Spy Wars: Deutschland 83 vs. The Americans
Get ready to rumble (covertly). Two spy shows, both getting critical acclaim. Both struggling for viewers. Both set in the 1980s.
In this corner, from FX… The Americans. The Jennings (not their real names) are an amazingly fit and attractive middle-aged couple, and also elite Russian operatives posing as marrieds with children in a suburb of Washington, DC. They’ve spent over 20 years avoiding the temptations of the West, although Philip would have totally given in the minute he got off the plane if not for his ideologically pure fake-wife.
And in the other corner, from Sundance… Deutschland 83. Twenty-three year-old Martin Rauch is, despite extreme good looks, still a mensch (in the Yiddish sense). He’s kidnapped by East German intelligence and forced to impersonate his recently dead doppelganger Moritz Stamm, just assigned as the new aide to a West German general. Martin goes along partly because his country needs him, but mostly because they’re promising him a new kidney for the one true love of his life, his mom, Ingrid. And how can you not love a boy who loves his mother?
Why do these shows have to compete, you ask? Because America won the Cold War, you commie! Capitalism is all about the competition. If you don’t like it, go back to your Wonkette!
Being both a professional television recapper AND someone who was alive and sober (once) in the 1980s, your humble recapper is eminently qualified to judge these shows on the many categories I have just made up. But I leave it to you, happy reader, to pick a winner. Let the games begin!
Which show would you rather have a beer with?
The Americans is a story about middle age and asking yourself how did I get here? It’s Elizabeth sticking tight to her mission because it’s all she has. And it’s Philip, who never completely bought in, losing the ability to keep the nuclear bomb inside his heart from exploding.
Deutschland 83 is a song of youth, a coming-of-age story, or if you want to go German, a bildungsroman. D83 goes to a dark place because we all have to grow up and see the world as it is, but there’s still some light. The Americans has been doom and gloom from the pilot, and it just gets doomier and gloomier.
The Americans is vodka drunk straight from the bottle, in a cold room with a dim exposed light bulb. Deutschland 83 is an artisanal German beer, drunk by a clear blue stream before going skinny dipping. It makes you giddy, and you want to share it with friends, but it’s got unexpected depth.
Moral Ambiguity and the Doing of Very Bad Things
Each week on The Americans, Elizabeth or Philip (usually Elizabeth) will beat someone up, force an old lady to take a fatal overdose, drop a car on a schlub so her asset can grab his job, stuff a body into a suitcase, and otherwise be a complete and merciless badass. The body count is high. Seductions, and not just the sexy kind, are the Jennings’ stock-in-trade. They blackmail, lie, bribe, and coerce—and that’s just their childrearing. Sure, it’s all for Mother Russia, but are we supposed to be rooting for them?
Over in D83, there’s not so much killing. In the pilot, the murder of the real Moritz Stamm happens so quick we almost miss it, and he didn’t have any long monologues that will be remembered at the Emmys. Besides we didn’t even know the guy, and Martin had nothing to do with it. When General Edel’s sister-in-law overhears him on the phone, does her stiff body wind up getting squished into a suitcase? No, it does not! Sure, Martin is indirectly involved in Linda’s death, which traumatizes him so much that he has to seek refuge in an ashram, dance to Bonnie Tyler, and machen die heiße Zeit with Miss Yvonne Edel, the most beautiful woman in the world. And speaking of making the hot times, let’s move on to Round 3.
Sexing for the Papers
Deutschland 83: Martin mostly does it for love. We know (even if he doesn’t) that his childhood sweetheart and almost fiancée, Annett, is screwing around with Thomas back at the heimat, while he’s risking his life eating Toblerones in West German hotels and getting into sexy fights with hot Asian lady-spies. Also, Annett is terrible, so we’re willing to give him a pass. And besides, the only woman he had to sleep with because it was his job was Linda, and he liked her before leading her to her death. He didn’t have sex with Yvonne because she was General Edel’s daughter; he had (epic) sex with her because she’s extremely hot.
