With shows like Sons of Anarchy and Justified, FX has developed into a specific brand of unapologetically gritty and brutally original drama programming, and The Americans is an obvious extension of that brand. Having arrived at episode three, I find myself already captivated by the story of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings, two KGB agents living as suburban Americans in the 1980’s, along with their children who have no idea what their parents are. With the addition of the incredible Margo Martindale as Claudia, the Jenning’s KGB supervisor, in last night’s episode “Gregory”, The Americans cemented itself further as a character based situation drama.
In the first two episodes, we dealt a lot with the very different perspective that Phillip and Elizabeth have on their work. Phillip has very much become Americanized and has designs of retiring from the KGB to live in the states. Elizabeth, the product of a very male driven world, has a more deeply set sense of duty to the Motherland. There does seem to be love between them, but it is far more complicated than the sum of its emotional parts.
With “Gregory” the depth of those complications became a little deeper. Turns out the Gregory of the title is a man that Elizabeth has been having an ‘affair’ with. I emphasize affair because since Elizabeth and Phillip’s relationship is an elaborate rouse designed to benefit Soviet intelligence, is it an ‘affair’ at all? This seems to be the affect that the Show Runners of The Americans are going for here, Elizabeth’s view seems to be that what she has been pretending with Phillip is in fact becoming real, but the reality is optional. Whereas with Phillip, anything he must do outside of the relationship, like his tryst with the blonde psychopath from last week, is for the cameras and his ‘marriage’ is real and requiring of real devotion.
“Gregory” Dealt primarily with Robert, the partner from the pilot who died. A secret message is found in the classifieds and they discover that Robert had a wife, Joyce, and child. This activates Phillip and Elizabeth who must track them down and figure out how much they know. All of that aspect turns into sub-plot as Elizabeth is forced to enlist Gregory, her fling of several years, into the mission. Along the way, the relationship between Gregory and Elizabeth becomes clear to Phillip, who is just a little more than shattered by everything.
You really can’t help but feel sorry for Phillip in this episode, and that fact makes him so much more fascinating of a character because while you ache for his naiveté you marvel at his super spy skills and hands of death. Phillip is no emo spy wimp, he’s the real deal—a wet works death dealer with super intelligence and a flair for thinking outside of the box. So to reveal this sliver of vulnerability adds yet another facet to his character to marvel over.
By the end of “Gregory” all of the cards are on the table. Phillip knows just how not-real his marriage has been for Elizabeth, heartbreakingly, and Elizabeth has finally begun to requite his feelings. Left to the ravages of poor timing, however, it is the emotional weight of her ‘betrayal’ that rules the moment and Phillip ends up telling her to do what she will.
So three episodes in, we find the template taking place. Super spy stuff: check. There is no question that The Americans will deliver on the espionage, and deliver well. The centerpiece, however, will be this incredibly complicated relationship between the leads. Will they find love, should they find love? The fact that these questions play out below the surface of the façade of a perfectly happy suburban family is just one aspect of The Americans that makes it such a challenging and rewarding watch.