TV Review: FX’s The Americans 2×1, “Comrades”

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Arriving just after the close of the Sochi Olympics, The Americans has returned to FX and it has done so in fine form.  We have returned to the world of espionage in Washington D.C. during the 1980s, where two Russian spies are the protagonists we root for and the show continues to find a way to be exciting and full of intrigue.  The first season was not flawless, but it had a steady build and was well-received, earning decent ratings and its fair share of accolades.  Now we have a whole new season to be ready for and I am hoping it continues on the path it laid out in Wednesday’s excellent premiere episode, “Comrades.”

So what has come of Mr. and Mrs. Jennings?  We left off last season with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) having been shot, using a sick aunt as a cover to explain why she must be away from her family for a few months.  Phillip (Matthew Rhys), meanwhile, has married Martha (Alison Wright) in an attempt to keep her as an informant, unbeknownst to her.  FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is still unsatisfied with getting so close to capturing Russian spies on American soil, but has also fallen in closer with his Soviet mole, Nina (Annet Mahendru).  To add even more to what is going on with the adults, Elizabeth and Phillip’s oldest daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor) has grown suspicious of her parent’s activities.  With the kids in mind, the episode appropriately begins with a near car crash into a deer with its own young to care for.  Elizabeth and Phillip apparently need to keep their eyes open and focus wide.

The opening of “Comrades” is not exactly subtle, but it pays off in the way it not only foreshadows tragic events later in the episode, but in the way it sets up the season as a whole.  Yes, the image of a deer and its young nearly getting killed implies that Elizabeth and Phillip are going to have to be careful if they want to preserve their family image and keep the kids safe, but that is a really big deal and a crafty way to emphasize what this season could presumably be setting up as the natural way to move on from the main arc of the first season, which was more about whether or not the marriage (and love) between Elizabeth and Phillip was working.  Given that a season premiere has to more or less inform the audience on what is important to keep in mind, I am quite pleased with this direction.  It also does not hurt that the episode did a fine job of reminding us where everyone stands, while including some really slick (and often brutal) spy action.

It is a couple months following the first season finale episode, “The Colonel.”  Elizabeth has returned home, just in time for the birthday of her youngest child, Henry (Keidrich Sellati).  Before the birthday party, we get a glimpse of a mission gone slightly awry, as Phillip is responsible for taking out several targets and a bystander.  It is a funny kind of thing to have a show jump around from the nastiness that comes with this sort of job to a colorful birthday party later on.  This is even more apparent in the grisly climax of the episode, but I’ll get there soon enough.  The important thing to know is that Elizabeth has returned, Phillip is right by her side, and the kids soon realize that an overdue date night will yield some intimate results.  At least that is what the kids believe is going on.

The Americans wastes no time putting Elizabeth and Phillip back into fun wigs and costumes, as we get to see a mission unfold involving not just them, but another “American” couple.  I like how this plays out because in retrospect, it should have been obvious that the other “Americans” introduced in this episode were bound to be killed.  We get just enough info to care about them, have warning signs all around us, and are eventually thrown into a horrible scenario where Philip and Elizabeth see their worst fear come to life.  I want to get back to that later though, as we still have to deal with the lil’ Jennings.

Paige and Henry are growing up, which The Americans is happy to wink at us with the knowledge that the actors are obviously growing up as well.  At the end of last season, we learned that Paige was growing suspicious.  Now we see her snooping around, which leads to an incredibly awkward “caught in the act” scenario.  An awkward “parents having sex” conversation takes place after breakfast and the show is able to carry on for now.  While the awkward humor (yes, I have used the word three times now) allows the show to take a break from the seriousness of cold war spies in action, the theme is still very present.  Elizabeth and Phillip need to take care of their family image.  They need to have trust between all of them, even while preserving a secret.  Unfortunately, adding the kids to the equation of how to complete a mission can surely screw everything up.


The carnival sequence of this episode, which has both sets of “Americans” meeting up to see each other and laugh along with the kids, while also meeting up to make an exchange with all-around awesome character actor John Caroll Lynch, is the kind of scenario that really puts this show in its best position.  Worlds are colliding, Russell and Rhys get a chance to balance aspects of both sides of their characters, and tensions are effectively high.  It is what makes the results all the sadder, as we see success come from a bad idea involving Phillip using his son as a tool, only to be shocked by the murder of the other “Americans”, with a happy son soon to discover an image of his parents and sister dead in a hotel room.

Justified is an FX series that is technically more “fun” to watch, given that the nature of that series leads to humorous moments arriving from the way characters interact with each other amidst the serious nature of the story and stakes involved (plenty of people die in each season of Justified).  The Americans does not have the luxury of humor working its way into the series as often.  There are funny moments every now and then, but the show is rooted in the idea that there are spies doing covert work and also has marital drama to contend with.  A scene like the opening ones focused on Elizabeth or Phillip separately or this uncomfortably violent scene of the two of them discovering the bodies of people that are remarkably similar to them emphasizes that the show means to treat its story in a way that plays up the “fun” of seeing spies in action, but also takes no prisoners when it comes to showing the dangers that could occur.

Bringing me back to worst fears being realized, Phillip and Elizabeth discovering the bodies of the other “Americans” and immediately rushing to find their own kids is exactly why I look forward to seeing how this show will proceed this season.  If we have gotten away from whether or not Phillip and Elizabeth can stay together and can instead focus on what kind of repercussions this life can have on them, then the series is in good shape to evolve for the better, rather than repeat the same ideas.  The tricky part will be whether or not the Jennings will be able to keep themselves and their children out of the headlights of oncoming traffic, let alone learning who is driving.


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