The Americans: In the pilot, we saw Elizabeth in a blonde wig giving some high-placed government type a blow job—because, sure, these guys always tell their hookers state secrets. Somewhere along the way, the writers figured out that Kerri Russell was better at the fighting, so that became her thing, although she still has to take one for the team now and then, and by “take one” I mean in her lady parts. She’s willing to make the sacrifice, for Russia. But mostly it’s Philip who has to make it real, night after night. There was poor sweet Annelise, and now there’s his fake-wife-number-two Martha, who’s a total freak in bed, and it will be really awful for him and us if he has to kill her. (Fortunately, Elizabeth will probably take care of that for him.) And last season, there was 15-year-old Kimmy, whom he didn’t actually do it with, but for a while every episode focused on how he would avoid doing it, and then maybe because the whole thing skived us out so much that we stopped having sex and/or stopped watching, they just disappeared the storyline. What happened to Kimmy? I heard she ran away and joined a cult like Yvonne. And speaking of cults…
Cue the Eighties and the Music!
Each show has its very own cult integrated into the storyline. Philip, whose entire life is a lie, seeks real comfort from EST. Martin would have stayed with Yvonne at the Rajneesh commune if Tishbier hadn’t showed up. They each get the clothes and haircuts right, with bonus points to The Americans for their assortment of wigs, eyeglasses and facial hair. Both have a Walkman moment. On The Americans, it was Kimmy sharing Yaz with Philip/Jim. On D83 we watch Martin’s beatific delight when he discovers the joy of Sony and then shares it with Linda. Hungry as the Wolf becomes their song.
It’s D83 that captures not just the sounds and sights, but the soul of the 80s. Maybe it’s simply having a younger cast. When a song is played, it’s a song those characters are going to remember the rest of their lives. It’s their music, their time.
Except for the Yaz moment in The Americans, the music is just background. D83 integrates songs—all of them popular in 1983—into the story. In the first episode we hear 99 Luftballons more than once. Finally, in the base cafeteria, Martin mentions hearing the song playing constantly, underscoring it’s not just the audience hearing the music, but the characters too. If Martin didn’t already fall in love with Yvonne at first sight, he did the day he and Alex went to the Ashram and heard her singing Dylan’s Just like a Woman. In the season finale, The Cure is playing on the radio as Martin drives east into the night. Yvonne is singing back up with Udo Lindenberg. We hear Sondenzug nach Pankow, a song Lindenberg initially wrote to protest his not being allowed to tour in East Berlin, which later became immensely popular and led to his concert there, a major plot element in the season finale.
Extra bonus points here to D83. Both shows reference Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and the US missile defense system known as Star Wars, but D83 takes it meta. By the final episode, Martin is Luke Skywalker. He saves the world, and confronts the emissary from the Evil Empire, and also defeats his nemesis, Walter Schweppenstette, who of course turns out to be his father.
History and Politics
Both shows play off real events, in which their fictional characters sometimes have a role. But here, it’s The Americans that gets it wrong, in a heavy handed rightwing revisionist way that might work if it was done with a little bit of irony. In season one, episode 3, we meet Gregory, an African American operative recruited by Elizabeth when they both met through the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. J. Edgar Hoover tried for years to prove Soviet Russia was behind the civil rights movement because naturally blacks couldn’t have come up with it themselves. But wait! It gets worse! Not only did white she-devil Elizabeth seduce Gregory into betraying his country, but he also became a drug dealer, with the USSR supplying the product, and his crew unaware of who they were working for. That’s a John Birch wet dream in 3D with surround sound—and opposite day to what was really happening. (Which was the CIA helping contra narco traffickers to bring cocaine into the United States. Look it up!)
D83 gives a realistic take on the growing peace movement in Europe, American bluster, and the effect of its hard line on Russia’s geriatric leadership, who really believed Reagan when he said the bombs would be starting in five minutes. Even if Martin’s role in events stretches credulity, he was placed in a high level position where he would have been a witness to Able Archer. The Maison de France bombing really happened, and after reunification, a STASI agent was convicted of helping Carlos who took credit for it. Spying by East Germany was rampant in West Germany.
So, not that your humble recapper has a bias or anything, but which show do you think was betterer?