There are so many congratulatory statements I want to make to FX at this time about The Americans. However, since space is limited and I need to maintain some semblance of an objective slant on this recap, I’ll just say this: Please, FX, don’t ever put The Americans up against Scandal (which returns from its winter hiatus February 27th on ABC). I don’t think my nervous system could handle having to choose between two Washington, D.C.-based dramas filled with sex, intrigue and costumes I covet on a daily basis.
Anyone who has been following my Twitter feed of late (or that of most TV critics/reporters) will know that it’s pretty much been an Americans lovefest since I got my hands on the first batch of screeners. So now that the season premiere has aired: For those haven’t hopped on the Americans bandwagon yet, this recap will serve as my longform argument to, to use a popular term from the Soviet-era drama, “turn” those remaining holdouts.
With Breaking Bad having ended its run last fall, and Mad Men’s days numbered, The Americans is perfectly poised to slide into the role of the country’s newest TV obsession. If you watched Season One you knew that between the writing, the ’80s nostalgia and Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell’s endless wardrobe of bad wigs, this show pulled you in a way you didn’t expect. Well, that’s happening again in Season Two—except everything is kicked up five notches. It’s certainly a common formula for showrunners (in this case, series creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields, who wrote the season premiere, “Comrades”) to overload a first episode with shocking scenes in order to ensure your allegiance. In the case of “Comrades,” it not only works, but the uptick of violence and sex scenes comes off as more organic than overkill.
Before the title sequence even appears (if any of you out there can think of a more brilliant title sequence in existence today, I want to know about it), Philip Jennings (Rhys) has executed two Afghan rebels, as well as an unfortunate kitchen-boy witness in the restaurant where the rendezvous took place. By the time Rhys’ name shows up in Cyrillic over the driving orchestral music, he has silently conveyed to the audience two of the most integral themes this season: Philip’s trauma and frustration over the murder of an innocent bystander; and his character’s Soviet-indoctrinated disgust with any God-fearing (or, in this case, Allah) human. Props to the Americans team for hanging a lantern to reflect the preposterous disguises their Directorate S characters wear—Philip, who was posing as a blond-haired Texas arms dealer, has his wig pulled off mid-altercation. Bobby pins are a good look for him….
Fall foliage and a visit to a Halloween-esque haunted house establish the passage of several months since the Season One finale (placing us circa late 1981), when Philip’s “wife” and fellow spy Elizabeth (Russell) was shot during a botched mission. Having recuperated from her wounds, Elizabeth leaves the comfort of her rural enclave (is that Carrie Mathison’s lake house?) to return to her suburban home and the most naive kids on the planet: Her American-born children, 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Seriously, these two bought the story that Mom was away for several months taking care of their great-aunt and couldn’t even be bothered to visit them on weekends? Elizabeth isn’t even home for 24 hours before ditching birthday boy Henry to go on a “date” with Philip, which initially consists of the usual mission paraphernalia: Elizabeth in a shaggy blond wig, a dorky-looking government official thrusting into her, and OHMYGODKERIRUSSELLISPARTICIPATINGINATHREESOME!!!! Another “prostitute” in a Joan Cusack-in-Working Girl wig has joined the festivities – but buzzkills Philip (bad disguise #2) and another member of “airport security” barge in to end the party. In short: The whole seduction scene was a setup so Philip and his cohort could supply the dorky government official with a rotating system of security codes, thus bringing them one step closer to what the Americans have up their sleeves.
Cut to a deserted industrial park for the necessary exposition scene: The Joan Cusack-esque hooker and Philip’s airport security colleague are “Lianne” and “Emmett,” fellow English-speaking-only Directorate S agents who have two high school-age kids and appear to have known Philip and Elizabeth for years. The two couples bond over how well their children are doing (Lianne and Emmett have a Carnegie Mellon-bound son, Jared), and just when you forget that they’re actually loyal Soviet officers, Lianne throws a cold bucket of water on the reunion: “Nothing prepares you for their growing up – here.” Obviously Lianne hasn’t seen an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, which Paige and Henry are watching with their babysitter that night. If she did, maybe she’d realize that America has a few perks, like Dr. Johnny Fever.
