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Truth or fiction? Maybe both as the U.S.-Russia dynamic plays out on television and in the news

Truth or fiction? Maybe both as the U.S.-Russia dynamic plays out on television and in the news
Keri Russell, left, as Elizabeth Jennings, and Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings in the first season of the FX Russian spy drama "The Americans." (FX / MCT)

A few days after former spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned in London by nerve toxins associated with Russian intelligence agencies, fictional ex-Russian agent Ivan Krupin died at the hands of a Kremlin operative in TV's "Homeland." And in April on "The Americans," KGB agent "Nadeshda" shot an uncooperative source in the head. Nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War, Russians have returned in real life — and on Emmy-contending TV dramas — as enemies of the state dedicated to wreaking havoc on democratic institutions.

But unlike previous big-screen heavies such as "Rocky IV's" Ivan Drago or Bond villain Rosa Klebb, small-screen Russian antagonists in 2018 get a chance to humanize their sides of the story.

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The FX period drama "The Americans," unfolding against an '80s-era backdrop of "Evil Empire" rhetoric, never intended to demonize KGB couple Nadeshda (Keri Russell) and Mischa aka Philip (Matthew Rhys). Nadeshda, posing as suburban mom Elizabeth Jennings, kills, seduces and blackmails on behalf of her Moscow handlers. She also tangles with rebellious kids and her argumentative spouse in the time-honored fashion of ordinary civilians.

"When 'The Americans' started in 2013, we were at a place where you could look back with a kind of bemusement that Russians had ever been so vilified in our eyes as the enemy," says executive producer Joel Fields. Now vilifying Russian tactics seems quite reasonable. "If we were to go back and start the show again in today's world, we would pick a different enemy to fight rather than the Russians," Fields says.

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans."
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans." (FX)

Series creator Joe Weisberg, who worked for the CIA in the early '90s, adds, "The issue of what it means to be a true believer is a fundamental question we tackle in the series. We're deeply interested in what's going on in Russia right now, but we're also deeply interested in keeping it out of 'The Americans' because that pops the bubble. We want to immerse you in the drama of 1987."

While Soviet spies drive the action in "The Americans," it's the fear of off-screen Communist adversaries that informs Errol Morris' 1954-set docudrama "Wormwood." The fact-based Netflix series revisits a disastrous CIA mind-control experiment in which agents fed LSD to their unwitting colleague Frank Olson. Confused and depressed, Olson fell to his death from the window of a Manhattan hotel in what was officially ruled a suicide. Eric Olson argues that his father was pushed.

"Everything in 'Wormwood' happens in the context of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and China were testing nuclear weapons," says Morris. "Perhaps our fears were outsized, but they weren't manufactured out of whole cloth. Were there overreactions? Yes. The Olson case seems to be an example of just that. We don't imagine the CIA being involved in domestic murders."

The Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker sees a distinctly different U.S.-Russia dynamic at play today. "What we have now is an under-reaction, because we're talking about possible collusion between the American president and the Russians," Morris says. "That's quite a twist because it's very difficult for me to imagine Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower organizing hotel deals with Stalin."

Peter Sarsgaard in Errol Morris' "Wormwood."
Peter Sarsgaard in Errol Morris' "Wormwood." (Zach Dilgard / Netflix)

"The Americans" and "Wormwood" dramatize the psychological toll exacted by 20th century Cold War subterfuge, but Showtime's "Homeland" this season offers up-to-the-minute Russian villainy in the person of Yevgeny (Costa Ronin). Determined to outsmart equally intense ex-CIA zealot Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), he tries to frame the U.S. president for murder through expert manipulation of social media.

Series co-creator Alex Gansa, who wrote his fair share of Middle East bad guys for the 2001-2010 counter-terrorism series "24," says, "Obviously, after 9/11, there was a new enemy out there — Al Qaeda and Islamic extremists — but that didn't mean the other bad actors went away. Russia was one of those bad actors."

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in "Homeland."
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in "Homeland." (Antony Platt / Showtime)

Like "The Americans," "Homeland" strives to draw its Yankee heroes and Slavic villains in nonjudgmental shades of gray. Gansa says, "Our bad guy Yevgeny has a very specific idea about the West's culpability in the deterioration of the relationship between Russia and the United States, and that point of view is articulated in 'Homeland.'

"I'd like to think our show takes a more nuanced look at this stuff by showing Russia as a country that's pursuing its own self-interests. Americans might look at Russians as the boogeyman but believe me, the Russians look at us in the same way."

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