If there was one thing that bothered me about The Americans‘ thrilling first season, it was that the show occasionally got so wrapped up in plot twists that it distanced us from the characters’ internal lives. I suspect that judgment says more about my subjective preferences for TV drama than the quality of the series itself, but either way, I was thrilled that the Season 2 premiere cut back on the intricate plotting to reintroduce us to Elizabeth, Philip, and their children.
Not that we didn’t get any action. After a jarring intro that shows Elizabeth leaving the cabin where she recovered from her gunshot wound only to narrowly avoid hitting a — heavy symbolism alert — family of deer with her car, we find Philip meeting with some Taliban types. The goofy costumes are back (he’s a cowboy!), and the Afghan militants talk to him about teaming up with their and the US’s “common enemy”: Russia. Of course, it ends with Phil shooting up the place. But for a scene that seems mostly meant to get us back into the swing of the spy game — well, and remind us that this couple we’re rooting for are perfectly capable of being cold-blooded Soviet killers — it also serves as a reminder of how drastically the international political landscape has changed over the past 35 years. And that’s a vital, if also kind of sneaky, theme of The Americans: the idea that there’s no “good” or “evil” in global conflict, just a whole lot of different motivations and points of view.
The Jenningses’ super-sexy reunion follows, but since the KGB doesn’t seem to value family time much, Elizabeth’s first night back in town finds her in a hotel bedroom with a white-blonde wig and another woman, straddling a Lockheed employee. It is, of course, a setup: Phil and another man bust in on the threesome, posing as American Air Force police (is that a thing?) and chiding the defense worker with the high security clearance for not realizing that these ladies wanted to steal information from him. By the end of the scene, he’s been duped into reporting weekly to KGB.
The point of this burst of action is to introduce us to Elizabeth and Philip’s accomplices, Emmett and Leanne, a parallel pair of KGB spies posing as a married couple with a son and daughter around the same ages as Henry and Paige. As they chat in the aftermath of their mission, it’s clear that on some level these hardened operatives still long for normal family lives. When we see both couples again, they’re at the fair with their kids and can’t publicly acknowledge that they know each other. But the look of longing that passes between Elizabeth and Leanne as the families walk by each other speaks volumes about what these characters can never have.
It’s clear as soon as we meet Emmett and Leanne that they’re meant to be a mirror for Elizabeth and Philip. So when our antiheroes walk into the family’s hotel room to find not only the couple but also their daughter shot dead, it’s no surprise. The Jenningses don’t seem to like to admit this to themselves (“We don’t use our children,” Phil tells Emmett at the fair, just before he gives in and agrees to bring Henry with him to execute a dead drop), but their careers don’t just endanger their own lives — they put their kids at great risk, too. The moment when Philip flees the scene of the slaughter as he watches Emmett and Leanne’s son approach the hotel room packs as much of an emotional punch as anything we’ve seen so far on the show.
The Americans is usually more subtle than all this, but there’s nothing wrong with sporadically throwing in a massive reality check. My prediction is that “Comrades” set the stakes for the season, and that we’ll see more nuanced variations on this theme of how Philip and Elizabeth’s double lives affect their family as we get deeper in. Now that their relationship seems stronger (and, let’s say what we mean, hotter) than ever and Paige looks to be on the verge of discovering who her parents really are (or at least what they like to do in bed), it’s time to finally bring the kids into focus.
This is all promising enough; what worries me is Stan’s storyline, which I think risks getting stale. First Sanford flips out when the FBI refuses to pay him for intel that didn’t pan out; soon enough, he’s dead at the colonel’s. I’m glad that’s over, although the update on Stan’s romance with Nina — to review, he thinks they’re in love, but she’s still spying on him for Arkady — didn’t do much for me, either. There’s a whole sequence in which he brings her a pirated copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and she interrogates him about whether the movie is supposed to be a commentary on their relationship. (She also throws some great shade at Meryl Streep.) “I thought it would move you,” Stan tells Nina, stupidly, a moment that underlines how little he understands about her.
It’s all supposed to pay off when he comes home and catches Sandra in a tender, forgiving mood. She invites him to the movies with her and her girlfriends, and I don’t think I even have to tell you what they end up seeing. When we last see Stan, he’s staring at the screen, verklempt as his pal in the pirated VHS vault told him any woman would be. I figure this means Stan and Sandra will end up repairing their relationship — which doesn’t look good for Nina. This seems like a smart-enough twist; the problem is that, after a full season, The Americans still hasn’t made me care about these people.
To return to a few characters (well, one character and one character’s character) I actually do care about, “Comrades” ends with Philip donning his Clarke wig and heading over to Martha’s. The show doesn’t try to pack any plot developments for this married faux-couple into the season premiere; instead, we hear Clarke complaining to his “wife” about the stresses of his career. Of course, the job is as fabricated as Clarke himself, but the more we see Phil with poor Martha, the clearer it is that he’s (likely unknowingly) drawing on his own problems and anxieties to flesh out the character he’s created. This is all pretty meta-fictional for a TV-MA rated FX series, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it. There’s an emotional truth to the scenes between Clarke and Martha that transcends the sham of their marriage and even the humiliating fact that he isn’t even a real person. On a show that loves to compare romantic relationships, I’d argue that this one is the most compelling of all.