Elizabeth’s return to the fold has done little to temper Paige’s burgeoning suspicion that Mom and Dad use the laundry room for something other than washing clothes. When doing Elizabeth’s laundry doesn’t turn up any clues, Paige does what any curious teenage girl would do in her situation, which is walk in on her parents while they’re deep throating. No euphemisms here—between their separation and Elizabeth’s convalescence, it’s been quite a while since Mr. and Mrs. Jennings had their mouths full of each other. I have to give kudos to teen actress Holly Taylor for her convincingly awkward performance the next morning at the breakfast table. Even Elizabeth’s innocuous bite of crispy bacon makes Paige cringe! A boilerplate discussion about “privacy” and “respect” follows, with Elizabeth hypocritically giving her daughter a bullshit line about having to be able to “trust each other.” Once Paige takes off for school, Philip and Elizabeth immediately switch gears to the real issue at hand—oh, you thought it was dealing with their little girl growing up?—determining how close their daughter is to uncovering the truth about them. Philip: “Do we even know if this is the first time she’s checked on us?”
When I spoke to Keri Russell last fall about Season Two, she didn’t hesitate to speak at length about the theme of “the family dynamic,” which hits the audience like a sledgehammer in “Comrades.” If Elizabeth and Philip think Paige’s snooping will be their downfall, they’ve got another thing coming. For the first time, the Russian spies must face the reality that their chosen profession could put their children in mortal danger. Part of “Henry’s birthday weekend” includes a seemingly innocuous visit to an amusement park in Alexandria, Virginia, prompted by Emmett and Lianne’s desire to see the Jennings kids from afar. But when Emmett ropes Philip into taking his place in a handoff, and instructs him to have Henry with him, it’s the equivalent of a loud siren going off. Philip and Elizabeth’s discovery of a dead Emmett, Lianne and their daughter Amelia in their hotel roomhas the grisly impact that the scene intended, but the real terror occurs a couple of minutes later: First, when Philip passes Jared (who was conveniently swimming in the pool) in the hallway right before he is greeted by a family that is no more, that has ceased to be. As much as Philip wants to run back and comfort Jared, he has to continue walking down the stairs, the boy’s piercing screams reverberating throughout the hotel walls. Second, Elizabeth’s panicked search for Paige back at the theme park, and her visibly spooked wince when she sees her daughter wearing identical purple-floral face paint that graced Amelia’s lifeless body.
From this moment on, paranoia sets in at the Jennings household, with Elizabeth constantly checking the windows and doors. And she and Philip can’t even confide their fears in each other, because duty must always come before love in their line of work – a continuing theme this season. As Elizabeth sits alone on her bed, we hear Philip’s voice-over, talking about how “this job, this life,” is hard. It “gets to you in ways you didn’t think it would.” He’s speaking from the heart, but in actuality, he’s dressed as “Clark Westerfeld,” and merely venting about his day to Martha Hanson (Alison Wright – deservedly promoted to principal cast), the FBI secretary he’s conned into marrying him. He may be saying these words, but his inability to relax speaks volumes. How long can Philip and Elizabeth continue to spy on the United States while keeping their relationship and their children safe? Love, family and espionage – it’s a deadly combination.
–Noah Emmerich’s FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman remains blissfully ignorant of his next-door neighbors’ true identities. Several months after his KGB informant and lover, Nina (Annet Mahendru – the half-Russian, half-Indian beauty and breakout Americans star who also has earned herself a promotion to opening-credits cast), blew the whistle on his intended takedown of the two spies who happened to be Philip and Elizabeth, all of Stan’s leads have grown cold, and he’s grown frustrated. Nina, recommitted to her homeland (or is she? The brilliance of this show is we really don’t know where her loyalties lie), outsmarts Stan’s lame attempts to get her to open up by showing her a pirated Meryl Streep weepie (The French Lieutenant’s Woman). That and she pulls back the curtain on Stan’s educational gaps: Nina gets a blank stare when she references Anna Karenina. But, she knows she still has to play the game, so she throws Stan (and us) a bone – the introduction of Oleg Igorevich Burov (Costa Ronin), a new arrival to the KGB Rezidentura. He’s a spoiled son of a top official, yet he’s been put in charge of Line X (Science and Technology). That information alone would have piqued anyone’s interest, but his fascination with American culture (he channels Sonny Crockett with his no-socks-with-loafers look and listens to Rod Stewart on his Walkman) makes him a must-watch new character.