“The Americans” is really a show about isolation. That feels more true than ever in its second season, which premieres on FX on Wednesday, February 26th, returning with a set of episodes just as impressive as anything in the show’s very strong first year. Being a spy isn’t just lonely work, it is unsettling on a deeply personal level. Its characters are constantly sussing out and exploiting the soft points and vulnerabilities of other people, which makes them agonizingly aware of their own. When you spend so much time lying to people, pretending to be someone you’re not or to feel something you don’t, how can you not be aware of the ways in which others might be doing the same to you? It’s not just the characters in “The Americans” have (well-earned) trust issues, it’s that they’re so seldom seen by others for who they really are, and as the series has unfolded there’s a sense of how lonely, how exhausting that can be, especially in the long term.
At least Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phil Jennings (Matthew Rhys) have each other. The first season of “The Americans” was about the cautious detente in the arranged marriage between the pair of undercover KGB agents, who had been partners in espionage, cohabitators and parents for years, but who were only just starting to see each other in a romantic sense.
In season two, the pair’s relationship has solidified into something real, less wary and more open, which can come with new difficulties when for their country the two regularly don wigs and sleeping with strangers and try to keep Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), the FBI secretary Phil actually married last season, placated. Hanson’s been stepped up to regular status this season and isn’t so easily shrugged off when Clark, as she knows him, doesn’t answer his phone and continues to insist on keeping their marital status secret.
But in this new arc of the show, more of the Jennings’ concern turns to their children, the teenage Paige (Holly Taylor) and the younger Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who might be in danger because of their parents’ perilous secret lives. Elizabeth is still a hardliner ready to die for her country, and Phil, while less loyal, is going to go where she goes, but involving your kids is something different. And less dangerous but challenging in its own way is Paige’s growing curiosity about what Elizabeth and Phil have been hiding from her, suspicions that combine with a normal teenage desire for privacy and a life of her own in a way that’s especially headachey for her mother. Elizabeth may be an incredibly tough secret agent, one who’s more aggressive and harbors more tamped down anger than her formidable husband, but adolescent rebellion leaves her amusingly stymied, unable to pull on the very different personal experiences she’s isn’t able to talk about.
“The Americans” gets a lot from the contrast between the suburban D.C. normalcy the Jennings are playing at and the high risk espionage they engage in, not always in their off hours. It’s a heightened show, with the disguises and the car chases, but it continues to maintain its delicate balance between domesticity and intrigues, with both the Jennings and the other characters.
The series has its effective action setpieces, but the new season’s most resonant scenes are often the quieter ones in which emotional honesty temporarily gleams through the subterfuge. Whether it’s Phil and Stan (Noah Emmerich) having a conversation made up of real confessions amidst all the obfuscation or Elizabeth having a moment with a mark, the luxury of a sliver of truth, even in the context of a sea of lies, is something these characters value.
Joe Weisberg’s series doesn’t feel easily sustainable for years, but that’s part of what’s so enjoyable about it, the high wire tension it manages in keeping the Jennings in a precarious position while allowing them to stay unexposed, in Stan remaining in close pursuit of people he doesn’t know are his neighbors, in Nina (Annet Mahendru) playing triple agent and sorting out conflicted feelings for Stan while navigating increasingly fraught politics in the embassy. The series, and the Jennings’ lives, feel continually in danger in toppling over, and that the show’s been able to sustain that into its second year is a great thing.