[This is a review of The Americans season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last year, FX's '80s-set Cold War drama about two deep cover Soviet spies living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with their two kids, their travel agency, and an increasingly suspicious FBI agent down the street, became one of the best dramas on television. The Americans was one of those rare programs that new exactly what it was doing from the moment it set foot in living rooms across the country, and the result was a program that surprisingly improved on the strength of it pilot and, more importantly, its overall premise as the season went on. Now that the long-awaited season 2 has premiered, the series has demonstrated it plans to keep that premise as robust as possible; it wants to expand on it, continue to develop compelling stories around it, and make the series even more of the inexorable dramatic force than it already is.
One of the key elements to the early success of The Americans are certainly the tremendous performances put up by its two primary leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys – Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, respectively. But the series doesn't rely solely on its Soviet spies to be interesting or riveting; it relies on a remarkably deep bench of talented actors to augment the feats achieved (and often executed) by the sneaky Directorate S operatives running amok in the heart of democracy. To that end, there are the two fantastic and graciously unprecocious Jennings children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who, as season 2 will demonstrate, become an integral part of not only the series' ability to balance spycraft with resonant domestic strife, but also the underlying and increasingly present theme of paranoia running through the premiere.
Like the show, the aforementioned bench isn't all about the Jenningses. With Noah Emmerich as embattled FBI Agent Stan Beeman, its deepness becomes as potentially overwhelming as the 1980s Soviet National ice hockey team. And the show doesn't stop there. The deceptions and complications in Stan's life are just as multitudinous and potentially explosive as the Jennings'. Stan's not only running an operation that involves Soviet asset Nina (the amazing Annet Mahendru), but he's also being run by her and her Soviet handler, the head of the residentura, Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn). And that doesn’t even begin to cover Sandra (Susan Misner), the wife Stan is becoming increasingly distanced from, as he his attentions, both romantically and professionally, are pulled more toward his duplicitous Russian asset.
It's a burdensome situation that creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joe Fields have crafted and placed squarely on the shoulders of their very capable characters, and it's one that helps the series sustain the tension-filled high-wire act, making it so compelling. Last season, we witnessed as Philip and Elizabeth's fake marriage threatened to dissolve completely, as the seemingly genuine affections Philip had for his wife were not necessarily ready to be reciprocated. The season ended with Elizabeth, having narrowly avoiding death after being gut shot in an altercation with the FBI, ask her displaced husband to return home – a home now filled with an increasingly suspicious teenaged daughter. That's an inevitable variable for any parent of a teenager, but here it becomes on one teeming with added danger and an unwelcome layer of suspicion for a pair of Soviet spies.
'Comrades' kicks off with Elizabeth returning home from "taking care of a sick aunt" (convalescing from said gunshot wound) just in time to celebrate Henry's birthday. There's a literal "deer in the headlights" moment accentuating Elizabeth's state of high anxiety toward the thought of returning home that also puts emphasis on the fact that she's finally out of the woods – again, both literally and figuratively. But the implication of both is more precise and more ominous, carrying an accurate assessment of the Directorate S operatives' collective state of mind after a risky public handoff involving another pair of Soviet spies named Emmett and Leanne winds up getting them (and their daughter) killed. The resulting shock and fear for their recently reunited family has Elizabeth locking and re-locking doors, checking windows, and pensively sitting on the edge of her marital bed, wondering whether her family is safe, and when (or if) Philip will return home. It's a potent metaphor for the life of a spy: locking oneself away from the outside world inside the construct – the physical manifestation – of the lie that is their cover.
What makes 'Comrades' work so well is the efficiency with which it moves the copious amounts of plot along, keeping the various balls in the air by letting a few remain suspended while others are tended to and tossed back up. The episode itself isn't concerned with revisiting every plot point left unresolved by the first season, though it deftly incorporates as much as possible into casual conversation. Before they're dispatched, Emmett and Leanne casually mention Claudia (Margo Martindale), the old "war horse," is still in the United States, despite what looked like her imminent departure, following her falling out with the Jenningses (and especially Elizabeth) late last season. Claudia doesn't pop up, but her presence is felt. The same can be said for Philip's secret life as Clarke, whose newlywed status is only briefly touched upon at the end of the episode, long after his wife Martha (Alison Wright) is seen taping the office of Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas).
Were this any other series with this much going on, the premiere might have been described as problematically busy, but The Americans has demonstrated the key to maintaining such a precarious high-wire act is: balance. And doing that requires poise, the kind of poise which allows the series to maintain an equilibrium that goes far beyond simply shuffling its players around to suit the needs of the plot; it builds persuasive narratives around them, offers them murky avenues to explore, and interrogates them when necessary. The amazing trick the series pulls off, then, isn't the innumerable plot threads that somehow all feel well-attended to; it's that despite their objective, the show makes the audience want to root for Philip and Elizabeth's success as spies and as a couple. It then complicates that desire by blocking their objective with fully formed, emotionally driven characters like Stan, Nina, Susan and Martha.
As a nation, we know how the Cold War turned out, but as viewers, we're far less certain as to the fates of these characters who may lack our knowledge, but understand full well the potential cost of the games without frontiers they're playing at.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with 'Cardinal' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Craig Blankenhorn & Craig Ockenfels/FX