Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘The Clock’

Senior Television Writer
02.06.13 91 Comments

A review of tonight’s “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I do something horribly masculine with reindeers and wood chopping…

“They shouldn’t ask us to do impossible things.” -Elizabeth

“The Americans” pilot had to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of establishing the world, these characters, the stakes, conflicts, etc., in addition to providing Phillip and Elizabeth with a mission. With all of the exposition out of the way, and with the Jennings “marriage” on more stable footing for the time being, “The Clock” is a more straightforward Mission of the Week episode – and one that suggests the series has the ability to be damned effective when in that mode.

Before the series premiered, some people asked how they could be expected to sympathize with a pair of Soviet agents, even knowing that America ultimately won the Cold War. What’s impressive about “The Clock” is how it does not flinch in the slightest from the idea that we’re watching our enemies, who in this case are forced to terrorize an innocent woman and come very close to murdering her innocent son, all for the sake of Mother Russia. The scenes at the housekeeper’s apartment were pretty brutal in how matter of fact Phillip and Elizabeth had to be about what they were doing.

But what makes the show work is that we know that it’s not so simple for them – that even though Elizabeth’s loyalties are still entirely to the KGB, and Phillip’s mostly are (but really are to her), they’ve been playing the role of American suburbanites long enough that a maneuver like this isn’t easy for them. They do this because it’s the mission, but they’re not happy about it – both because of what they’re doing to these people and because of the risk they’re putting their own family at. Matthew Rhys did some excellent work at showing how much all of this was weighing on Phillip, just as Keri Russell was strong in showing Elizabeth facing the possibility of not seeing her children again for a very long time.(*)

(*) Elizabeth’s discussion of how they would be treated if caught made a striking parallel to how I imagine some of America’s enemies today might feel. It’s hard to imagine someone doing a drama with an undercover Al Qaeda operative as the main character in 30 years – but then, I imagine if you described “The Americans” to someone in 1981, they’d be horrified by the idea.  

Their placement of the bug inside Caspar Weinberger’s house happens in parallel with Stan and his FBI colleagues securing a mole at the Soviet embassy, using similarly rough tactics. The stereo salesman that Stan harasses is less innately sympathetic than the housekeeper and her son, and the threat of having the secretary exiled to Siberia is harsh but feels more business-as-usual than what Mr. and Mrs. Jennings are up to. But as we saw last week when we learned about Stan’s own past as a deep cover agent, the two sides have more in common than either would care to admit.

A very strong second effort.

Some other thoughts:

* In case you missed it, “The Americans” got off to a very good ratings start last week. Still miles to go before we know for sure it’s a success, but after the last two FX dramas I liked (“Terriers,” “Lights Out”) basically failed right out of the gate, this is much more reassuring.

* The pilot opens with Elizabeth having sex on a mission, and “The Clock” returns the favor with Phillip doing so. Elizabeth’s not as bothered by this as he was, but his asset seems like she’ll be a big problem on her own.

* Note what a big deal it is for them to have a tiny camera to attach to the woman’s bra, when this mission in 2013 would just require an iPhone – and a listening device so unobtrusive they wouldn’t have needed to bother with the clock, the housekeeper, etc.

* If you’re a man (or woman) of a certain age, you will be unable to hear the name of Caspar Weinberger without thinking of this “Bloom County” strip.

* I continue to enjoy the efficient brutality of those close-quarter fight scenes. It’s mostly Phillip parrying his opponents’ blows, but it maintains the illusion that we’re watching a well-trained Soviet agent you wouldn’t want to mess with.

What did everybody else think?

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