The first season of “The Americans” was astounding, one of the best in recent memory. Nothing short of masterful storytelling and character development executed beautifully by the performances, specifically Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Cold War Russian spies pretending to be Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, a typical American married couple with two children. It’d be hard to top those first 13 episodes, but Season 2 could.
The brilliance of Season 1 came not from the spy stories, although those were gripping and intense, or the perfectly replicated ’80s atmosphere (heightened Cold War confrontation, sky-rocketing divorce rates) and aesthetic (the wardrobes, music — my God the music! — and sets).
No, “The Americans” was most impressive by paralleling the covert war between U.S capitalism and Russian communism during the mid-’80s with the Jennings’ subtle marital strife; a cold war of its own if you will. Elizabeth and Phillip’s marital conflict was everything all at once; beautiful and passionate, gut-wrenchingly heartbreaking and tragic.
Using the real events and horrors of the Cold War as a metaphor for a relationship operating with similar measures is a stroke of thematic brilliance. So forgoing this subtext now that the Jennings have worked out a peaceful (mostly happy) détente is a bold and smart narrative approach. Now “The Americans” is using the weight of collateral damage as the commanding (and frightening) undercurrent for the season.
Avoiding any spoilers because the premiere is shocking and one of the series’ best, Phillip and Elizabeth are forced to confront the ripple effect of being spies, which is continued throughout the first five episodes. We’ve seen them murder without remorse — even innocents — but now they’re confronted with the turmoil their espionage creates, especially in regards to their family.
There’s also a number of strong B-plots involving the FBI (Noah Emmerich’s Stan) and rezidentura (Annet Mahendru’s Nina), which gives the characters (and actors) material to shine. And these storylines will surely intersect with the Jennings.
There’s a wealth of excellence in “The Americans” — possibly the best series on TV — but the most important and enthralling aspect, rightly so, is the relationship between Elizabeth and Phillip. So far, Season 2 doesn’t create more internal tension for the couple, instead forcing external factors upon them that could be just as devastating.
Photo courtesy FX