What separated The Americans from the rest of the 2013 pack of new series was not just an acute attention to detail in the espionage plots that give the show its framing and period hook, but the first season showed carefully and intelligently The Americans could handle its inter-personal and familial relations with its characters. The first thirteen episodes didn’t just provide thrills, fantastic stunt work and choreography, great montages set to fantastic 80’s tunes and superb acting – although, it did provide those things. The writers took the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings and made it something worth investing in. Now, with an expanded cast of main characters (Annet Mahendru, Susan Misner and Alison Wright get bumped up to regular cast members this season as Nina, Sandra Beeman and Martha), The Americans shows no signs of cutting away from the interesting people it has given us in favor of the interesting and tense sequences it often executes.
The cold open of “Comrades” features an undercover Philip at a meeting that goes awry. One of the Soviet-haters he’s extracting information from hands over a knife as a show of good faith and a symbol of their partnership – a knife that was used to kill the first man and Soviet he ever had to. Philip pauses a moment to control his emotions and shoots both of the men and, shortly after, an innocent someone who is hiding in the kitchen and clearly poses no threat. Where The Americans excels and where something like ABC’s short-lived 2014 Cold War miniseries The Assets doesn’t is in taking the time to show the deeply troubling effects of doing this kind of work. It’s enough to break someone like Philip if he lets it, but as a total professional, he knows there’s no tie to linger here. Even later in the episode after two of the Jennings’ KGB associates get killed along with their daughter, all Philip and Elizabeth can do is react according to procedure. Obviously, we see the care each has for their own children, but mourning over the deaths of friends and civilians caught in the crossfire isn’t a luxury.
Those two KGB associates serve another important function in “Comrades,” which is to illustrate the wider operations of the KGB. Last year, Gregory was the main character who we see working in tandem with Philip and Elizabeth, and even he was a recruit, not a trained KGB agent. It could be argued that Claudia was another entry into seeing the breadth of the KGB, but she served (or serves, as she is mentioned to be still kicking around somewhere in this episode; however, Margo Martindale is unfortunately tied to CBS’ The Millers and will have a reduced role) as more of a boss figure than an operative who works in the field. While I would mostly like the story and character development to stick with the main cast, having other agents work with Philip and Elizabeth is a huge part of showing that the Jennings aren’t the only ones out there or at least aren’t the only ones working on the major missions. It makes the whole conceit more believable and it gives each mission added layers.
Another improvement made evident by “Comrades” is use of the Jennings children, Paige and Henry. Seeing another KGB couple and their children is a great parallel, but more than that, Paige is catching on to the air of mystery that permeates her house and her parents’ marriage. She slips away from Henry and the babysitter to check Elizabeth’s laundry for anything suspicious and she walks into her parents’ room when she suspects they haven’t returned from their supposed “date.” Young actors playing young characters is so often a huge obstacle in drama series. If the writers can’t come up with semi-interesting material to give them, the characters almost always feel annoying or superfluous. And even if the material is there, the right performers aren’t always the ones delivering it. But Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg (co-showrunners and writers of “Comrades”) know exactly what they’re doing with Paige, and Holly Taylor does a great job with what they give her. Henry is more of an anomaly, but as the younger of the two siblings, that’s the unfortunate reality in this kind of story. Paige will be the one to pick up on subtle things in all their lives, and seeing her do her own investigating is almost as fun as watching Stan sniff around.
Stan finds himself in a situation just as difficult as Philip and Elizabeth, only in a different way. He doesn’t know that Nina has turned triple-agent, so his attempts to connect with her by sitting down to watch The French Lieutenant’s Woman (a pirated copy, to boot) are both kind of sweet and kind of pathetic. Later, after Sandra tries to bridge the emotional gap she and Stan have been sharing recently, the Beemans go see the same film at the cinema, providing a wonderful coda to the complicated love life of our FBI neighbor. But to top that off, Stan is still stuck on the cold trail left at the end of last season, in which Philip and Elizabeth were nearly caught. We’ve seen how Stan can obsess over things and how his emotions can get the better of him, so it might have been nice to see him stew in his failure a while longer, but I suspect the events at the end of “Comrades” will be making that trail just a little less cold.
Someone, after all, must have made one of the Jennings, even if it wasn’t long enough to allow for more than a crude composite sketch. Yet, the ball is immediately rolling here in season two of The Americans. Both the real and fake marriages are in incredible flux and the missions are getting harder and harder to complete unscathed. With Justified getting ready to retire next year, The Americans is – to me – the FX drama to be watching. No other series on their roster is this well-plotted, well-acted and well-executed and none of those series has shown the huge well of potential that The Americans has going forward. “Comrades” only deepens that well, making the wait until next week feel almost impossible.
[Photo via Craig Blankenhorn/FX]