'The Americans,' A to Z - Rolling Stone
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‘The Americans,’ A to Z

Bone up on the basics as FX’s Soviet-era thriller returns for a second season

Keri Russell The AmericansKeri Russell The Americans

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings on 'The Americans'

Frank Ockenfels/FX

Last winter, the world met Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a “typical” white-bread married couple living in suburban Washington, D.C., circa 1981. Philip (Matthew Rhys) plays racquetball and runs a local travel agency, while fresh-faced Elizabeth (Keri Russell) sports a wardrobe straight out of Blair Warner’s closet and spends her free time baking brownies for the new neighbors. Philip and Elizabeth are so good at masking their true identities that even their American-born children have no clue Mom and Dad are really highly trained KGB agents spying on their adopted homeland.

With their arsenal of bad disguises, vicious hand-to-hand combat skills and flawless English, Philip (né Mischa) and Elizabeth (née Nadezhda) are vital players in a chilling narrative that heavily blurs the lines between good and evil—and those lines are going to be blurred even further as viewers delve into Season Two of The AmericansYou don’t need to be an expert in the Cyrillic alphabet to get up-to-date on the series, but you may want to study this list of keywords and names before the FX drama returns on February 26th.

A: Arkady Ivanovich Arkady (Lev Gorn) is the Rezident (a.k.a. “chief spy”) of the KGB based in Washington, D.C. He is Nina’s boss, and narrowly escaped being murdered by FBI agent Stan Beeman last season, who was out to avenge his partner’s death.

B: Beer The preferred beverage of suburban parents/Soviet spies in the early Eighties.

C: Claudia Philip and Elizabeth’s supervisor, portrayed by the inimitable Margo Martindale, is a tough, sly KGB agent under the guise of a kindly maiden aunt. But she’s meddled in the Jennings’ lives one too many times (garnering a no-mercy beatdown from Elizabeth), and as Season Two begins, her whereabouts are unclear (partially due to Martindale’s commitment to her CBS series The Millers).

D: Directorate S The name of the elite subdivision of the KGB of which Philip and Elizabeth are members. From the moment Mr. and Mrs. Jennings arrived in the U.S. in 1965, their mission was to produce children, avoid borscht and blend in with their American friends and colleagues, all the while gathering intelligence to send back to Mother Russia.

E: English The only language Philip and Elizabeth are allowed to speak once on U.S. soil. Elizabeth broke this rule at the end of the season finale when, after being shot during a botched mission, she pleaded with Philip (from whom she was separated) to “come home” in her native tongue.

F: FBI The U.S. government agency that just happens to be the employer of Philip and Elizabeth’s neighbor, Stan Beeman, as well as one of Philip’s unsuspecting moles, Martha Hanson.

G: Gregory Gregory Thomas (Derek Luke), a former civil rights activist, was recruited by Elizabeth in the late 1960s. He was also Elizabeth’s first true love, as their relationship blossomed naturally as opposed to her arranged “marriage” with Philip. When the FBI obtains enough evidence on Gregory to take him in, his only choice is to relocate to Moscow. Unwilling to live out his life in the Soviet Union, he commits suicide by cop.

H: Henry Henry Jennings (Keidrich Sellati) is Philip and Elizabeth’s 10-year-old son. Unlike his teenage sister, Henry exhibits zero curiosity as to why his parents enforce such strict rules about opening closed doors or why Mom likes to “fold laundry” in the middle of the night. He’d much rather spend his time playing ice hockey or idolizing astronauts like Thomas P. Stafford.

I: “In the Air Tonight” Miami what? The Americans breathed new life into Phil Collins’1981 hit when it provided the soundtrack to Philip and Elizabeth’s backseat lovemaking session in the pilot episode. They had just finished disposing the body of Nikolai Timoshev, a KGB operative who had raped Elizabeth 20 years earlier. Now that Philip knows why Elizabeth has kept herself so distant from him, they can finally start building a more honest relationship.                   

J: Jennings The bland all-American surname bestowed upon “Philip” and “Elizabeth” when they were paired up by the KGB.

K: KGB The Soviet security agency that employs Philip, Elizabeth, Nina and Arkady, conducting highly covert spying missions in the United States.

L: Leg warmers The Eighties sartorial relic gets a nice shout-out in Season One when Elizabeth jokingly says that her daughter, Paige, owns 16 pairs (and still wants more!).

