Note: I am going to recap every episode of “The Americans” for Season 2. My goal is to have a recap on the blog immediately after the episodes is completed Wednesday night, as long as I’m able to view the episode in advance. I apologize for getting this recap up Thursday. So without further ado, spoilers ahead for Season 2, episode one (“Comrades”) of “The Americans.”
On the surface, “The Americans” is a show about two communist spies, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, living the American dream as a happy suburban Washington D.C. couple with two kids. It would be easy for “The Americans” to trade in simple spycraft action and espionage tropes to move its narrative. And at times it surely does, but the undercurrent of family life is the true force within the series.
Many great dramas have employed the examination of family for its subtext or even context (“Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” are obvious examples), but I don’t know if any have taken the approach of “The Americans.” And this makes “The Americans” one of the best shows on TV right now.
Nearly every major character, Phillip and Elizabeth and Stan and his wife Sandra are the evident ones, are defined by their role within the family. There’s also Martha and Clark’s (aka Phillip) strange marriage that’s a mini-family of deception and manipulation, by only Phillip of course. Even Nina and the rest of the Rezidentura are a family, in that they are all fish out of water forced to build relationships, sometimes close, out of similar circumstances.
By setting up this familial dynamic for a number of different relationships and setting these interactions as the subtle backbone of the series, “The Americans” is making its viewers wholly invested in these characters, even though we shouldn’t be for any of them.
We root for and care about Elizabeth and Phillip, but they’re spies who run around murdering people and are trying to bring down America’s capitalist government. Stan should be the hero because he’s the FBI man trying to protect our nation from evildoers, but he also stands in the way of our heroes, the Jennings. And he’s cheating on his wife with a different Russian spy in Nina. Yet, audiences still empathize with Stan and want him to be a part of this show. Nina might be the most sympathetic character — save for Martha, a simple pawn whose heart will surely be destroyed at some point — because she got wrapped up in this spy game unwittingly. But it turns out she’s masterful at it and represents the biggest threat to Stan, both personally and professionally. We want all of these characters to thrive (and be alive), but each one’s motives and objectives put them at odds in the most dire way possible. (I find it similar to the Raylan and Boyd dynamic on “Justified.” I love both characters, but know at the end of the day there'll be a situation where the guns are coming out and only one will be left standing.)
The second season premiere, “Comrades,” masterfully develops and twists the family dynamic that was so great in Season 1. The opening season, one of the best in recent memory, was fundamentally about the evolving marriage of Elizabeth and Phillip. We watched them embrace each other, fall apart and separate, then reunite (most likely out of love, but security for themselves and their children surely played a role). It was a powerful way to make audiences connect with these two, collectively and separately, while also impressivly using the Jennings’ marriage to parallel the Cold War. As I've written before, Elizabeth and Phillip were having a personal Cold War last season.
“Comrades” sets aside the Jennings marriage — both are happy to be back together now that Elizabeth has recovered from her gunshot wound — and looks at the broader scope of keeping a family together, happy and safe. Safe being the most imperative word for these undercover operatives.
It’s clearly laid out in the opening scene when Elizabeth almost runs over a deer and her two fawns. The symbolism is patently obvious, but it goes a long way in foreshadowing the themes of the premiere and surely the entire season. (“Comrades” uses a lot of heavy foreshadowing and symbolism throughout, but it all works organically and gracefully once the episode has concluded and you fully understand what it all meant.)
The more subtle familial plot forces come in other parts of the episode. Like the scene following the opening with Elizabeth, where Phillip is in a fantastic cowboy disguise working with Afghans fighting against the invading USSR. Phillip meticulously takes out the two Afghans — even the poor cook in the back — when he realizes his cover could be blown. He’ll do, and have to do, evil things to protect his family. If his true identity is in any threat of being revealed, his entire family — including Paige and Henry — are in the utmost danger, as we learn at the end of “Comrades.”
