In the new NBC drama Allegiance, Katya and Mark O'Connor are a mom and dad like any other. Or at least, they'd like to be. Living in New York City, they harbor the secret that they used to be Russian spies—used to be, that is, until Moscow demands they return to service to gather intel from their son Alex, a CIA analyst with an almost-supernatural intellect. It's a delicious setup: Alex must lie to his parents about his job; they’ve got to lie to him about theirs; Russia lies to everyone about the fact that its KGB 2.0, the SVR, is plotting America’s demise.
As nearly every review of the show has pointed out, though, this is not an entirely novel premise. FX’s The Americans imagines a husband-wife KGB sleeper cell balancing parenthood and secret ops, but in the Reagan ‘80s. Showtime’s Homeland made its initial splash by putting a foreign loyalist into an American nuclear family. And it seems like every network drama these days has a hero like Alex: freakishly smart, socially inept, very attractive. Add in lowest-common-denominator screenwriting that crams ridiculous yet predictable plot developments into every frame, and you have a program that seems distractingly familiar, even as it offers a steady drip of entertainment.
One element, though, feels novel: Katya, as played by Hope Davis, is the rare case in pop-culture where "spy" and "good mother" aren't contradictions in terms. Born in Russia and pressed into the KGB at age 17, she recruited and married an American businessman, had three kids, and somehow struck a deal to retire from espionage. When we meet her in the pilot, she’s making pies, cajoling her daughter about math homework, and giving her husband precise instructions about which potatoes to acquire at the supermarket. Once the Russians shows up with orders to turn Alex into a spy, Mark attempts questioning and negotiation, but Katya immediately takes a hardline: “Go to hell.”
She gets a lot of badass-sounding lines like that, though she rarely sounds like a badass delivering them. Davis plays the character with a quavering voice and nervous eyes, reflecting the tremendous pressure she faces and the personal fear that something awful will befall her children. We’re both shown and told that she’s an excellent spy (though the tradecraft in Allegiance rarely extends beyond driving fast and planting listening devices), yet at no point does she seem to possess a spy’s traditional murky loyalties or moral ambiguity. Katya wants to save her family; Russia’s interests, or America’s, for now seem incidental. Her own life does, too: By the end of the pilot, she has attempted to sacrifice herself for the good of the other O’Connors, and at the start of the second episode she tells a lie that damages her relationships in the name of saving her relations.
The protective “mama bear” is, of course, an old cultural trope. But it’s one that rarely meets with the other trope Katya embodies: the female spy. Usually, undercover women in fiction are steely femme fatales, and Allegiance seems to keep that tradition going with the O’Connors' eldest child, Natalie, a beautiful and strong-willed secret agent who’s sleeping with an SVR handler. The other big cliché about recent fictional female spies is that they're fanatical to the point of sociopathy. Homeland’s Carrie obsesses over her mission to stop terrorism, and has deeply screwed-up relations with friends and family—including her own baby, who she at one points considers drowning in a bathtub. The Americans’ Elizabeth loves her kids but never wavers from the Soviet cause, and the most recent episodes have shown her willing to recruit her daughter into dangerous KGB service—making her diametrically opposed to Katya when it comes to navigating the line between duty and family.
Those portrayals have their virtues, showing that women can be just as ruthless as James Bond. But they also suggest that extreme competence and cunning betray certain traditionally feminine qualities. Allegiance's biggest innovation is that it instead imagines spy skills as something that can be part of the maternal experience. This leads to some interesting, touching moments, especially between Katya and Alex. She's a stealth guardian angel, sometimes taking down threats against her son without his knowledge, and sometimes secretly undercutting his efforts so that he doesn't learn too much, too soon. Maybe there are real moms out there who can relate.