‘The Americans’ Season 1, Episode 2 Review – Impossible Things

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Noah Emmerich and Matthew Rhys in The Americans The Clock The Americans Season 1, Episode 2 Review – Impossible Things

In addition to having a pretty great grasp on how to properly portray the period elements of the era it’s actually depicting, The Americans also has a rather keen understanding of how best to utilize those period-specific details in order to add a little nostalgic spice to the narrative and also make the characters work just a little bit harder to achieve their goals.

Now you can’t have a compelling spy-dram without some actual spying going on, and after a quick glimpse at the Jennings’ comparatively low-tech spy gadgets, in last week’s superlative premiere – a well-hidden wall safe was revealed to contain your standard issue go bag stuff, along with a tape recorder that didn’t look like it was exactly easy to conceal – it’s clear (and something of a relief) that The Americans probably won’t feature scenes where the Jennings call in requests for a satellite link, locate anyone via GPS or engage in cell phone cloning – basically, all the stuff that fills so many modern spy stories with an overwhelming sameness.

Instead, series creator and writer of ‘The Clock,’ Joe Weisberg, heads back to the days where planting a listening device in someone’s office – say, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger – was an ordeal in and of itself, and the result feels like a breath of fresh air. Moreover, as if it weren’t obvious from the premiere, this episode really establishes the Jenningses, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys), respectively, not as your typical villainous Russian spy types, but rather as small cogs in the very large wheel that is the Cold War. There’s some villainous stuff going on here, don’t get me wrong; poisoning the son of Weinberger’s maid to force her to steal the titular clock and then remain complicit and return it (with said listening device installed), isn’t the action the normal television “hero” would take.

Tonye Patano and Matthew Rhys in The Americans The Clock The Americans Season 1, Episode 2 Review – Impossible Things

But ever since Tony Soprano strangled a guy with a garden hose, or Walter White began cooking meth, the television landscape has become more accepting of those gray areas inhabited by even the dodgiest of protagonists. Which is why, when two consecutive episodes open with some steamy, spy-related infidelity, the audience doesn’t have to question what the marital ramifications for Phil and Elizabeth are going to be; for them, this is all just a part of the job.

Of course, this show wouldn’t be half as entertaining if it didn’t allow for some soapy, domestic moments that reveal, in both husband and wife, a slight twinge of jealousy or resentment, like the one we see when Elizabeth first lays eyes on the woman Phillip has been sleeping with as means into Weinberger’s office. “You never said she looked like that,” she tells him, and although what follows isn’t the usual well-scripted castigation of the offending spouse, Russell deftly exhibits the same sense of unspoken hurt Rhys showed after listening to just what was on that rather conspicuous recorder.

While Phillip spends time gallivanting about in his Saab as Scott Burkland: Patriotic Swedish Intelligence Officer, Elizabeth is suddenly struck by a concern that hits closer to home. The couple’s precocious daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), has been exhibiting all the telltale signs that she’s finally entered those frightening teen years; namely, drinking coffee; wearing a mini-skirt instead of a sweater featuring a cute woodland creature; and now she’s gone off and bought a bra with her friends instead seeking the guidance of her mother.

Matthew Rhys in The Americans The Clock The Americans Season 1, Episode 2 Review – Impossible Things

It’s unlikely there’s some sort of official “KGB Guide to Raising a Teenage Socialist,” and if there were, Elizabeth certainly doesn’t have one. But rather than harangue her child about whether or not she’s ready to be buying such undergarments, or pulling a total “mom” and forcing Paige to enter into the next stage of her maturity under a maternal wing, Elizabeth instead chooses to arbitrarily lower the Jennings family age restriction on ear piercing. While the idea of a mother pushing too hard to join in or guide the experience of their child’s maturation – especially when it comes to a daughter – is something of a familiar storytelling element, Weisberg uses it to wrap the entire episode in a maternal theme, comparing the mothering styles of two women ensnared in a situation where powerful people are asking them to do “impossible things.”

And it’s not just the moms who are faced with impossibility. Phillip – Scott, rather – is asked by his asset/lover/wife of the deputy under secretary of defense to pretend for just a moment that he’s proposed the two run away to Sweden together to make some babies and drink hot cocoa, while he does something manly like chop wood. The two briefly bask in his fictional (and forced) proposal, but there’s a good chance that Phillip’s dreamed of being that removed from consequence and the direction of others for some time now, which may be an unspoken aspect of why Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is constantly on his mind.

