didn’t look like an actor: he never has. Most leading men have sculpted features. Spacey’s features just happened, like a Rorschach blot.

In the BBC’s original of the show, Ian Richardson looked and spoke exactly like an actor, and a classical leading man at that: the eagle’s profile, the cultivated voice that projected itself to the gallery of the Old Vic even when he murmured. The British House of Cards is big in my family, but I’m the dissenting vote: no doubt crassly, I find Richardson too obviously Machiavellian, his female victims insufficiently alluring to attract his fatal attentions, and the rats too symbolic: they get a walk-on role once per episode, usually just after Francis Urquhart (Richardson) and his Lady Macbeth of a wife (Diane Fletcher) have revealed new depths to their combined malfeasance. The American version I found to be a smoother ride, and thus more convincing.

As Frank Underwood, the ruthless Democrat majority whip working his way to the top by all means however illegal, Spacey is mercifully not obliged, as Richardson was, to hum “The Ride of the Valkyries” as an indication that he is gripped by the will to power. Instead he is given an even more lavish supply of knowing asides in which to transmit to us the cynically principled thinking behind his evil. Add all these asides together and you would get a treatise comparable with The Prince, plus a long free lesson in what a great screen actor can do by seeming to interiorize his emotions when in close-up. If the scene has already made the point, Spacey will underline it with no more than a millimeter of raised eyebrow: and nil by mouth. (Bad actors try to attract attention to their mouths: good ones know that our attention is already there.) This economy of style in the central performance is one of the show’s chief strengths. Another is the elegance of Robin Wright, in her role as Claire Underwood, Frank’s wife. She starts off as passive-aggressive, escalates to active-aggressive, and finally soars into the range of aggressive-insane; and all the way up the scale her smooth cool is playing against her behavior and therefore helping to define it. If, like Lady Macbeth, she ended up jumping from the battlements, she would fly like a bird. For anyone who started following Robin Wright’s performances with The Princess Bride—Claerwen, when very young, used to make me watch it until I, too, could recite Mandy Patinkin’s thrilling speech in the role of Inigo Montoya, and “Prepare to die!” is still a code phrase for the two of us—this is the apex of her beauty, even though (or perhaps partly because) it is accelerated by the burning internal fire of psychopathy that she somehow manages to convey by a hard stare, or sometimes just by an unexpected silence. Above all, she treats other women like dirt.

She would have done the same to Zoe Barnes in the course of time. But Zoe ran out of time: the show’s sole example of willfully declining to develop a potentially fruitful long story line. Usually the production team is terrific at keeping a theme going: witness the patient care with which the story of Freddy (Reg E. Cathey), African American proprietor of Frank’s favorite morning hangout for a plate of ribs, is followed up all the way through a long friendship until the moment arrives when Frank, having found it useful to help the previously contented Freddy overextend himself, cuts him loose to fall back into the poverty from which he had spent his life fighting his way free. Of all the instances in the show of Frank wreaking destruction for the sake of expediency, this is probably the most revolting: even more so than his murder of his political cat’s-paw Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). But those acts of destruction each complete a curve. Zoe is destroyed too early in her rise to power; although I must admit that I grieved over her departure partly because I had so exulted over her arrival. Not just because she was played by Kate Mara, Zoe was dazzling as she raced upward through her first steps as a Washington journalist. She was Bob Woodward in nicer underwear. Making herself useful to Frank’s plans, she traded her help for tips on stories: a relationship physically confirmed when he seduced her. But it could be said that they seduced each other, and that Zoe herself carried a share of Frank’s virulent opportunism. Perhaps, to the show-runners, that was the trouble with her character: she might as well have been Frank. She was stealing his evil thunder. If she had really equaled his malignant gift, however, she would never have made the mistake of standing closer than he did to the edge of the platform.

After the subway train converted the alluring Zoe to mincemeat, there was a chance that I might have stopped watching, but the other plots within the plot were just too strong to leave alone. The mark of a great show is that every leading character is your favorite character, and my favorite of favorites is Frank’s aide de camp Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly in full grimness mode: a reformed alcoholic, this guy is never off the alert. The factotum, or enabler, is a strong role in any gangster plot: think of The Borgias, and Cesare’s deadly lieutenant Micheletto (Sean Harris), always one step ahead of his boss with the necessary murder. But Doug is the perfect instrument: an expression in himself of Frank’s will at its lethal worst. For American TV, for anybody’s TV, this is amazing stuff. Indeed, the whole show feels like a realistic antidote to romanticism, right up to the moment when Frank becomes president, after which, in my view, an incurable decline set in. Previously, House of Cards was The West Wing dissolved in acid. Now, suddenly, it was The West Wing all over again. Having attained the top role, Frank began playing the part straight, because there was no other way to play it. To operate plausibly on the international stage, he had to do the best that was in him. He was Jed Bartlet reborn: just a bit tougher on his staff.

Probably this development, or antidevelopment, was unavoidable. Nobody can stand out as Machiavellian in a context where everybody is Machiavelli, which is essentially the situation that obtains in foreign policy. This contretemps, which left Frank looking disappointingly normal, was a reminder that Machiavelli himself, along with The Prince, also wrote the Discourses on Livy, and that the two great books add up to a subtle treatise on what politics is bound to be. Sound-bite amoral ideas such as “it is better to be feared than loved” are rare in its total texture. Really Machiavelli’s ruthlessness, to the extent that it exists, is meant as a safeguard against sentimentality. What most impressed Machiavelli about the times he lived in was the spectacle of the profeta disarmato, the leader who falls from grace through lack of the power to protect himself. Even after having been racked by the Medici, Machiavelli spent little time recommending that a leader would have to be purely evil to prevail. That was Frank’s idea. It seems to me quite possible, although I wish it weren’t, that the wide acceptance for such a show in the Western countries might have something to do with a growing fear that in a battle against absolute evil a leader without an evil streak might get us killed. Such a fear is primitive; but one of the salient qualities of recent long-form television drama has been to employ the utmost sophistication to face us with the primitive; and to make us realize that civilization has barbarism for a bottom level. Strip away the upper level and you are looking at Game of Thrones.