One of the best things an espionage drama can do is pose questions – not the purposely confusing, plot-twisting-for-the-sake-of-plot-twisting kind of questions that so often get tossed into feature films, but rather questions like: where do this character’s motivations lie? How did those particular motivations come about? And is there any chance that they might change? The series premiere of FX’s “The Americans” presents tantalizing hints to the answers of these questions with a show that is about both espionage and family, setting the stage for a complex intertwining of loyalty and deception.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phil (Matthew Rhys) Jennings are two KGB agents in 1981 Washington, D.C., masquerading as a married American couple. There’s no teasing about their profession – it is immediately clear from the beginning that they are spies, as Elizabeth flirts with an FBI agent at a bar, gets more intimate in his hotel room, and then runs down an anonymous Russian with Phil and another fellow agent, Rob (Chase Coleman). What isn’t clear at first, however, is what kind of spies these three are. The episode is unique in that during the entire lengthy chase scene that begins the actions, there is no clue as to whether Phil and Elizabeth’s prey is a bad guy or a good one. What we do see is the first big defining moment for the couple’s characters: when Rob is stabbed in the gut, Phil wants to take him to the hospital. No, says Elizabeth; the mission comes first. They compromise and miss their rendezvous, leaving the hostage tied up in the trunk of their car with no way of getting rid of him.
In the hands of a lesser show, all of this would be just a convenient way of establishing our antiheroes’ personalities and then leaving them in rigidly defined boxes – she’s the cold one and he’s the compassionate one. As the events of the episode unfold, however, it becomes apparent that just like their prisoner in the trunk, the situation is more complex than it seems.
It turns out that Elizabeth is not just a mindless soldier hell-bent on finishing the mission; the man they have kidnapped, a Soviet defector who has been passing information to the FBI, was a KGB captain who sexually assaulted her during her training in 1960. This mission is personal for Elizabeth, and she privately agonizes over what to do with the captain: keep him or kill him? They can’t hand him over now because they were seen kidnapping him and Washington is on high alert, but if they kill him, the whole mission will have been for nothing.
On top of this, Phil, who has an unreciprocated crush on his wife, seems a bit too enamored of the American lifestyle. When the defector offers him $6 million to defect himself, he asks Elizabeth what she thinks and is really only half joking about it, offering up a line that I think should be the new slogan for America: “What’s so bad about it?” Phil likes their nice house and their marriage, and he sees the proposal as necessary, pointing out that their cover is probably close to being blown at this point anyway. If they went to the FBI, they’d be financially secure and their kids would have both parents to take care of them rather than both parents in prison. Oh and also, their new neighbor is an FBI agent, Stan (Noah Emmerich, who you may recognize from 1998’s “The Truman Show”), who just so happens to work in counterintelligence.
This seems almost a little too convenient and awkwardly shoehorned into the plot, but I’ll let it slide for now, because it works pretty perfectly with the tone of suburban darkness the episode has been building. (It also leads to some excellent nervous laughter from Phil when he hears that Stan chases down Russian spies for a living. Those Russians…they’re the worst, right? Good thing we’re all Americans here! Heh heh…heh.) I get the feeling that things being neither as perfect nor as bad as they appear is going to be a major theme of this show. The Jenningses are not monsters, but they’re still working toward the downfall of the U.S. government; similarly, their new neighbor Stan seems like a decent, intelligent guy who is just doing his job. This first episode so far shows a nice balance between the two sides: the America we are shown is not a craven 1980s cesspool of consumerism and greed, but Phil and Elizabeth don’t seem to be particularly evil, either; they just want to stop U.S. nukes and prevent the Cold War from getting any hotter.
Seeing Phil and Elizabeth with their kids gives us a glimpse of their everyday life: book reports (about how the Russians are cheaters! Elizabeth is not happy about this), ice cream, and the mall. They sincerely love their children, and have a lot of fun with them (Phil perhaps slightly more than Elizabeth, who never lets her steely guardedness drop for a minute). It’s the perfect lifestyle; they have a nice house, a white picket fence, a cool rental car, some excellent ‘80s jeans, and just a few little secrets, like a guy tied up in the trunk of their car, or the fact that Phil meeting with a “client” is actually him putting on a wig and pumping an FBI secretary for information while posing as a counterintelligence officer looking for leaks in FBI headquarters.
This all sounds like it could easily get melodramatic, but it never does. Russell’s and Rhys’s understated, no-nonsense performances keep everything tensely controlled, and as the plot unfurls, so too do the more subtle sides of each character. When we see Phil and Elizabeth confront things like their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) growing up too quickly and wearing short skirts, we know they are sincerely concerned about her. Phil, on a trip with Paige to the mall, externalizes this concern by acting like the typical goofy dad, trying to amuse his thirteen-year-old daughter in the same ways he probably did when she was little. When a man at the mall makes a lewd remark about her, however, it is abundantly clear that Phil is not just a goofy dad; at some point in the very near future, Phil is going to hurt this man and hurt him good. Elizabeth may seem ruthless in her objective to fulfill the mission, but Phil can also be ruthless when it comes to the people he loves, as we see when he finally finds out what the captain did to his wife.
For her part, Elizabeth displays the necessity of detachment. What seemed like coldness at the beginning of the episode is revealed to be guardedness on the part of a woman who was not only raped by a senior officer, but was then expected to marry a stranger, bear his children in order to further their false identities, and then engage in casual sex in hotel rooms to get information from American agents. When Phil touches her neck and she immediately tenses up, we understand.
The premiere races by; I didn’t even realize it was a full hour and a half until it was already over. A few rough spots stick out, like FBI neighbor Stan, the fact that Rob’s corpse has mysteriously drawn the attention of the FBI (because he has no ID, so therefore he’s either a KGB agent or a drifter – I guess FBI policy is that an unidentified corpse can’t possibly be anything but one of those two things), and the scene where even though Phil knows the FBI is looking for a gold 1977 Oldsmobile, he brings Stan right inside his garage, where the gold 1977 Oldsmobile he and Elizabeth used to kidnap the KGB defector is parked with the guy still tied up in the trunk. Is this outright stupidity in order to manufacture false tension or a subconscious desire of Phil’s to get caught? I hope it’s the latter, but at this point, there’s no telling. Aside from these few bumps in the road, however, writer and creator Joe Weisburg keeps a tight handle on the action, giving the viewer just enough information to keep them hooked but never enough to be overly expository. Like Phil and Elizabeth, who each know nothing about the other’s former life, we’re still in the dark about many aspects of where these characters are coming from. Did Phil always feel this lackadaisical about the socialist agenda? Is Elizabeth’s loyalty to Russia irrevocably tied to her dead father? Are her developing feelings for her husband real? (My money is on yes to that last one.) I’m excited to see how this all plays out over the remaining twelve episodes; if the show keeps up this balance of darkness and subtlety, we’re in for a great season.