Beeman isn’t just the guy who lives down the street or the FBI counter intelligence agent who broke into his garage to check out the contents of the Jennings’ Oldsmobile. He’s a potential adversary who also has the power to liberate Phillip and Elizabeth, as long as the timing is right. And now that Beeman has a “friend” on the inside of the Russian embassy, the clock is definitely ticking.

Keri Russell in The Americans The Clock The Americans Season 1, Episode 2 Review – Impossible Things

Various Items:

  • Elizabeth’s growing concern over her children is a nice continuation of the “family comes first” discussion from the pilot. Her description of Henry being able to adjust to anything, but worry over Paige being “delicate, somehow” is a great example of how well this series handles its character’s understanding of one another.
  • As with the pilot, the scenes of pleasant suburban domesticity seemed to resonate just a strong as those involving spycraft. Phillip’s relationship with his kids isn’t as occasionally forced as Elizabeth’s, and the silent stare down between Henry (Keidrich Sellati) and his father, following an inquiry about brushed teeth, is understated and quietly funny.
  • Meanwhile, Henry is less concerned as to how his beloved Capitals are doing this episode, and more focused on honing his skills in net. I wonder if his dad would openly encourage him to root for Ovechkin?

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The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Gregory’ @10pm on FX. Check out a preview for the episode below:

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  1. What I appreciate so far about The Americans is the little things woven in the episodes. Sure, the couples biggest fear is being caught on or because of their missions but when you have a suspicious FBI agent neighbor that notices the father teaching his son to play Hockey that could be something that leads to their undoing…
    Also the flip of what we’d normally see from a couple like this is intriguing. It’s not the wife who’s considering or thinking about defecting, it’s the husband. And we learned last night that she’d rather go down guns blazing rather than be caught.
    The shows going to be a slow burn so that may turn off some viewers but I enjoy it.

  2. I am definitely liking this series. However, I continue to always think of whether or not there are actually were such deep cover spies like the Jennings. I wonder about all the lies they would have to believe and tell. And also all the question their kids would have. How come we don’t have any grandparents? Do we have aunts and uncles. Obviously they were given cover stories, but they did all of a sudden appear out of nowhere in the USA. Even back then, the FBI would be able to track their movements all the way back. I also continue to wonder how long they could hold up doing this. At this point in the series, they’re both probably 38-39 years old. Still young enough to fight, shoot, spy, and be able to play roles that involve sex. But what about when they get old? The old saying is that spies never really retire. Will they just be allowed to continue living in the USA after their usefulness is gone? Or will they be called “back in from the cold”? I would really hope that FX allows this series to play out for as long as the creators intended. I would like to know how they intend to play this out. There’s really only two endings. They either survive or they get caught.
    On another note, I’m really impressed with Matthew Rhys. I’ve never seen him before in anything but he is able to play the different roles that Philip has to play, excellently. He was chilling, and scary. And even scarier was how he could revert back to being domestic Philip. But what’s fascinating about the show is how Philip and Elizabeth are constantly non-stop being actors. Their true selves and personalities have been submerged for so long, I wonder if they forgot who they really are.

    • The KGB does or did have sleepers like this. Some were caught just a few years ago if I remember. The woman was extremely attractive so her photo made the news. She was traded back to Russia for our spies that they had.
      I hope FX and all involved continue this fine program for a long time. There is a third result that has already been hinted at: voluntary defection. Lots of good stories there.

  3. I’d like to see it go that way, where they decide to defect. But of course, it doesn’t work out so easily. Say it’s the late ’80′s by that time. Glasnost and perestroika are running wild, but the KGB hardliners still want to keep control. They go after Elizabeth and Philip. Or maybe, they decide to “divorce”. One decides to defect, the other doesn’t.

  4. I liked the episode and I like this show, but I suspect that Fox tried to subtly inject some conservative propaganda in this one. Both the KGB and the CIA operated in a very harsh manner, but Stan warned Nina about “10 years at a work camp in Siberia” if her bosses were to find out about her illegal activities. This is 1981, and the Gulag had been dissolved in January 1960!!! There were no work camps in the USSR any longer – only regular prisons like in the USA! And I also find it a little bit strange that Philip, a KGB agent, do not seem to have the least dose of skepticism to the maid’s blind and outright idiotic religious views. A spy needed to be practical and rational, so one of the first things he should do is question naive beliefs and not take them seriously, but Philip, on the other hand, seems a bit scared by religious targets (probably because of their commitment) and tries to avoid answering the question “Don’t you think about the lord?”. Maybe Fox tries to defend its creationist audience from a too hard to bear answer? :))
    Anyway, great episode, and I like where the plot is going!

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