By: Kathleen Gallagher
When The Americans debuted on FX Network last year, it made a splash for two reasons: 1) Its endearingly goofy high-concept premise (“Felicity is a Soviet sleeper spy in the ‘80s!”) and 2) Fantastic wigs.
What a difference a year makes.
With the civil unrest in the Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, it feels like we’ve taken a time warp back to the Cold War. Nations are taking sides, ultimatums are being set and maps redrawn. Suddenly The Americans and its spy-versus-spy premise has become the most political relevant show on TV. It’s also the best show you’re (probably) not watching. So grab a vodka, and settle in for a re-education, comrade.
At the heart of The Americans is the complicated relationship between Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), mild-mannered travel agents by day and deadly KGB agents by night. At the time of the pilot, the Jennings have been embedded in the United States for about 17 years, living together in the D.C. suburbs as a married couple with their two children, Paige and Henry. While they are partners, they have never been a true couple in the romantic sense. (“It never happened for us,” Elizabeth admits to Philip.) The events of the pilot change that and the rest of the season becomes an exploration of their burgeoning relationship. Complicating their lives is their new neighbour, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent who specializes in counter-intelligence.
The show’s first season had a big job to do in establishing not only its characters but also setting up its complicated backstory. Like any new show, the writers were trying things out as they went along and it showed. But the show worked hard to entertain with solid action sequences and sultry seduction scenes in between its sometimes ropey flashbacks to KGB spy school. Every episode featured undercover missions in which the Jennings would don elaborate disguises, often involving tragic ‘80s fashion and the aforementioned brilliant wigs. The Russians may have lost the arms race, but if the Jennings are anything to go by, they apparently had some of the world’s most gifted method actors and makeup artists.
By the second half of the season the world-building had paid off, allowing the show to push its characters to uncomfortable extremes. The Jennings struggled to work through their newfound feelings while balancing their roles as parents and spies. Meanwhile, the FBI and KGB engaged in an escalating series of confrontations and Stan Beeman found his judgement increasingly clouded, especially when it came to his source within the Russian embassy, the beautiful Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru). Season 1 climaxed with a tense cat-and-mouse showdown between the Russians and American agents, resulting in serious consequences for the Jennings and one of the sweetest narrative callbacks in TV history.
The Americans of Season 2 is a much more confident, muscular show. The season premiere crackled with intensity during the action sequences, while effortlessly mixing in humour and tenderness in its domestic scenes. It has settled into a near-claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia, with almost every character grappling with various identities and motivations; knowing at any point one false move could send their worlds crashing down. As a team Elizabeth and Philip are stronger than ever, but there are cracks in their carefully constructed façades. Philip makes several bad decisions in the Season 2 premiere; one of which endangers not just him and Elizabeth but Paige and Henry as well. Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly clear that Elizabeth has not fully recovered from the events of the Season 1 finale. “You’re back, but you’re not back,” says her handler, the gruff Claudia (Margo Matindale).
And yet, for all its grim intensity, what sets The Americans apart for me is its ability to mix the cloak and dagger material with the domestic and make them both matter equally. Elizabeth is a tough-as-nails fighter who we’ve seen cripple men twice her size. But what really scares her in Season 2 is discovering Paige is attending a Christian youth group. “This is what happens,” she complains to Philip. “They get the when they’re children. They indoctrinate them. With friendship and songs and cute boys cooing about Jesus!”
One of the criticisms I’ve seen of The Americans is that since the show’s protagonists are Russian it puts the audience in a position of having to root for the “bad guys.” This, of course, ignores the reality of the show, which depicts both the American and Russian characters as complicated individuals rather than some binary choice of good or evil.
Only time will tell if The Americans will be able to keep up its current breakneck pace and maintain the high level of quality Season 2 has established. Admittedly, it is jugging a lot of plotlines in the air right now and much of what makes a spy story successful is being able to stick the landing. But for now, the show’s solid track record and its resonance in light of real-life current events should elevate it to your “must see” list.
Check out The Americans on FX Canada, Wednesdays at 10 p.m.