A review of tonight’s “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I talk to your eighth grade science teacher…
“It never really happened that way for us, did it?” -Elizabeth
Some of the great TV dramas of our time started out with impressive pilots, but went to a whole other level within a handful of episodes. When people think back on the early days of “The Sopranos” now, they’re likely not thinking of the premiere, but of Tony taking Meadow on her college tour. The “Lost” pilot looms a bit larger, but the episode where “Lost” truly became “Lost” was arguably “Walkabout.”
If “The Americans” has a long and healthy run(*), I don’t think that we’ll look back on “Gregory” as an episode of that caliber, though I quite liked it. But more than the pilot or last week’s episode, it reassured me that this is a show that has the courage of its convictions, and that won’t be afraid to address head-on the messiness of the situation it has placed its characters into.
(*) Episode 1 had the biggest premiere of any drama in FX history, but then episode 2 had a worrisome drop-off in the live numbers. Fortunately, live viewing isn’t the only – or even most important – audience measurement anymore, and the second episode shot way back up when DVR viewing was added in. (Advertisers will pay for the first three days of DVR viewing.) It still dropped about 27% from the total audience for the premiere, but that’s a not-abnormal week 2 dip, and it’s starting from a high place. Again, we have miles to go before FX makes a decision one way or the other, but I feel pretty good thus far (and, again, much better than about “Terriers” or “Lights Out”).
Let’s start at the end, and the way the show – and the KGB – dealt with frightened, under-informed widow Joyce. I really didn’t know which way “Gregory” was going to go on this. A show willing to acknowledge the darkness and ruthlessness of this world and these spies had to, at minimum, kill Joyce, if not her baby as well. A show that wants to get its audience’s attention but not make them too uncomfortable contorts itself this way and that until mother and baby wind up in Cuba for real, and we have no reason to fear Grannie (a fantastic addition to the ensemble in “Justified” alum Margo Martindale) or real consequences for Phillip and Elizabeth. But Grannie means business – even as she put the baby into the hands of his grandparents in snowy Donetsk – and so does “The Americans.”
Beyond that, what impressed me so much about “Gregory” was with the way the show used Gregory himself (played very well by Derek Luke) to comment on the state of the Jennings marriage. “The Americans” has all the trappings of a spy thriller, and plays well at being one, but at its core is taking familiar marital problems and projecting them against a heightened backdrop, in the same way that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” turned teen horror into real horror. The Jennings marriage, essentially, is one of those where the couple has been staying together for the sake of the kids, and professional appearances. Elizabeth has always understood this, as has Gregory. Phillip’s feelings, though, have been more complicated, and the events of the pilot have started Elizabeth thinking about this as a relationship that can and should be saved. But you can understand exactly why someone in Gregory’s position, who’s known them for so long and had such an intimate connection with Elizabeth, might not want to believe that this fake marriage could suddenly become a real one.
And Gregory has many valid points. This isn’t the Happily Ever After part of this story – seeing how messy the show is, I doubt we ever get to that, frankly – and these two are still in a fraught situation, still telling lies and sleeping with assets, still fighting and running away and putting up their guards again. This is not a magic trick that’s been pulled off. And the way “Gregory” dealt with the complicated questions of the Jennings marriage – and their ongoing mission in America – really impressed me. I was already confident in “The Americans” based on the first two installments, but this one has sealed the deal.
Some other thoughts:
* Okay, so it looks like we’ll be spending a bunch of episodes, if not this entire season, with Phillip and Elizabeth chasing down information on the Star Wars missile defense shield – which we all know from history never amounted to much. That’s a challenge this show will have to deal with a lot, particularly since its characters are on history’s losing side: the real names and events add punch to the show, but we know how things turned out, which means anytime the two of them get involved in history, it won’t end well.
* Like “Mad Men,” “The Americans” doesn’t push too hard in pointing out technological differences between then and now, but it can’t help but observe how much different investigative work was in a pre-digital age, where DMV workers around the country had to check drivers license photos manually because there’s no big database, no facial recognition software, etc.
* Stan’s boss makes reference to the Directorate S agents being the FBI’s biggest quarry since the capture of Rudolf Abel.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org