Nothing about “The Americans” is as it should be.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings live in a peaceful neighborhood in suburban Virginia, and they’re at war with the FBI agent across the street. The heroes are in the KBG; the enemy is the United States. The war is supposed to be cold, but three minutes into last year’s pilot episode, there’s already a body count. No one is who they say they are. The married couple at the center of the show isn’t really married. The Americans of the title aren’t really American. Every story is a cover. Every promise is a lie.
“The Americans” takes place in the 1980s, but it might as well be yesterday. The sneaking feeling that everyone is spinning a story instead of telling the truth on every résumé and online dating profile, that suspicion that a husband or a wife – or a parent or a child – is not the person they seemed to be or the person they were when you met, that unnerving sense that security is an illusion, that nowhere is safe from an enemy who could be setting up shop in the back yard: modern anxieties all, explored on TV in an analog, action-driven drama.
“What’s evocative about the premise of the show, part of what’s exciting to us creatively, is that idea that we’re all spies in our own lives,” said executive producer Joel Fields. “And ultimately we have to make a choice to live in trust with other people.”
Philip and Elizabeth, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, are Soviet spies whose fake marriage was arranged by the KGB. Their two American children think mom and dad work at a travel agency. Elizabeth, communist to the marrow, is devoted to Mother Russia above all. (Typical dialogue: “I would go to jail. I would die. I would do anything before I would betray my country.”) Philip, grateful for the comforts and security American life provides, is leaning toward defection.
“The Americans” is a marriage story dressed up as a spy flick, with espionage work, and all the secrecy and deception it entails, standing in for the issues we grapple with in real relationships.
“You can choose between safety and risk with your heart and with your life,” Fields said. “If you want to be really super-safe from hurt, the best way to do it is to never engage with anybody else emotionally. If you want to live with emotion, heart” – at this, his voice drops low – “you’ve got to expose yourself.”
But how willing are any of us to take that risk, even with our loved ones? Or, as “The Americans” challenges us to ask: Are we ever really close to the people closest to us?
“The Americans” is set in the early 1980s, when Intellivision was the hottest new thing in video game technology and the KGB touched based with agents in the field using radio signals and Morse code.
The real power of the setting is how it places the show in a cultural moment when it felt like the world could blow up at any moment.
“There was a real feeling that we were in a war,” Fields said. “And it was cold, but only because if it got hot, which was inevitable, we were all going to die in a nuclear thermoholocaust.”
“We live today with a low buzz of terrorist threat,” said Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman. But during the Reagan administration, “it was a more profound threat of global annihilation — that there were two hands on two triggers, and both had the power to create worldwide destruction. And that was a quite intense, unsettling time.”
“The Americans” is part of the second “Golden Age” of television, and one of the ways this new class betters its formers is by embedding complicated female characters in the heart of the action. It’s a pretty thrilling change of pace from the typical “wife left in the dark” roles that were often the weak spots in otherwise excellent dramas. Elizabeth – like Claire Underwood on “House of Cards” and Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” – is as brutal as every guy on screen, the clear winner of “most likely to pummel someone’s face into pulp.”
A spoiler-free Season 2 preview: The focus is expanding, from the United States and the Soviet Union to Afghanistan and Nicaragua, from marriage to family. You may have not thought this was possible, but the sex gets even more graphic. Russell and Rhys raised concerns about one scene in particular – you’ll know it when you see it – but were overruled.
Philip and Elizabeth also have to reckon with the fact that their children, born and raised in the United States, aren’t copies of their communist parents. Early in Season 2, daughter Paige rebels in the most adorable, all-American way imaginable, and Elizabeth’s reaction is bananas.
All is not well, really, with anyone. As for Stan, “his world is sort of falling apart,” says Emmerich. And Philip, said Rhys, has no choice but to lie to his family. “I have to at this point. I’m entrenched.” A horrific event in the season premiere sends even the usually steely-eyed Elizabeth into a tailspin.