If you watched the premiere of Allegiance, NBC’s new spy drama, on Thursday night, you likely wonder what the creators can possibly do to top it. Modern day sex, lies and videotape—not to mention some pretty gnarly torture and a spy-within-a-spy plots—kept us on the edge of our seats when we previewed it at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Still, questions arise as to whether or not the show, which centers on a 40-something Brooklyn couple (she’s Russian-born, he’s American), is really true to life. Would a couple like this really be forced to spy as a prerequisite to their marriage? And how likely would it be that a couple who thought their spy days were behind them would find their sleeper cell reactivated, with orders to bring their brilliant CIA analyst son (who knows nothing about their spy activities), into the fold?
Former intelligence officers at the Spy Museum screening spoke about the show during a panel discussion, and in subsequent one-on-one conversations. Here’s what we learned.
There are spies everywhere in the United States. Two days before the January 28 Spy Museum screening, the FBI arrested a man employed by a Russian bank and charged him as part of a Russian intelligence network that collected economic intelligence and recruited other spies. According to the panel members, this is not unusual. “The world of espionage is around us everywhere—New York City, the Midwest and other places,” said Vince Houghton, historian and curator at the Spy Museum. “Washington, D.C. has more spies than any other city in the world, and that’s what we consider an undisputed fact.”
One of the hosts at the premiere confided to a small group that there are a lot of “really bad” spy shows and movies. The real-life members and former member of the intelligence community “really love” FX’s period spy drama The Americans which just premiered its third season, she said. One reason: credible use of spy jargon. And panelists were jazzed that the characters in Allegiance use terms such as ‘dangle’—an agent who feigns interest in defecting or joining another agency—correctly. Anyone who has listened to someone try hipster on for size (think of some adorably embarrassing lingo Johnny Galecki’s character Leonard Hofstadter uses on The Big Bang Theory) gets it. “They clearly did their homework,” said real-life former CIA analyst Mark Stout, one of the panelists. “That’s routinely not the case with terminology.”
The set up in Allegiance really isn’t off the mark. The show centers on a Brooklyn-based family, which consists of a Russian-born woman (played by Hope Davis), her American-born husband (Scott Cohen) and their three kids—including the brilliant son with the eidetic memory (Gavin Stenhouse), a CIA analyst. The couple is part of a sleeper cell that is called back into service. Does a couple working together as spies sound too Hollywood? It’s not. Panelists reminded us of numerous cases where married couples worked as spies, including the case of Andres and Heidrun Anschlag, a German couple who stood trial in 2013 for spying on Russia.
Hope Davis’ wife/mother character in Allegiance was brought into spying by her KGB general father. This mirrors parts of the 2010 case of Anna Chapman, the spy whose father was reportedly a KGB general. Indeed, U.K.’s Daily Mail reported that Anna Chapman’s ex-husband Alex Chapman feared her father had “groomed her to be a spy.” Want something closer to home? Consider Tim Foley, who was a student at George Washington University in 2010 when his parents were arrested as Russian spies. The couple later told officials they had told their son about their spying, and hoped he’d follow them into the biz.
We all know about 007, Jack Ryan, heck, even ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ (now Mr. and Mrs. Pitt)—but the operatives are only part of the intelligence story. Without analysts, said Houghton, there is no intelligence community. And there aren’t many—maybe any—with the IQ/eidetic memory of the analyst in this show. The bottom line—“the analysts are not as celebrated, but they’re the real power behind the ops guys, “ said Houghton, adding that he hoped those considering careers would take a look at what intelligence agencies offer. ”Even the ops guys will tell you the analysts have the important jobs,” said Houghton. “They’re the ones who tell you what everything means.”
While Hope Davis is different from the glamorous Hollywood starlets who have played other fictional spies (including Angelina Jolie’s ‘Mrs. Smith’ or Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99 from the classic TV series Get Smart), she fits in with a history of beautiful spies. Panelists referred us back to Anna Chapman, who posed in ‘Agent Provocateur’ lingerie (no, really) for a Russian version of Maxim magazine.
One of the key plot points in Allegiance is that the brilliant son doesn’t know his parents are spies. And, surprise, the parents don’t know someone close to them is actually spying on them (there’s more, but we won’t spoil it for you). The panelists explained that this scenario is not far-fetched. Some parents wait years before ‘fessing up to the kids. Some never do. “It’s difficult,” said Stout. “The next generation puts down roots, and love their country. It’s difficult [after such a disclosure] to carry on with their lives.”
It’d be easy to tell if you friend or colleague was a spy, right? Mark Stout worked for years as an analyst at the U.S. State Department and was used to his colleague Kendall Myers “sticking his head in my office and chatting me up, talking about what he was working on.” Imagine Stout’s surprise one day in 2009, when he read in a newspaper that Myers was arrested for spying for Cuba. Or as ABC News put it, “Myers and his wife, now in their early 70s, led a double life, graying grandparents who were also committed supporters of the Cuban revolution, who passed sensitive US intelligence information to the Castro regime for three decades.” And yes, Stout thinks that some of what he told Myers was passed on to Cuba. The bottom line: You never know.
Although, as Houghton said from the panel ‘they got a lot right,” there are some scenes in Allegiance that aren’t exactly, well, accurate. Panelist and former KGB General Oleg Kalugin told the audience that the scene that showed Russian spies burning someone alive would not happen. “We are more sophisticated than that,” he said. Yet Kalugin and the other panelists agreed the liberties are understandable. Peter Earnest, founding executive director of the Spy Museum and 35-year veteran of the CIA summed it up this way: ‘They have to make it interesting. No one will tune in to watch something happen once every five years.”
Although many people think that spying leads to war, the experts say that the opposite is often true. “A lot of people have the misconception that intelligence agents are war fighters,“ said Houghton. “Actually, they help us avoid war.” He pointed to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as a way intelligence kept a possible World War III from occurring.
Bummed that you missed the premiere? No worries. Check it out on NBC. Then tune in on Thursdays at 10PM EST for upcoming episodes.