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One of television’s finest dramas, The Americans, returns tonight on FX for its second season and almost immediately answers a nagging question that haunts all ambitious, claustrophobic thrillers: Can this series get even better or will it go off the rails as the story unspools?
Not only does The Americans get better – a nifty trick given how impressive season one was – but it deepens along the way and confidently asserts the narrative abilities of creator, writer and executive producer Joe Weisberg and executive producer and writer Joel Fields. Nothing calms the worries of critics (and fans) like visual evidence of a sure hand (or hands, in this case). Look no further than Homeland for the most recent example of a great series (season one) going completely sideways (season two) and then into a ditch (season three). In a television landscape where there’s an excess of top-tier brilliance, never have the strengths and pitfalls of the medium – that it provides a platform for an ongoing, multi-hour, multi-season story – proven so deadly to maintaining greatness.
It would be so easy to look away, to look elsewhere, if The Americans faltered. That’s the beauty of modern-day television – we are blessed with an abundance of choices, so by God don’t trip up and lose the confidence or interest of your audience, because they’ll turn the channel.
Credit Weisberg and Fields for nailing down season two of The Americans right from the start, by picking up where the story left off and making sure that this spy-vs.-spy thing has real-life costs. The show is about the Cold War that sprung to life (or rather increased exponentially) with the election of Ronald Reagan. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Soviet spies Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, who run a travel agency and live in suburban Washington, D.C., with their children, 14-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 11-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati).
Phillip and Elizabeth are Soviet KGB agents who were paired up as strangers in their native country and, like others throughout the United States, planted here to mix in and gain intelligence while posing as normal Americans. New neighbor and eventual friend Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) turns out to be an FBI agent working in counter-intelligence and was cleverly used in season one to keep Phillip and Elizabeth on full alert trying to stay one step ahead of Stan and CIA operatives. It was a marvelously nuanced game of cat-and-mouse that belied the tidy (though funny) setup.
But what everyone learned in season one was that despite the spy-vs.-spy conceit, the series was really about the fake marriage of Phillip and Elizabeth and how two strangers thrown together in the service of their country then go on to live their lives, have two children they love dearly and also vie to get along with each other. There was nary a false step in season one as Phillip’s more practical realization – maybe we’re more American than Russian at this point – only irked the more hard-core Elizabeth and added strain to their marriage (one where, as spies, they were often using their sexuality to curry favor and having that weird bit of entanglement spill over into this question of real love versus playing a part for Mother Russia).
Of course, theirs was not the only marriage in trouble, nor the only one featuring spies. The Beemans were struggling as well, with Stan falling for Nina (Annet Mahendru), who works at the Soviet embassy and who Stan blackmailed into turning spy (by season’s end she was a double spy, turning on Stan when she learned he was responsible for killing an office mate). Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner) tired of Stan’s absences and weak excuses, but is trying to mend things this season (with a nice assist by Leo Buscaglia, who she’s watching on a PBS pledge drive).
As Phillip and Elizabeth slowly mended their marriage, with Elizabeth getting shot and nearly killed at the end of season one and realizing how deeply Phillip did love her, it was a perfect ending spot and set up nicely the stakes at hand in season two.
Namely, that risking your life for the motherland isn’t just about you – it’s about your family. This season the Jennings’ kids are more central to the story and, unlike in most series, where the kids only detract from the plot or derail the emotional forward momentum, in The Americans their vulnerability (and in Paige’s case, a growing sense of curiosity about her parents) only heightens the stakes.
Weisberg and Fields have done an excellent job of making the core of The Americans be the emotionally attuned struggle of a marriage – nailing how personal issues resonate and consume a person and how those nagging connections can be mentally distracting or hurtful and, if you’re a spy, how that spillage can be extremely dangerous.
By extending the impact of what they do onto their children while also creating a season-long mystery (about infiltration and allegiances), The Americans has proven just how deftly it operates (with the invaluable help of executive producer Graham Yost). It continues the thrilling spy stories while broadening the reach of the entire concept, allowing deeper and more compelling stories to unfold. As the tension mounts, there’s never a worry that something ludicrous is going to happen just to make it all implode.
Sometimes watching greatness expand and realizing that a foundation is in place for the future (excellent writing, superb acting, a clear conceptual vision) is just the kind of assurance you need to cement your allegiance.
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