How the Contra War and Soviets in Afghanistan Figure Into "The Americans," Season 2

| Thu Mar. 6, 2014 7:05 AM EST

The espionage, sex, and family matters of the Cold War are back on your TV. Season two of The Americans—which airs 10 p.m. EST/PST on Wednesdays on FX—advances the saga of KGB officer Elizabeth Jennings (played by a terrific Keri Russell) and her husband and fellow Soviet spy, Philip (Matthew Rhys, the "Welshman who plays a Russian playing an American"). Their marriage was arranged by the KGB during the Khrushchev era, and the two live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood outside of Washington, DC, with their young daughter and son, in the early Reagan years. Oh, and their neighbor is an FBI counterintelligence agent.

The Americans is one of the best shows on television, and one thing that made the first season so good was its mining of Cold War history for intelligent suspense drama. The episode "In Control," which revolves around the attempted assassination of President Reagan (and the whereabouts of the nuclear football, and then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig's "I am in control here" quote), is wonderful. The first season also uses Reagan's budding "Star Wars" initiative in a story arc. Furthermore, Philip's (ongoing) second marriage to FBI secretary Martha Hanson (Alison Wright) is based on real-life instances of KGB agents marrying the secretaries of government officials to obtain information.

"We can't make the claim of teaching a history lesson, but it can be a springboard for learning about the fascinating real history," says Joe Weisberg, the creator of The Americans who also happens to be a CIA veteran.

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