One of the most riveting dramas on television returns for its second season on Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 10 p.m. on FX, and if you haven’t heard about “The Americans,” it’s high time that you joined the fan base of this terrific series. Here’s the scene.
It’s 1981, and Reagan has just begun his first term as president. The cold war is in full swing, and our story revolves around Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings, who live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., with their two children, 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Phillip and Elizabeth run a travel agency, and they live in a very nice house. Just a typical American family, right? Wrong!
Phillip’s real name is Mischa, and Elizabeth’s true identity is Nadezhda. Both of them were born in the Soviet Union, and they became husband and wife as the result of an arranged marriage in the 1960s. Unbeknownst to their children, they are members of the KGB charged with infiltrating the U.S. Government. Of course the success of their mission depends upon their preserving the false façade of their lives at all costs, and just to make things more intriguing, the show’s creators had an FBI Counter-Intelligence Agent named Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move in next door.
“The Americans” is the brainchild of Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg, who served as a CIA agent from 1990 to 1994. Because of his affiliation with the agency, any script Weisberg writes must first have the approval of the CIA Publications Review Board. During a recent online interview with Ryan Sandoval, Weisberg explained the difference between bringing the first and second seasons to television.
“Well, the first season was pretty tough. Getting the whole thing off the ground. Putting the pieces (together) and really figuring out what the show was going to be. That’s awfully hard and awfully complicated — figuring out as you go and then refiguring it out. Going into the second season felt very different. It felt like we had a pretty good sense of what the show was when we started out. And when Joel and I started doing what we do — which is taking long walks at the beginning of the season to plot out the stories and figure out where the characters were going — we were fortunate to get into a nice creative zone right away so things just had a flow this season that they didn’t have the first season. It just has felt good all season long.”
Despite whatever difficulties the creators had to overcome, the first season of the show was rife with intrigue, suspense, action, and plenty of unpredictable twists. One of the major conflicts in the story is the complex relationship between Phillip and Elizabeth. Even though their marriage is based on a sham, they really begin to care for each other, but Elizabeth is much more loyal to Russia than Phillip is. In fact, on several occasions he reveals he would be perfectly happy to defect and spend the rest of his life in the United States. Elizabeth, on other hand, steadfastly maintains a fierce loyalty to her native country.
If constantly keeping their identities a secret doesn’t put enough pressure on their marriage, Phillip and Elizabeth must be willing to do everything from committing adultery and murder to inflicting torture in order to carry out their assignment. At one point Phillip even must enter into a bogus marriage with a secretary, and as Weisberg points out, this segment was based upon reality.
“This really happened historically. The KGB had their illegals [deep-cover agents] marry secretaries and proceed to gather intel. That’s about as sick and twisted a thing as I’ve heard in the world of intelligence, and Philip beginning another fake marriage with Martha fits beautifully into our story.”
In addition to the intricate plot what makes this series so good is how Rhys and Russell succeed so well at making us really care about Phillip and Elizabeth. Even though they are Russian spies, we want them to find happiness as a couple and provide their children with a good home. Also, despite living next door to an FBI agent who works to expose “Russian sleeper agents” like Phillip and Elizabeth, we don’t want him to find out who they really are.
Rhys and Russell have an outstanding chemistry, and their superb acting abilities allow them to vacillate between portraying two loving and caring parents who want the best for their children and a couple of hardcore spies who would kill their own grandmothers if they were ordered to do so. In speaking about casting the series, Weisberg explained why Rhys was perfect for the part of Phillip.
“This is not an easy part. This character has to be a dedicated KGB officer. He has to be a killer — just able to ruthlessly kill people when necessary. Then he has to be able to turn around and be a loving, warm father. We had to find somebody who could really make that believable. It’s not some actor doing it on TV; it’s a real person. And that was not an easy thing to find.”
In an online interview with Craig McClean of The Telegraph, Rhys explained why the relationship between Phillip and Elizabeth attracted him to the series.
“That was the greater attraction for me, the relationship. When I first read the script, I just thought, this is insane. I’ve never seen a relationship like this: an arranged marriage where, when we meet Philip and Elizabeth, the boundaries are blurring, in the fog of this ridiculous duplicity of lies — the extremity they have to live in, then balancing that with the domestic tension. It was that multi-layered aspect of it that grabbed me. Then on top of that, you stick a spy thriller, a bit of action. So it’s got the lot.”
Russell also believes that the marital relationship is at the heart of the series as she expressed in an online interview with Christina Radish of Collider.
“When I read the script – and I read it multiple times before saying yes — what kept bubbling up to the surface, for me, is the relationship. That scene in the laundry room, where they’re really fighting, I know that they’re spies and that they’re fighting about these huge giant issues with Russia, but it’s the same fight every married couple has. It’s like, ‘Why can’t you fucking do it my way, for once? I want to do it this way!’ Everyone knows what that feels like. That is called having a roommate. It’s about being in this relationship and having these kids. That’s when it’s the best to me, at its heart. It’s couched in the spy world, which elevates the stakes. That’s wonderful. I remember J.J. Abrams and Matt [Reeves], who created ‘Felicity,’ would come up with story ideas and be like, ‘Can’t she just be a spy? There are only so many tests you can be worried about failing!’ So, it elevates the stakes, but you’re still wondering how they’re going to survive it together. That’s what I care about. Is she going to turn him in because she cares so much about being true to herself? Can she compromise that which is so essential to her core? To me, it’s about the relationship. That’s the most relatable thing, and I hope that’s what continues. We’ll see.”
In addition to the fine performances by Rhys and Russell in the series, Emmerich is outstanding as the FBI agent, and Margo Martindale’s portrayal of Claudia, the Jennings’ KGB supervisor, is excellent.
Although not too much information about Season 2 is available, we do know that the Cold War will escalate when Russia discovers the United States is developing new technology in spying. Also at the end of last season we saw that Paige was beginning to suspect something strange going on with her parents.
I cannot recommend “The Americans” highly enough because it’s loaded with tension, romance, mystery, and surprises. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the show earns the final score of an ironically patriotic 10.
If you missed the first season, you can find summaries and episodes online, and if you have an Amazon prime account, the entire first season is available for streaming free. Treat yourself and spend a suspense-filled hour with the Jennings each week. You won’t regret it.