“The Americans” review: “Comrades”


Starting today, Matt Brassil will be covering Season 2 of FX’s The Americans here at Heave.

It’s the ‘80s. Reagan is President. The Cold War is stressing out the major governments of the world. American-Russian relations are the roughest they have ever been. Smack-dab in the middle of this conflict are The Jennings. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) are KGB agents hiding in plain sight. They are pretending to be husband and wife to the point of having two children, Paige and Henry. Meanwhile, their next-door neighbor is FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). So much can possibly go wrong.

That last sentence can be used to capture not only the Jennings’ cover, but the show itself. In its freshman run, The Americans asked a lot of questions about Elizabeth and Phillip’s relationship. Were they ever in love? Are their children just part of their cover? Did they ever love anyone else? Many of these were answered to one extent or another. I won’t discuss them in too much detail, considering I didn’t cover Season 1 for Heave. The big question will likely remain “Will Stan find out about Elizabeth and Phillip?” Unlike many one-season-wonder shows, The Americans did not give up its greatest revelation prematurely (looking at you, Homeland). Rather, this show is playing the long game.

FX has been very polarizing when it comes to its series. Most dramas are cancelled after a season (Terriers, Dirt, The Riches, Thief) or live out their tenure until the narrative is finished (The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Justified). The only real exception is Damage, whose second half aired on The 101 Network. I had the pleasure of meeting the Head of TV Development at Dreamworks while interning in LA. Almost all of my questions were geared toward The Americans, as my face lit up and everyone else in the room sat confused and uninterested. With Sons of Anarchy and Justified both being over by this time next year, The Americans will become their oldest drama. The network gave a lot of notes on Season 2; they have invested quite a bit in their Russian spy drama. I couldn’t be happier.

Whereas most FX dramas star morally ambiguous antiheroes, here an American audience finds sympathy with citizens of our former enemy’s country. The internal conflict, as a viewer, is unlike anything on TV or film for that matter.

So let’s talk about the season premiere.

Elizabeth is finally back home from her “vacation,” and the Jennings marriage is healing. Paige and Henry are growing up every day. Beeman is still seeing Nina, even though she is now playing him for the KGB. No one is exactly in paradise, and that’s exactly where The Americans hits a sweet spot. We are introduced to two new characters, a couple similar to Elizabeth and Phillip with two kids of their own. Although Elizabeth has barely caught her breath, she jumps right back into work (even if that means screwing another guy the KGB wants information from). The seduction play is not foreign to the genre or even The Americans, but this episode has an extra step. Phillip and his male colleague walk in on the sexual encounter, attempting to stop a foolish agent from spilling his secrets to a beautiful woman. Instead, the men make him go through all his security details as they pose as his superiors. Smart plays like this are worth the smirk, and provided some much-needed relief from the tension.

Meanwhile, Paige is getting curious about her parents’ late-night activities, and the cat is quickly killed when she walks in on Mom and Dad doing a sexual act named with a number (you can figure it out). As I have mentioned before in my reviews of Bob’s Burgers, I love when children are well-written as dimensional characters and not just plot devices. Paige and Henry are at an age where the actors playing them will hit puberty and see growth spurts between seasons. The Americans doesn’t hide from it, but rather embraces it. The Jennings kids have not been raised like their parents in any way. In fact, they more so resemble the people the Jennings are trying to infiltrate, and Russell’s Elizabeth always seems to worry about this. As they remain disconnected in allegiances, the day all the cards are put on the table will likely be a riveting one.

The “mission of the week,” if you even want to call it that, makes both spy couples vulnerable as well as their kids. Phillip is roped into a hand-off that will later get his friends killed. The moment is chilling, and as a highly desensitized viewer of content, my hands were over my mouth in horror. Elizabeth and Phillip may have exposed themselves, and that is the last thing they need after last season. No one is safe in this line of work. Not even their kids.

And, of course, The Americans would not be The Americans if it didn’t end with the stark reminder that Phillip must spend some nights pretending to be FBI secretary Martha’s wife. Elizabeth sits alone, uncertain of the future.

Now who wouldn’t want to watch that?