“The Americans” is back for a second season. I reviewed the start of season 2 yesterday, and I have thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I change the world with a hug…
“It's just hard. This job, this life. Gets to you in ways you wouldn't think it would.” -Philip
So, no, “The Americans” is not fooling around as it begins the new year. After a brief stop at the cabin where Elizabeth recovered from her gunshot wound, “Comrades” gets its hands dirty in a rush, with Philip executing two Afghan freedom fighters, then taking out the poor busboy with the misfortune to be there for the one mission where the KGB's amazing wig technology fails. And with that, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg send their audience three very important messages: 1)”Stop asking why the wigs don't come off, because when they do, innocent busboys die!” 2)”This is no longer the kind of show where you're going to want to be making wig jokes. Things are getting real.” 3)”We may have gotten you to empathize with the Jenningses because they are our protagonists and have been going through a lot of strife in their pretend/real relationship, but do not mistake them for cuddly people. They are spies who have done and will continue to do terrible things for their cause.”
It's a brutal opening – an excellent mood-setter an episode for both an episode that will end in even more gruesome fashion and a season where the stakes have been raised and the level of danger is more palpable for Philip, Elizabeth and most of the other adult characters.
And midway through the hour, we get a scene that even more swiftly and elegantly spells out how real things have become in the Jennings marriage. We know from the end of last season that Paige has begun wondering about all the secrets her parents are keeping, and as she tip-toes through the house to their bedroom, we're primed to think she's about to stumble across them decoding an incoming message, or trying on wigs or doing something that gives away their secret identities. Instead, they are in the middle of an enthusiastic bout of lovemaking, in a position that I believe is a first for American basic cable (if not for all of American TV), and one that a couple going through the motions for the sake of their gig with the KGB would not be attempting. They have become what Philip hoped they would be at the start of the first season, and what Elizabeth also wanted by its end: to be an actual couple, who can come home at night and talk about the lousy day one of them had at the office, and who can then adjourn to the bedroom to enjoy Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan's favorite numbered maneuver. Again, it gets the message across quickly, and if the writers don't want us laughing at the wigs anymore, they have absolutely zero problem with us laughing at the image of Elizabeth eating bacon in slo-mo in front of a horrified Paige. The important thing, though, is that we understand that whatever other terrible thing they'll go through this season, no matter how many times we see Philip-as-Clark hanging out with Martha, or Elizabeth participating in a three-way during a mission, there is now something solid and mutual and palpably real between these two.
“Comrades” then introduces us to another Directorate S family who may not have the same marital issues that our protagonists do, but who have allowed their lives in this country to become real in other ways. (They've also inherited Claudia as their handler, after Philip and Elizabeth rejected her at the end of last season.) When they talk about their son going to Carnegie Mellon, they sound every bit the proud Americans they pretend to be. It's a strange fantasy life both couples are enjoying: staying loyal to Mother Russia while enjoying the relative comforts and safety of suburban American family life. But the fantasy turns nightmare when Philip finds his colleagues and their daughter murdered in their hotel room. Suddenly, nothing about this life is safe, and that includes Paige and Henry.
The severity of the situation, and the complexity of the Jennings “marriage,” is brought home with Philip's confession of fears about his job, where every emotion is sincere, but the whole of it is a lie because he's dressed as Clark, telling it to Martha. Of his two marriages, it's the more legal one, but it's bogus. Whereas the marriage that's supposed to be entirely pretend is the one he and Elizabeth are trying so hard to protect and make real, even as the danger around them is only increasing.
Fantastic premiere, and it sets a lot of interesting wheels in motion for season 2.
Some other thoughts:
* This one was directed by Emmy-winning “West Wing” helmer Thomas Schlamme, who doesn't usually work as a gun-for-hire but is now on his second “Americans” episode. (He directed last season's “Gregory.”) Always happy to have one of the best directors in the business working on one of the best shows on the air right now.
* Among this week's '80s references: Henry wanted an Intellivision system for his birthday (he's still more than half a year away from wanting to get to the true greatest early '80s gaming system, the ColecoVision), the kids watch “WKRP In Cincinnati,” Stan's wife Sandra goes to check out a seminar from Leo Buscaglia (here's a clip of “Dr. Love” in action), and Stan gets a bootleg VHS copy (the low-fi, '80s equivalent of BitTorrent) of “The French Lieutenant's Woman” to use on a “date” with Nina. Speaking of which…
* Even though Stan is making more of an effort with Sandra, it's clear that his heart is with Nina, even though his wife winds up enjoying the film a lot more than his mistress does. (It helps that Sandra isn't being used in the same way Nina is.) Nina continues to have Stan wrapped pretty tightly around her finger, but things are getting more complicated over at the rezidentura, where she now has to deal with sockless Walkman enthusiast Oleg, who used his family connections to get a high-profile gig running Line X.
* I wondered at the end of last season how the show would deal with Philip learning that the Strategic Defense Initiative was all a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Events this week – with the Colonel shooting Sanford and getting away with it as self-defense – suggests the show is simply moving on from that subplot entirely. Probably for the best, as having the agents pursue it further raises the question of why they didn't wind up changing history.
* Because no one could write about it at the time without spoiling the premiere, I feel the introduction to Fienberg's press tour question to Weisberg and Fields deserves its place in the public record: “For Joe and Joel, you guys are kind of becoming the Neil Armstrongs of TV 69″ing in the first episode…”
* Oh, one more bit of '80s weirdness: the FBI has a mail robot.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com