“The Americans” review: “Cardinal”


Something has changed in Elizabeth. The realization that her children could become the targets of her enemies has finally dawned on her. It’s not necessarily something that is all that shocking as a potential issue for a Russian sleeper agent, but the death of Emmett and Leanne last week was certainly a wake-up call. Although we barely knew these characters for a full episode, their deaths have a clear effect on the start of The Americans’ second season.  They were the closest things Phillip and Elizabeth have ever had to work friends. Furthermore, this puts the embassy office on high alert. Nina’s separation from her comrades remains, but within a tight clockwork narrative.

The pulsing question of the show has shifted in these first two episodes as well. Paige’s curiosity toward her parents is reaching its prime as her parents lose their typical cunning this week. Their behavior is off in such a way that Paige has every reason to suspect. Elizabeth’s paranoia, in particular, has put Paige in a position to branch out in her limited resources. One may now be asking if she will figure her parents out. If she does, the possible repercussions are all over the board. Holly Taylor does a lot with the material, and it’s clear Weisberg has seen the opportunity offered by the gifted young actress. There are subtle cues that she’s picking up on her mother’s excuses and impulsive behavior. Rarely have we seen Phillip or Elizabeth hindered by opposing forces, but to see both of them against the ropes just shows the difficulties this season will bring.

Cleanup after Emmett and Leanne’s deaths becomes a major focal point of this week’s episode. With the hand-off man from last week, Fred, being played by the wonderful John Carroll Lynch, it was pretty evident that we would see more of him. Phillip goes into full-on dirty cable guy attire to snoop around Fred’s apartment. Off his game and quick to move, Phillip winds up on the wrong side of an electrified safe box. He comes to, finding himself tied up and an angry Fred asking questions. A turned man but a man who cared about Emmett, Phillip must reach deep to prove he is a comrade. There is a small moment of fear in all this, despite the first instinct being the knowledge that a main character is safe on episode 15 overall (usually). Nuanced scenes like this are mostly saved for Elizabeth and Phillip. Almost never do we see our “heroes” genuinely connect with people outside their family. Emmett is a mutual friend lost for Phillip and Fred. The two men find a connection in that.

Meanwhile, there’s a walk-in at the embassy. We don’t know what he has to say, but we do know Stan is on to the man. The double agent game between Stan and Nina continues to twist and turn with uncertainty, since Nina cannot completely remove herself from all the emotion she has for Stan. Loyalty has always been a central theme to The Americans. The Jennings worry about country versus family. Nina must worry about country versus conscience. The guilt that clearly resides within this relationship is just below the surface. As other men as the embassy catcall and try to flirt their way to Nina, her complications with Stan have taken her out of the workplace sexuality. She has become driven in her work, but her unfulfilled wish is to be driven the same way with playing Stan.

The Americans is not a show centered on its humor, but it finds its way toward a few laughs. Poor, sweet Martha continues to believe she’s in the perfect marriage with the blonde wig-disguised Phillip. Her gullibility and the ease with which Phillip can sway her keeps Phillip’s pawn right where he needs her. Phillip’s persona, Clark, is not without his rewarding qualities. Even if he’s pushing her for personal gain, his suggestion to move up in counterintelligence does give Martha a bit more confidence. I get a kick out of this relationship week to week as I wonder how blind Martha really is. Elizabeth and Phillip are very smooth, but that may not end up lasting as long as they hoped. Their fear has put them in some more dangerous situations. If next week’s promos are any indication, they are in for far more. They will need more than just cunning to overcome the road ahead. They will need trust and each other.