In its first season, FX’s “The Americans” has offered up a cracking spy story that’s steadily upped its stakes until last night’s finale had as its centerpiece a white-knuckle sequence in which KGB operatives Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phil (Matthew Rhys) took on a pair of missions with a high likelihood of blowing their cover as D.C. suburbanites. They went in fully expecting that one of them would end up in the jail and the other fleeing the country with their kids — a fate narrowly avoided by a tense encounter with the FBI that led to a shootout and car chase, Elizabeth coming away with a bullet in her side. And it’s a sign of how good the show is — it has, I’d argue, managed to outdo the taut first season of the contemporary but similarly espionage-centric “Homeland” — that the action sequences weren’t half as heart-stopping as a woozy Elizabeth asking her partner and estranged husband in Russian to come home.
The show’s depiction of Elizabeth and Phil’s arranged marriage becoming, in fits and starts, a real one has become an narrative engine of unexpected power, more so than the well-handled but ultimately limited covert affairs (the ending of the Cold War, after all, has already been established). The Jennings may never see the Soviet Union triumphant — though they, like the FBI, tend to see themselves as playing a defensive game — but they might actually find a life for themselves that’s not defined by trust issues and loneliness.
“The Colonel,” written by Joel Fields and creator/showrunner Joe Weisberg and directed by Adam Arkin, incisively brought together its domestic and multiple intelligence storylines, with now triple agent Nina (Annet Mahendru) providing the information needed for Arkady (Lev Gorn) to signal, in a low tech but effective fashion, for Phil to abort his mission and realize Elizabeth was the one in danger. Elizabeth and Phil may not always communicate well on a personal level or believe in what the other really wants, but when faced with capture by the U.S. government, they were both willing to be the one to take the fall, such that Phil sped off to save his wife in what was one of the more romantic accelerations through a group of FBI agents to grace the small screen.
The heart that “The Americans” has shown and its tender melancholy recall the weary, mournful men of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” bowed under the weight of years of mistrust, manipulations and secrets. Elizabeth and Phil aren’t there yet, though you can see how they could get there someday, but it’s the always excellent Margo Martindale as the Jennings’ handler who embodied it best in the last episode, her Claudia proving herself to think far more of her agents than they do of her. It’s Claudia who fought for their safety and for the thought-to-be dangerous meeting to be called off, and who rushed to Phil’s side herself when she saw the signal on the car. And it’s Claudia who took the revenge for Zhukov’s death that Elizabeth chose to forgo, paying a visit to the CIA agent who ordered his killing and letting him bleed out on the floor while she told him about their history together. Few actors can pull off Martindale’s mix of matronliness and steel — between this role and her one as Mags Bennett on “Justified,” she’s a thrillingly unconventional badass.
“The Americans” has had an excellently exciting season, and has planted plenty seeds for its next, between Nina’s informing on Stan (Noah Emmerich), Stan’s knowledge that he’s looking for a thirtysomething couple and Paige (Holly Taylor), poised there on the verge of a realization, looking at the folded laundry her always immaculate mother had to back up an excuse she gave. But it’s Elizabeth, alone at night listening to the cassette from her mother that’s clearly a one-way communication, speaking her forbidden mother tongue for the first time to the man she’s trusted easily with her life but not her heart, and Phil, sharing faux marital bliss with the woman he’s using as an informant while demonstrating his love for his wife via high speed getaway, who are the reason we’ll be back for more. Those crazy kids might just make it work.