No, not The Assets. This is the other, far superior, Cold War sleeper spies show.
Two Soviet spies undercover in suburban D.C. contend with their mission, their collapsing cover marriage, and the FBI agent who has moved in next door.
The bag of nuts:
Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are the picture of normalcy – marriage, a teenage daughter and a younger son, a comfortable home, two tons of fine Detroit steel in the garage (it is 1981 America), and a travel agency they co-own.1 The pair are also deep-cover Soviet spies trained as infiltrators. They steal, blackmail, murder, flirt, lie, and otherwise wreak havoc in service of missions assigned by Moscow, passed along by their handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), and aided primarily by Martha (Alison Wright), an unwitting FBI secretary whom Phillip seduces, and a group of black militants led by Gregory (Derek Luke). The biggest obstacle to their and the motherland’s plans is the newly empowered FBI counterterrorism branch, with the Jennings’ neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) heading things up at the cost of his own marital bliss. Their next biggest obstacles are their faltering cover marriage – as Phillip becomes less certain of his mission and both admit that it has literally always been a marriage of convenience – and Stan’s successful recruitment of a mole, Nina (Annet Mahendru), a clerk in the Soviet embassy.
The farm full of nut trees, their branches heavy with crop and swaying gently in the breeze:
Not as dark as Breaking Bad, not as textured as especially the first season of House of Cards, The Americans still made three-dimensional people out of the chess pieces of its concept and placed them in an intense game of cat vs. cat. From the go, it pulled few punches with its characters and what they did to and with one another. The pilot episode includes both a brutal dispatching of a defector – a man who raped Elizabeth during her training back in Russia – and a brilliantly tense scene where Stan searches Phillip’s garage in the dead of night unaware that Phillip, carrying a silenced pistol, is hiding sometimes just inches away. It felt entirely possible that the show would go all Game of Thrones2 and dispatch one man or the other. Fortunately it did not – while The Americans contains plots of global implications, this isn’t a Tom Clancy joint; the storylines stay rightsized, geographically, personally, and in terms of spycraft.
This leads to real questions, to jump to Wednesday’s impending premiere of season 2 for the moment, about where the show can ‘realistically’ go in the future. The difficulties in balancing plot momentum while avoiding looking like a Mission Impossible film have tanked many a project that sought to stay grounded, and The Americans is no Vince Gilligan joint, either.3 Where it succeeded most often, and where its future success lies, is in the believability of its main characters, no matter the situations in which they are placed.
By rightsizing everything, The Americans lets its cast stay believeable through action as much as speech. Spy movies and series should have inured us to ‘will they get caught?’ scenes and scenarios, but somehow this show keeps the boredom at bay while Gregory’s militants skulk in the shadows, Stan’s team tries to keep up surveillance, or Elizabeth is almost discovered in the trunk of an FBI sedan while stealing radio codes. There’s just enough television in everyone’s professionalism to keep such scenes far from flat, and enough professionalism to keep this all from becoming an 80s-veneered CBS dud. In fact the 1981 feel to everything only helps to ground it further – surveillance photos need to be developed, radio codes must be hacked manually, and there’s nary an electronic trail to be tracked. Cat vs. cat, spy vs. spy, person vs. person.
Now and again the show tried to stretch into set pieces and overreached – the late-season car chase with Phillip rescuing Elizabeth and neither being identified by the FBI edged a touch too far, and the concomitant flurry of action as the KGB tried to communicate with agents temporarily off the grid became unfocused and lacked the oomph it seemed to think it had.4 Some character moments and arcs occasionally dragged their feet – Stan and Phillip half commiserating over their marital issues felt as beige as Phil’s so sad motel room. A few didn’t linger long enough – Martha’s ex is one of Stan’s fellow agents who sort of gets to be angry before Phillip kills him.
Russell is quite good, if sometimes one-note, as a dedicated patriot, but it’s Rhys who puts on a clinic – most of the time – in quietly, tactfully showing Phillip’s internal conflict. It doesn’t hurt that he gets all the fun cover characters, his delivery and his costuming becoming the closest thing a show like this gets to comic relief. Normally I’d suspect this imbalance is just latent sexism given the fairly macho world of Cold Warriors5 but Wright’s performance as Martha continually confounded my expectation that I would hate that character, and Martindale is eminently watchable here just as much so as on FX’s Justified. Ultimately, then, this is a flaw in the writing of what are supposed to be central relationships: The Jennings don’t always get enough to push against each other effectively. Meanwhile Stan’s wife, while very well acted by Susan Misner, is definitely underdrawn leaving Emmerich’s performance at times adrift – his professional loyalty (including to his dead colleague) is much, much stronger and better motivated than either his marital discord or his second-half attraction to Nina.
Overall season 1 could have been a bit tighter, its pacing smoother and more effective by addressing any or all of the above missteps. I’m not sure how The Americans can keep their unstoppable forces from colliding,6 but the longer they do so (believably), the more time we get to watch genuine, motivated moments play across the characters’ faces, the more enjoyable season 2 is going to be.
The Americans broadcasts on FX Wednesdays at 10pm and on Hulu.
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- Again, 1981 America. Ask your parents what a travel agency was. ↵
- or MI-5… early MI-5. ↵
- EHG’s Tara Ariano nailed it, saying both The Americans and House of Cards think they’re prestige shows, but they’re not. ↵
- I’m still on the fence about Gregory’s death scene, a near-ballet of bullets and slow camera work set to Robert Flack’s “To Love Somebody” The sequence really is well done, but it’s hard to say if it’s a flourish or an outlier in the series. ↵
- The FBI is, maybe accurately, a mass of men in gray suits. ↵
- I wouldn’t be surprised to see them give Stan a Hank-on-the-toilet moment; hopefully they won’t. ↵