Season two of The Americans debuted on FX last night in a big way: There was a pile of dead bodies, a threesome, and one daughter walked in on one Mom going down on one Dad. The sex and violence quotient may have given the episode more salacious intrigue, but the premiere worked best because suddenly, it feels as though the stakes in the Jennings family are much, much higher.
The reason for that is because writer/creator Joseph Weisberg flipped the narrative. Last season was about the struggle between Elizabeth and Phillip to stay together, to find out — after 15 years of marriage — if they even loved each other. We got that answer in the affirmative in the opening minutes of “Comrades,” and now the series is (thankfully) not about whether Phillip and Elizabeth should stay together, but about how they stay together and, more importantly, how they are going to protect their children. That theme — a running one in season two — was highlighted very early on when Elizabeth, leaving the safe house where she’d been recuperating from the gunshot wound she received in the first season finale, was visibly shaken after she nearly took out a family of deers with her car.
The threat to their children was put in context late in the episode when another Russian family of spies posing as Americans, the Emmets — friends of the Jennings — were gunned down in their hotel room after a mission went awry. Now we know Phillip and Elizabeth are not just putting their lives at risk, they’re putting their kids’ lives in danger, as well, and that thread has considerably more emotional resonance than last season’s question surrounding whether Elizabeth actually loved her husband. What we don’t know, however, is who was behind the murder of the Emmets. There’s a threat out there, and the only thing worse than the threat is the uncertainty of not knowing who is behind it. That will surely play into the Jennings’ already heightened paranoia.
Speaking of the kids, they look to have a more expanded role this season. Not only was Henry unwittingly used as part of a mission, but Paige has growing suspicions about the double lives of her parents. She’s snooping now, and checking in on her parents late at night, which is how she ended up with an eyeful of her Mom’s mouth on her Dad’s … uh, apple. At least she didn’t walk in on Dad putting a bullet through someone’s brain.
Meanwhile, in Stan Beeman’s world, he’s still navigating his relationship with Nina. He’s fallen for her, and it’s still a little unclear which side of the fence Nina is playing. She’s clearly following orders from the Russian embassy and misleading Stan, but it’s not clear to what extent she actually has feelings for him. Elsewhere, Stan is also dealing with a marriage that is falling apart at home, and his wife Sandra — poor, boring Sandra — isn’t exactly creating a longing in Stan to repair that marriage.
The spy game through one episode is still a little muddled — we don’t know how the Afghani men, the death of the Emmets, and the shooting of Stan’s informant all fit together yet — but the emotional through line for season two is firmly established. This year, it’s not about protecting the marriage. It’s about protecting the family. With the lives of innocent kids at risk, the stakes have never felt higher.