From 1985 to 1987, the spy war between the US and the Soviet Union reached a bizarre fever pitch.
CIA assets inside the KGB were rounded up and executed, and no one could figure out why. A disgruntled ex-CIA agent evaded an FBI surveillance dragnet and fled to Moscow, partly by using a human-sized dummy to throw off his trackers. A US Marine guard fell for a KBG honeypot and allowed a Soviet operative into the American embassy in Moscow. To top it all off, a KBG colonel defected to the US and then re-defected to the Soviets after fleeing his CIA handler while they were eating at a French restaurant in Washington, DC’s posh Georgetown neighbourhood.
Events that could shift the balance of Cold War were coming hard and fast, and one man was in some way connected to all of them: Aldrich Ames, a CIA veteran currently serving a federal life sentence for espionage.
The hunt for Ames — who was perhaps the most damaging mole in the agency’s history — and the events surrounding his betrayal of the United States was the subject of “The Assets,” an 8-part miniseries that ran on ABC in early 2014. The show’s pilot was the lowest-rated premier for a primetime drama in history. No matter: the whole thing’s on Netflix Instant Watch. And if you have any interest in the Cold War, intelligence, or the darker regions of human nature the show belongs on your to-do list.
Plot-wise, “The Assets” is broadly similar to “Zero Dark Thirty.” Both are about female CIA agents fighting the agency’s institutional inertia (and male-dominated hierarchy) while hunting a menacing, arrogant, and almost hopelessly concealed enemy. In “The Assets,” that agent is Eastern Europe analyst Sandy Grimes, and the enemy is a suspected CIA mole responsible for exposing as many as 10 high-level assets that the KGB caught and executed in the mid-80s.
Grimes, played by Jodie Whittaker, is one of the few inside of the agency who’s convinced of the mole’s existence and continues hunting him even after the Soviet Union’s fall. She’s one of the few in the CIA bold enough to argue that the KGB was playing America’s premiere intelligence agency for fools or to grasp the implications of such a breach. Her persistence pays off, but only after the mole hunt becomes a personally all-consuming side-note within the larger, mostly unseen history of the 1980s spy war.
Unlike in “Zero Dark Thirty,” we actually meet the target of the hunt. “The Assets” doesn’t try to soften Ames, played by Paul Rhys. He’s an image of pure venality, in it for money and material advancement, though possibly driven by other, deeper motives that he’s too afraid to fully confront. Maybe the most remarkable thing about “The Assets” is that it’s able to make an objectively villainous figure complicated and human without using glorification as a crutch.
It’s easy to see why “The Assets” was a ratings bust. There aren’t any shootouts and few chase scenes. The tension builds through the endless drudgery of spy work: the meetings and bureaucracy, the boxes of fading documents, the slow-burning suspicions and constantly frayed nerves. In FX’s “The Americans,” the KGB station in Washington has a frat house vibe to it, while the Russian spies are relatable and even sort of hip. In “The Assets,” the KGB offices are austere and menacing places. The men working in them them are hard and unrepentant, but oddly pathetic as well.
“The Assets” also has none of “The Americans'” appetite for relativism either. Much of the latter show’s drama comes through the way in which the value system and internal lives of the FBI agents and the KGB operatives they’re hunting begin to closely resemble and even blur into each other.
In “The Assets,” the CIA is imperfect or even negligent. but there’s no attempt at drawing cheap equivalencies with the KGB. There’s no comparing the way Ames is eventually treated with the Soviet agency’s brutal and extra-legal methods for weeding out its own traitors. And there’s no comparing their essential purposes, either. In “The Assets,” the CIA is out to protect the American way of life against a determined enemy — even if it can fall captive to fatal stretches of dysfunction in the process.
That might explain another reason “The Assets” didn’t catch on. The show is capable of exposing the sometimes appalling shortcomings of the US intelligence community while also affirming the essential virtue of its mission. After the Snowden disclosures and the CIA torture report, the public discourse has had difficulty holding both of these thoughts simultaneously.
Something as grounded as “The Assets” might have introduced more realism and cognitive dissonance than a popular audience can handle around intelligence-related matters at the moment. At the opposite end of the spectrum from “The Americans” is “Zero Dark Thirty” itself, a film whose narrative was shaped through authorised leaks and consultations with the CIA.
That’s why a show like “The Assets” is so important. It uses the intrigue of the late Cold War to strike a middle ground that’s vital in the present day.
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