[This is a review of The Americans season 2, episode 2. There will SPOILERS.]
Generating a pervasive and sustained sense of paranoia on a television show is no easy task. Even when the show is like The Americans, mixing Le Carré-esque Cold War-era spycraft with the most unconventional family drama in ages, there is a tendency to want to lift the curtain of suspicion and ease the tension somewhat. And while the show has successfully done that in the past, it also knows when it's time to apply more pressure and to envelop the entire narrative in the anxiety currently being felt by the protagonists.
So far this season, the Jenningses have had precious little time to recover from the mysterious murder of two fellow Directorate S operatives and their daughter, immediately following an on-the-fly operation that required Philip to use his son as an unsuspecting piece of his already thin disguise. While the circumstances of Emmett and Leanne's death looms like a specter, causing Elizabeth no end in her fear for her children's lives, it also has the couple struggling with the knottier aspects of their friends' deaths and what it means for the immediate future of the Jennings clan. More than the pressing, invasive sense of dread, however, is the realization that Henry and Paige, as much as they generate the perception of stability and give Philip and Elizabeth a purpose beyond dead drops, surveillance, and high-level espionage, they are also extensions of their parents' cover.
Philip's guilt over dragging his son into an operation that left three people dead and a young boy orphaned demonstrates just how thin the divide between being the children of an average suburban D.C. couple and being the unwitting tools of a Soviet spy ring really is. It's not just that Henry was placed in harm's way – and he and Paige may now be targets for whoever murdered Emmett and Leanne – it's that the factors that make them part of the Jennings family don't necessarily prevent them from becoming precisely what Henry was at the amusement park: just another layer of deception, an accessory, a way to complete an intricate ruse.
It's a unique situation for Philip and Elizabeth to be in as parents, but as deep cover spies they're usually the ones keeping others in the dark. Being unaware the specifics of their comrades' deaths has them both completely off-balance. It's also perpetuating an environment of fear, making Elizabeth reluctant to leave the kids at home alone, while Philip ditches an equally fearful, gun-shopping Martha to be at home with his slightly less fake family. Of course that's after he nearly winds up being killed by Fred (John Carroll Lynch), the asset who has even fewer answers regarding Emmett's death than Philip does.
Meanwhile, Stan and the FBI Counter Intelligence squad are up in arms over Bruce Dameran, a walk-in at the Soviet rezidentura who is apparently ready to offer Arkady some juicy information. Naturally, given the climate around the Soviets on American soil, elaborate precautions must be made on both sides of proverbial iron curtain. While Dameran's left waiting, Nina slips away to feed Stan some information about the walk-in, but also uses that time to offer Stan more rope from which he may eventually want to hang himself.
That's an apt metaphor for the season's building narrative as well. 'Cardinal' delivers the kind of tension that's like a noose being placed around the plot. The rope hasn't begun constricting just yet; the writers are going to let it hang there for a while, let its presence be felt, let the tension build before the great squeeze actually sets in. It's an effective form of storytelling that The Americans is particularly adept at, and one has granted these two early chapters an unyielding tautness that's captivating.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with 'The Walk in' @10pm on FX.