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.

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.

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.

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?

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