While the second season premiere of “The Americans” was a powerful start that setup a number of new dynamics for the series, the second installment slows that momentum. It’s still a very solid episode that, even if I have some quibbles with, is expertly executed and just another example of “The Americans” being one of the best shows currently on TV.
That “Cardinal” doesn’t have the punch of the premiere makes sense. The fallout from the premiere, Elizabeth and Phillip realizing this spy game comes with more potential for chaos and collateral damage than they’d ever expected after witnessing the murder of their espionage peers and friends in Emmett and Leanne — and their daughter — requires addressing. It’s a watershed moment for the series and its leads, and the audience needs to understand the weight of that.
There are a handful of formidable touchstones in “Cardinal” that convey where the series is heading and the themes for the season, but overall it’s basically the falling action from last week’s climax. This isn’t a knock. Serialized TV dramas need to have episodes like this to setup future plots, but having Elizabeth staring out the window (VADWP trucks are kind of evil-looking) for most of the hour is a waste of Keri Russell’s performance. Now I don’t need to see Russell in full-on badass mode, like putting someone’s head through a wall or turning Claudia’s (Margo Martindale) face into a hamburger like Ed Norton does to Jared Leto (aka #LetoChristSuperstar) in “Fight Club.” But I don’t want her sitting on the bench, riddled with paranoia, like she does for most of this episode.
But that’s what “Cardinal” is; an hour filled with, and exclusively about paranoia. Elizabeth is in full protection mode after the death of the Connors and rightly-so. Moms are the most formidable guardians of their children (and this is coming from a very proud and dedicated father). Elizabeth may not have wanted to be a mother initially — she was in total communist spy mode as we’ve seen in the flashbacks — but Henry and Paige quickly took over her heart, as the undeniable bond between mother and child materialized.
Elizabeth will do whatever it takes to keep her children safe; games of Life and trips to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which I’m certain Elizabeth only “dropped” the kids off at because she knew the public, movie theater setting was safe. She would’ve reneged on the mission to help the Nicaraguan woman with an overdosed congressional aid if her kids were in any danger.
Meanwhile, Phillip is navigating a couple moves while Elizabeth makes sure the kids are protected. While she’s attempting to have a typical morning at the Jennings household — complete with fresh-squeezed orange juice and Alpha Bits — despite the morning news reporting the horrors of the Connors’ murders, Phillip is doing recon at Martha’s apartment. (By the way, is Martha’s under-the-weather-ness a sign of pregnancy? That would surely throw the Jennings family into even more chaos.)
After making Martha eggs, Phillip heads in to his travel agent cover to check-in with Elizabeth about their next move. Before they can suss out how to investigate the Connors situation, FBI-man Stan shows up with some buddies needing help with a “bachelor weekend, something that won’t destroy the marriage,” which is a statement that reeks of irony given Stan’s current marital situation and affair with Nina. (That scene is utterly hilarious, especially for “The Americans,” which employs humor infrequently, but excellently.)
Once the Jennings get instructions from their handlers, Phillip heads to Chesapeake to break into the house of Emmett’s contact. Donning his best Rust Cohle disguise complete with sinewy hair and pornstache — which I think we’d last seen when he pounded that creep for hitting on his teenage daughter, and finished him with a barbecue fork to the balls — Phillip searches the house and winds up getting zapped by Fred’s (played by the awesome John Carroll Lynch) booby-trapped box. It’s one of those harrowing sequences “The Americans” is so god damn good at. The frightening shot of Phillip’s twitching fingers before cutting to commercial was just brilliant in its simplicity.
Once Phillip wakes up, tied to Fred’s vanity, it’s a dire situation with — even though the audience is sure Fred isn’t going to put two in Phillip’s dome — that edge-of-your-seat tension. Kudos to both Matthew Rhys and Lynch for just blowing that scene out of the water. And that whole sequence works much better in conveying the paranoia theme “The Americans” is so expertly amazing at imbuing into individual episodes, but also the series as a whole. The ‘80s Cold War was defined by paranoia, so I understand its heaviness in “Cardinal,” but I just couldn’t get on board with how it heavy-handed it was in Elizabeth’s role this week.
After convincing Fred, through the mention of model kits, that Phillip is a friend like Emmett (or Paul as was his cover identity) Phillip gives Fred the sad news about the Connors. Again Lynch is impeccable in this scene, displaying both grief and fear. He lost not only a friend, but also the only person out there protecting him. Once Fred has recovered from the news, he and Phillip discuss the reason for that risky exchange they had in the premiere. There’s talk of factories and machines being moved being the lone opportunity to get some important intel. This will surely be the mission-of-the-week in the next episode.
The rezidentura story this week began with the Connors murders, but evolved to the “walk-in,” which also bore the paranoia theme. But this was another aspect of the episode I was mildly disappointed in. The brutal and professional execution of the Connors should be an alarming warning sign for everyone at the Russian Embassy, spies or not. To so quickly bounce over to the “walk-in” guy felt like a mistake. I’m fairly certain the intention is to let the Connors’ deaths resonate through the Jennings, but having two spies — and their daughter — get killed should be a priority for all involved.
While the ‘walk-in” aspect was underwhelming, I’m greatly enjoying the ongoing affiliation of Nina and new guy Oleg. Oleg is a complete dick, but he seems to be more than just a guy looking for a “cushy foreign assignment.” I imagine he’ll have an important role down the line, and I don’t mean as a love interest to pull Nina away from Stan. That would be too soap opera.
Speaking of Nina and Stan, Annet Mahendru is astounding in making Nina’s true allegiances, whether to Stan or Arkady, unclear which fits nicely with the conflicted and constantly put-upon character. Their relationship is destined for an unhappy ending, but how it’s progressing is quite intriguing.
Lastly, we get more of Paige sleuthing into her parents, which is also right in line with the suspicion and distrust rampant throughout “Cardinal.” I very much like the Jennings kids and the actors who play them. It’s good to see Paige getting some more agency of her own this season. And somehow her constant investigating of mom and dad is just as, if not more, disconcerting than the spy stuff. When Paige eventually discovers the cover her parents are hiding, it’ll be a devastating moment for “The Americans.”
I may have some issues with “Cardinal” — mainly with the Elizabeth staring out the window stuff — but it’s still a very good episode of television, even if it can’t live up to last week’s premiere. Building everything off a sense of paranoia and fear, for every central character, makes the early part of this season a very dark harbinger. And “The Americans” is at its best with that lurking tension shading the narrative.