Note: Spoilers for the “Americans” season two finale “Echo” below.
It’s funny to remember the last time there was a high-profile series about spies on American soil — specifically, the 2001 series “Alias,” created by J.J. Abrams, which brought us Jennifer Garner kicking ass in wigs for five seasons. “Alias” was pure pop entertainment, with plenty of cool gadgets, weird mysteries and no consequences; a fantasy of what spy work must be like.
It’s a sign of how the television world has shifted that today’s most prominent spy drama, FX’s “The Americans,” takes place on an entirely different planet. The real one, I suppose. The ’80s-set drama, focusing on Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, embedded in the United States for 20 years, is about careful moves, long cons and at times tedious maintenance of relationships. There’s no fun tech, just codes written on notepads and toilet paper rolls. Every secret learned comes with a price. Damage is done on both sides.
Quality television since the very beginning, and anchored by dedicated performances by Rhys, Russell and Noah Emmerich, the second season of “The Americans” ended a few important plotlines but offered no real emotional closure, capturing one of the show’s core undercurrents: The fact that in this game, escape is impossible.
The second season has revolved around one key mystery — who murdered the Conners, a fellow undercover Soviet family who were friends with Philip and Elizabeth — while also tracking no shortage of other storylines, including the question of what ultimately happens between Stan Beeman (Emmerich), the FBI agent hunting down “illegals” operating on American soil, and Nina (Annet Mahendru), his Russian informant/mistress/double agent. The latter drama has been a series of power plays since Stan and Nina met back in season one, double cross upon double cross, all tied up in the messiness of their sexual relationship.
Then again, there’s no relationship on “The Americans” that isn’t a little bit messy, sexually. Philip and Elizabeth, despite what amounts to an arranged marriage, have formed a passionate bond that’s grown beyond a devotion to their children. But they also regularly take other partners in the name of their work, to the point where Philip is legally married to one of his marks — the wonderfully naive secretary Martha (Alison Wright), who starts to show some edge towards the end of season two. Of all the players to watch when the show returns for its third season, she might be the most intriguing.
It’s with characters like Martha, who rants about the sloppiness of the FBI agents she works for to the Russian agent she calls “Clark,” that the show’s talent for bringing out the reality of the intelligence community goes a long way. “The Americans” never forgets that these are real people with real flaws, and mistakes are made simply because that’s what happens in real life. And the show draws out the humanity in that, making what could feel like coincidence or contrivance into believable drama.
The Jennings’s home life is a little bit more heightened: Over the course of this season, Philip and Elizabeth have coped with their son Henry breaking into empty houses and their daughter Paige finding her own way of acting out by getting engrossed in the youth Christian movement.
The Paige storyline takes up a lot of screentime — so much that it borders on what might colloquially become known as “‘Homeland’ Dana Syndrome.” You know, when the inner life of a teenager is given an extreme amount of importance on a show that’s really supposed to be about the bombs and bullets and intrigue flying around?
Not that there’s anything wrong with giving a character under the age of 18 some development, and in Paige’s case her interest in Christianity does bring to light her parents’ own attitudes towards religion. But as much as the family drama component underpins “The Americans,” this part of the narrative felt out of balance.
That is, until the very end of “Echo,” the season two finale, in which it is revealed that [SPOILERS FOLLOW] the Connors were murdered by their teenage son Jared in a confrontation over him joining up with “The Center.” Why? The Center wants to explore the possibility of the children of their agents becoming double agents, which the Connors refused to consider, and is something Philip and Elizabeth, who have never even told Paige and Henry about their work, don’t want. But there is ambiguity left by Paige’s passion for the youth Christian movement — is it a sign that she’s searching for any sort of meaning?
This has been the conflict long at the heart of “The Americans” — country versus family, conviction versus comfort — but it’s always been a subtle question. Now, as we head into the third season, Philip and Elizabeth face the real possibility of having to betray their homeland to protect their family, a conflict now brought to the brink just in time for season three. The Soviets might be trying to get their hands on stealth technology and the ARPAnet, but what they’re really trying to acquire is the future. For Philip and Elizabeth, that’s Paige. And that’s unacceptable.
So much of “The Americans” takes place in silence — the drama, the decisions made. It’s a show that simply lets an actor like Emmerich wander through the city, deciding whether to put the last nail in his lover’s coffin — to the point where it’s almost shocking when Jared confesses to the murder of his family, given how many other revelations have come without words.
Especially this one truth, about the real nature of the spy game: Things seem complicated until they’re suddenly, deathly simple.