The middle of “Comrades” acts mainly in place-setting mode, giving us glances at where our characters are and where they could be heading. We check in with Stan and his wife and see things aren’t great, but she’s willing to work on it. Stan, on the other hand, seems to be falling for Nina even though his love will only have devastating consequences. Nina is nothing like Meryl Streep; she’ll never be what a man wants her to be, even if she has to play by their rules for now to keep up her double/triple agent ways.
There’s also a look at the Jennings in mostly idyllic circumstances. Henry has a fun birthday, Phillip and Elizabeth go on the strangest “date” ever and end it with a simple, toucing embrace (and sixty-nining in bed). Paige is the only one who’s uneasy. She’s suspicious of her parents’ actions, and is surely more disturbed by what she saw in that bed than if she’d merely walked into an empty room. When Elizabeth tells Paige, “We have to be able to trust each other,” it’s kind of true, but more of a lie. What she means is we, as parents who are spies constantly in danger, need to be able to trust that our daughter won’t find us out. It’s a one-sided type of trust and/or promise; one that will surely blow up in Elizabeth and Phillip’s faces.
And things surely blow up in their faces at the end of the episode. After meeting two Americanized Soviet spies that mirror our protagonists in Emmett and Leanne Connors, whom the Jennings have a close history with, the episode ends with the worst possible outcome. Using the cover of a fun day of balloon darts and haunted houses so the Jennings and Connors can see each other’s kids turns out to be a harrowing play. Emmett recruits Phillip and Henry for a drop that crosses a line Phillip isn't comfortable crossing. And when Phillip and Elizabeth go to the Connors’ hotel room to complete the drop, they quickly and frighteningly realize the potential consequences of their espionage.
Seeing the entire Connors family, minus the son who has to live with walking into that bloody massacre, executed is a weight that may be too much for the Jennings to bear. They never expected their children would ever be in danger of being murdered. The worst-case scenario is Elizabeth and Phillip are discovered and arrested and God knows what happens to them, but the kids would be allowed to remain safe in the States, probably with a foster family or something. Now, they’re acutely aware that no one’s life is safe.
While the Connors’ murder scene was haunting and the close-ups of their faces with bullet holes was awful, the following scene where Elizabeth and Phillip frantically try to find their children was even more intense. The manic camerawork as the parents search for their kids was amazing and gripping. When Paige is finally found and has the same face paint as the Connors’ daughter, my heart dropped. It signals Paige is clearly in danger this season, from who and where is anyone’s guess.
The fallout of the Connors murders reforms “The Americans” and its family motif for the season. While Season 1 focused on the examination of a marriage, and thusly a family, through the lens of spycraft, Season 2 is about examining the toll spycraft can have a family, most importantly and ominously not just a marriage, but everyone in that family. This dynamic was present at times in Season 1, but it’s been heightened and at the forefront now.
There is too much at stake when you have children, or even someone you love with all your heart, to operate with the impunity required to be a spy (or any illegal and/or dangerous activity as shown in the aforementioned “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos”). See, loving someone — especially a child — means you’re no longer an individual soul. You’re forever connected to them no matter what other factors (or dangers) come into play. That connection is going to become the Jennings’ biggest adversary, no matter who’s coming after them, because it’s their greatest weakness. Their love for each other is the best part of their lives, but it’s also the biggest threat within the dangerous game their playing.
It makes that final scene with Martha and Clark/Phillip so powerful. Martha tells Clark/Phillip, “Relax, you’re at home now.” But he’ll never be able to relax and he’ll never be at home. The Jennings don’t have a home. They have the façade of one; a house of cards. And despite Phillip and Elizabeth’s best efforts, that house of cards will come crumbling down. Living under this intense set of lies and rules means having a family, or more accurately what is needed to sustain the love of a family, is impossible. Having the “trust,” as Elizabeth put it to Paige, that’s the backbone of a family can never exist under the burden of lies.