Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

The Americans: Psychological Weapons of War

These spies utilize psychology as their weapon of choice

Do not read this blog until you’ve watched the entirety of the second season. Spoilers abound…

In “The Americans” many psychological strengths are utilized Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings in their dual role of classic American Family by day, and secret Russian Spies by night.

They do all the typical spy stuff with predictable skill. They communicate in code, strong-arm and fight when they have to, problem-solve sticky situations and, of course, follow orders with compliance. Their superiors term them “illegals” but “jack-of-all-trades” might work just as aptly.

One skill that seems particularly important for their mission, and that the television critic in me deems to be the most dramatically interesting is their ability to “turn” a potential spy.

Case in point is Fred, the middle-aged, balding U.S. citizen that Phillip used in the latter half of Season 2 to attain critical information about “Echo,” an important, cutting-edge computer program.

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Creating an ally to do the dirty work for “the cause” is, by far, the most efficient and effective means of advancing either sides interests in the Cold War. The skillset for such a sophisticated and fragile endeavor involves a skillset that underlies the Jennings’ daytime and nighttime crafts.

Whenever Elizabeth and Phillip approach and eventually “turn” a new member of “the cause” they are providing a “face” that is trustworthy, compassionate and insightful. They are utilizing their unique position of access within the community, and they are dedicated and meticulous enough to create a foundation of goodwill before making any challenging requests. They foster and maintain a sensitive awareness of what the new member can handle as far as anxiety, responsibility and competence. They build the member’s confidence, and use persuasion and charm to increase motivation for whatever missions their superiors pass down.

On an abstract level the weapons in this war are nuclear. And, yes, at times, the Jennings’ find themselves firing guns…but for the most part the weapons they rely on are social, emotional and cognitive in nature – establishing rapport, taking another’s perspective, assessing personality strengths and flaws, and manipulating motives.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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