"The Americans," which returns for a second season on FX this Wednesday, February 26th, is both a period spy story and a family drama. The first season of the show, created by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, focused on how the arranged marriage between longterm undercover KGB spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) was, after years pretending at being a typical suburban couple and having children together, slowly becoming real. The new arc focuses on how the Jennings active espionage life might effect their kids, especially the increasingly curious teenage Paige (Holly Taylor).
Striking a balance between the two sides of the narrative isn't always something Rhys finds easy. "In one second you can be assassinating or honey trapping, and the next you're making PB&Js for the kids, and both lives have to be credible and there has to be a link between the two," he pointed out. "It's that fine balance that made me nervous, and still does." Rhys joined journalists for a call to offer some spoiler-free thoughts on the new season. Here are five things to expect:
The Jennings' marriage is more solid this season, but with that comes jealousy due to all the extramarital activity required for the job.
With Elizabeth and Philip's new bond come further complications with regard to the amount of sex they have with others for information or manipulations. "Suddenly their feelings become real, and the green-eyed monster makes a very rude appearance in their lives and it's incredibly difficult for them to deal with. In a minor way that relationships struggle with partners who flirt or insecurity, it's magnified by a million because of what they have to do. There's no resolve; it's certainly an ongoing problem for them, a very present theme this season, and plays out in some incredibly surprising ways." It will be especially tough for the more hardline Elizabeth: "She realizes that she has these feelings for Philip, and what he’s doing when he is honey trapping and gaining information for the cause, for Mother Russia, it makes her feel terrible. She's caught between that place of saying 'I hate the way this makes me feel' and 'I hate that you have to do it, but it's for the greater cause.'"
Philip's other marriage, to Martha (Alison Wright), will add to these complications.
Martha, the FBI secretary that Philip, posing as a fellow FBI employee named Clark, ended up marrying in order to keep her on as an unwitting source of information, plays a larger role in the series this season. Rhys said that Philip "becomes very aware of what he's doing in the manipulation of Martha and how it's spiraling ever downwards. It pricks his conscience, definitely. She wants to evolve in the marriage he's trying to stall at every level. And because of how things are evolving with Elizabeth, that presents itself as a difficult riddle for him to overcome." He added that he thought of Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day" as an inspiration for his scenes with Wright, who's upped to a regular this season -- "he tells the entire audience exactly how he feels and moves you to tears, but you are utterly assured that there's no way Emma Thompson will know." In scenes where he's lying to Martha, "you need to trust that the script will tell the audience that he's lying, and you don't have to do it in that moment. It's not much showing that you’re lying, it's the struggle that you're having in that moment that's interesting."
Paige's poking into her parents lives will cause them grief in various ways.
Paige's feeling that her parents are hiding something from her is both due to the fact that they are -- a lot -- and due to normal teenage angst, and Elizabeth and Philip react to it in different ways. "Philip has lived a life of lies and as a result, he doesn't want his daughter to inherit that element to his life, which he loathes now. I think there's a huge part of him that hates the fact that he has to lie bare-facedly to his children, and has done so his entire life. It eats away at him." He doesn't want his children to carry on in his footsteps, and he doesn't want Paige to find out the truth about her mother and father because of the danger that could also put her in, though they may not be able to maintain the secret. "They made that decision a long time ago rather naively, and now the reality of having a 14-year old, incredibly inquisitive teenage daughter -- the reality has changed their ideals, ideology."
Elizabeth and Philip have different ideas about parenting and how American their children should be.
"It's still a bone of contention," Rhys said, adding that looking at Philip's story as one of immigration was part of his approach to the character. "Post WWII where Philip grew up was an incredibly depressed and challenging environment, and I think that's why there's an appreciation of what he has and what can be achieved and the more materialistic things he does enjoy. He becomes a little more unashamed about it, especially in this season, where he's like. we don't have to live in misery to do our jobs or because we think we should." Elizabeth's still more ideologically devoted to the cause, believes in the system and is bothered by the capitalist influence on their children, and "they begin to separate on that specific level, which makes for a great element of conflict -- you see it so many times in marriages and relationships." Rhys point out that in some ways, the traditional roles in a relationship are flipped for the characters, with Philip being warmer and more emotional and Elizabeth harder and more aggressive. "In that respect, sometimes the clichéd version is that the wife or girlfriend spends too much money or enjoys the fine things, and this time it's the male of the relationship who says, 'No, I want to buy a good cashmere, and why not?'"
Philip is still holding out hope for a happy ending, even as the danger grows and is closer to home this season.
The Jennings' situation may be riskier for both them and their children this season, but Philip may still have an out in mind. "His main priority is his children, their future and their safety -- and I think he wants, unashamedly, to sign up for the white picket fence life and have those nice things. There's a real opportunity to live out a real dream -- he just has to balance it with an incredibly difficult lifestyle." In the first season Philip brought up the possibility of their defecting and going into witness protection and living out their days there. "There's an element of Philip that still hangs onto that dream," Rhys said. "The realization of how unsustainable their lives are and how unsafe it's becoming for the children grows day by day." But his wife will take some convincing. "It grows and increases, and I think he's hoping that Elizabeth will come to a place where she says 'I can't do this anymore,' especially with the end of last season when she was shot. He's hoping that she will come to a place where she realizes on her own terms organically that this is a lifestyle they can't sustain.