M: Martha Martha Hanson (Alison Wright) is the executive assistant to Stan Beeman’s boss at the FBI, Agent Frank Gaad (The Waltons’ Richard Thomas). Lonely and single, she quickly falls for the charms of FBI Internal Affairs pencil-pusher “Clark Westerfeld” (Philip Jennings in a blond wig and glasses) and unwittingly becomes a KGB informant. In order to maintain Martha’s trust, “Clark” marries her at the end of Season One. But how long will the honeymoon last before the naive Martha realizes husbands actually tend to live with their wives?

N: Nina Nina (Annet Mahendru) is a young, sexy KGB agent stationed at the Soviet Embassy on her first foreign mission. When Stan Beeman catches her smuggling stereo equipment and cash back to her family in Russia – ostensibly to sell on the black market – she is forced to become his informant, a connection which later develops into an affair. Eventually Nina learns that Stan killed her friend and colleague, Vlad Kosygin, and she recommits her loyalty to the Soviet Union. But her punishment is to get even closer to Stan, as a redoubled agent.

O: Officer The preferred title used by Philip and Elizabeth when referring to their jobs as Soviet agents.

P: Paige Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) is Philip and Elizabeth’s 13-year-old daughter. She likes boys and leg warmers, and is easily embarrassed when her dad starts two-stepping in cowboy boots while shopping at the mall. Toward the end of Season One, her parents’ surreptitious behavior is no longer going unnoticed, and the final shot of the season finale has Paige lurking around the downstairs laundry room, convinced Philip and Elizabeth use it for activities that have nothing to do with clean clothes. To her credit, she’s on to something.

Q: Questions Frowned upon in the Jennings household.

R: Rezidentura The KGB headquarters in Washington, D.C., where Arkady, Vlad Kosygin and Nina work

S: Stan Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is an FBI counterintelligence agent who has managed to remain oblivious to the fact that two Directorate S “illegals” happen to live right in his neighborhood. His devotion to his job, however, reaches a disturbing peak midway through Season One when he murders a KGB official, Vlad Kosygin, whom Stan mistakenly believes was responsible for the death of his partner, Chris Amador. In the season finale, Stan’s future looks precarious as the KGB not only thwarts his plan to capture Philip and Elizabeth (thanks to Nina giving the Soviets a heads up), but his mistress has handed over a suspicious-looking file on him to the rezident, Arkady.

T: “Tusk” The 1979 Fleetwood Mac tune set the stage for a day in the life (rather, a night in the life) of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. “Tusk” played over the action-packed opening scene of the pilot, which included a heart-pounding chase along the back alleys of Washington, D.C., between a KGB agent and his defector prey. The drumbeats and brass section seamlessly add to the scene’s tense, slow build, which also serves as a showcase of Philip’s and Elizabeth’s combat skills, preparedness and cool heads under pressure.

U: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or, CCCP) The subject of a 1968 Beatles song. A Communist superpower during the Cold War. Sent undercover agents pretending to be American citizens like Philip and Elizabeth Jennings to places like Washington to snoop on the U.S. government. Makes great caviar and vodka.

V: Video games Since The Americans takes place at the dawn of the age of the video arcade, get ready for Intellivision references in Season Two. And if you didn’t catch Margo Martindale immersed in her own game of Ms. Pac-Man in the Season One episode “The Oath,” please, drop what you’re doing and go watch it. We’ll wait.

W: Wigs Technically, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are the stars of The Americans, but any real fan of the show knows that honor goes to Philip and Elizabeth’s rotating cast of hairpieces. It’s hard to say which is more ridiculous: The fact that no one can tell these people are walking around in disguises out of a Three Stooges film, or that not once did one of Elizabeth’s blond, shaggy wigs get pulled off mid-blow job in service to her country. Seriously, what kind of Soviet superglue is Philip using to make sure Martha doesn’t blow his cover?

X: Did you know that the letter X actually makes the soft “ch” sound in Russian Cyrillic? Think “loch” or “Bach.”

Y: And that the letter Y makes an “oo” sound?

Z: Zhukov Gen. Vijktor Zhukov (Olek Krupa), the head of Directorate S, first brought Philip and Elizabeth together in Moscow in 1962. A father figure to Elizabeth, he is assassinated by a CIA agent toward the end of Season One. As if they didn’t have enough to snipe at each other about, the news hits Elizabeth and Claudia hard, and the two deal with their grief by engaging in a catty “Viktor loved me more” back-and-forth. When Elizabeth lets Zhukov’s killer go, Claudia thinks it means Elizabeth couldn’t keep her comrade warm the way she did—and she slits the CIA agent’s throat. 


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