A review of tonight’s “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I hire you and your socks…
“You know, we have to do all sorts of things for our work. And it requires being a certain way.” -Elizabeth
Boy oh boy, has this debut season been good so far.
“Comint” has the requisite spycraft, including a very cool sequence where Elizabeth transfers from one car trunk to another while both are on elevated lifts. It has suspense throughout, whether it’s Elizabeth then having to stroll unnoticed out of an FBI parking lot, the fear that Stan’s asset Nina will be found out, or what will happen in the final sequence after Special Agent John Boy(*) gets cocky and shows his hand way too soon to the Soviets.
(*) Yes, the Richard Thomas character has an actual name, used several times in this episode alone. But until they give him more to do, he will be John Boy, FBI.
But what continues to make the series special isn’t the plot (which has thus far been quite strong), but the way it shows the emotional toll this life takes on all the people in it. This is a dirty game, and there’s no way to get through it clean.
Two weeks ago, Granny sent the widow to her death. Last week, Elizabeth murdered a security guard who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tonight, Elizabeth has to endure a belt-lashing from a kinky, violent contact(**) – and then has to stop Phillip from going vigilante again on the guy – and later is called upon to murder the defense contractor (whose marriage was far more real than the one she has with Phillip) before the FBI could get to him. And pressure from Stan – who’s still new enough at this part of the game that he doesn’t realize what he’s asking until it’s too late – convinces Nina that the fastest route to exfiltration is through her body and what it can get her from Vasilli.
(**) Two thoughts on this: 1)Even though Mr. and Mrs. Jennings are making a much more sincere effort at behaving like a real married couple, they still understand that sex with others is a part of their work life; Phillip is unfazed until he sees the marks on her back. 2)How perfect is the transformation on Keri Russell’s face as Elizabeth goes from playing the terrified victim – a more professional, if less viscerally satisfying, way of getting out of more harm – to simply annoyed that she had to go through this, and pondering what might come of it? Fantastic moment.
It’s an ugly, ugly business, and not everyone is really equipped to deal with it. Vasilli’s asset loses his wife and spirals out of control. Stan seems to be barely holding it together. Though Elizabeth has her sense of mission very much intact, Phillip is a powder keg, ready to explode on anyone who threatens or harms his loved ones.
Some people manage to play the game long enough to become as old and relatively serene as Granny, or Vasilli. Others can’t hang on, though. It’s all too much. And it’s watching the emotional toll this is taking on all the characters that’s made “The Americans” such gripping television over these first five excellent weeks.
Some other thoughts:
* Russell and Rhys are the leads, and they’re great, and as a result they get the lions’ share of the recognition for their performances. But what Noah Emmerich is doing as Stan so far is really special, I think. It’s not a flashy role – he doesn’t change accents or have sex with lots of people – but in scenes like the one where Nina tells Stan what she did, or where Stan’s wife reminds him of what their life used to be like before his career-making assignment, Emmerich’s eyes say so, so much about the sacrifices to family and his own morality this guy has had to make in service of his job and his belief that he’s on the side of right. Great character, great performance. We naturally sympathize with Phillip and Elizabeth as the point of view characters, but Stan’s going through some turmoil here, too.
* In case you missed it last week, FX has already ordered a second season. “The Americans” is one of the first prominent examples of TV’s new math. It’s live ratings on Wednesday night aren’t great, but when you factor in DVR usage over the first few days (when advertisers will still pay for eyeballs), it’s doing well enough to continue.
* If you’d like to learn more about Zavarka and the Russian method of brewing tea, the internet is your friend. Though after the way Nina used the tea to spit the resident’s residue from her mouth, you may not be so in the mood to drink it that way.
* Phillip and Elizabeth have access to some really high-end wig technology for 1981, no? I’m very impressed by the stuff Phillip wears in particular, since it has to hide his big afro.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com