The espionage genre feels a bit like the murder mystery genre. Netflix has a prequel to Inspector Morse on instant streaming called Endeavor so I have been watching the original series. Inspector Morse works due to the interesting, well-conceived and believable characters and in the way all mysteries work in that as a viewer you are on the lookout for the little detail that gives away the murder.
The Americans stars Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) as Soviet spies living as all American suburbanites in 1982 and FBI neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) are excellent co-protaganists and so are the supporting cast. From season one, Elizabeth is shown to be more gung-ho in service to the Soviet cause but with an undercurrent of fear or pain. This was shown through a storyline of Elizabeth being abused by her KGB training officer; the abuse did not impact her patriotism to Mother Russia but she did get revenge on the training officer, an act of subordination and a rare emotional outburst as her emotions are generally below the surface, or right at the surface in times of turmoil. Phillip is more friendly, connects better with their two kids and has been more devoted to Elizabeth than vice versa, in reverse of typical gender characteristics. Phillip seems more receptive to America, but has a resolve to be a dutiful spy that is a part of his devotion to Elizabeth. Normally seeking a nonviolent solution to conflict, he ruthlessly dispatches the abusive KGB training officer, an action that is a bloody valentine to Elizabeth and the first sign we see of her feelings for Phillip.
Last season Phillip and Elizabeth had wild swings in their relationship with each other. This is plausible in terms of the sexuality with strangers required by the job, the fact they were thrown together as part of their assignment rather than a progression of feeling in a relationship and the lies and deceptions of being a spy bleed into everything. The frequent swings did mean viewers could feel the show was covering the same ground repeatedly. This season it seems like the relationship is more mature; Phillip and Elizabeth are coming together after a separation but they feel like they are aware of the challenges and are more accepting of them, they share a love of their children and they even share a bit of post-assignment stress-relieving 69 hanky panky. Where last year Phillips seduction of and eventual fake marriage to the secretary of the FBI director was flashpoint, this episode Phillips offers to skip the planned meeting with the fake wife and Elizabeth say to keep the meeting, as it could lead to intelligence that might mean the safety of their children and themselves.
More challenging than their relationship is the dangers faced from an unknown threat who has taken out a fellow, undercover KGB couple and their kids during the pilot and threats from within from their kids finding out about the spy gear in their parents closet. Where last season Elizabeth’s fear took the form of an abusive training officer, this year we see her fright at nearly running into a doe and 2 baby deer with he car and then of course that fear is mirrored when the fellow undercover KGB couple are found dead in their hotel room. Parents often react with fright when they lose sight of their kids at an amusement park and viewers can remember similar real life experiences as Phillip and Elizabeth rush to find their own kids, Elizabeth being particularly chilled to see her daughter wearing the carnival face paint see just saw on the face of the dead daughter of the KGB couple.
The aspect of the episode that felt like I was watching a mystery came in the Stan Beeman story line. Last season an American leak to Elizabeth informed to the FBI about the Jennings. Based on the informer’s weak physical description (Phillip and Elizabeth have mad, wig skills) and a suspicion that his motivation is the sizable reward to pay off his gambling debts, the FBI do not trust the intel although Stan feels there is truth there. As I was watching this, my thought was the best thing the Russians could do to cast doubts on the guy would be to do nothing. Unfortunately, the informer also gave up a high level defense contractor and the informer is shot outside the home of the contractor for acting crazy. Stan and his boss (John Boy from ‘The Waltons’) now are more inclined to believe the defector than when he was alive.
Overall, a very compelling episode with the kind of adrenaline created from good action and characters that you care about and find believable. Extra points go to the 80s references that are not overdone, a carryover from season one. ‘The Americans’ looks to be the show I will look forward to seeing most each week, even when ‘Mad Men’ starts back. ‘Mad Men’ in its final season is finishing out the compelling stories of interesting characters while season two of ‘The Americans’ is telling compelling stories with increasing confidence and with the freedom to go a lot of directions as a show early in its run.