THE AMERICANS: “Our war is not so cold anymore.”
Last Wednesday marked the premiere of FX’s new Cold War era spy drama, The Americans. If you have yet to watch it, you can view the pilot on FX’s site or Hulu. I love a good period drama, and The Americans promises to be just that. Set in the 1981, and complete with 1960s flashbacks to boot, the pilot had a distinctive look and feel. This 1981 was not the bubbly 80s of popular culture memory (although Keri Russell was rocking some high-waisted Guess jeans). No, this was the Cold War 80s, filled with paranoia and profound ideological conflict. The stark coloring and lighting contributed to a gritty and depressing tone, which was interestingly counterbalanced with poppy music like Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” and Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” Similarly, the high-stakes spy mission at the center of the pilot was counterbalanced by the surrounding American suburban “normalcy.”
At the same time, The Americans is far more than window dressing. The pilot was disturbing and intriguing, featuring conflicted characters and complex relationships. This is no predictable spy drama, and aside from Keri Russell’s opening wig, it avoids campiness. It is not a slick drama. There were no fancy surveillance toys, and the job feels more dirty and exhausting than glamorous. This is not a spy show that makes you want to be a spy. (This is quite a feat, since “spy” is my number 3 dream job, after “vampire slayer” and “professional wine and pie taster.”) Fair warning: this is an adult show, and it earns its “MA” warning. I will reiterate that it is disturbing, and many of the scenes left me shocked, saddened, and/or disgusted. At the same time, I was entertained, and there were certainly lighter and more charming moments, which I will discuss further on. I’m not sure if The Americans will develop into a great show, but it certainly starts out from an incredibly fascinating place.
At the center of the drama is married couple Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, respectively. Both lead actors are incredible here and have a lot to do. The central conceit is that they are Soviet agents, brought together by the KGB to pose as married Americans and spy on the U.S. government from inside D.C. suburbia. In 1962, “Elizabeth” and “Phillip” were given new identities by their Russian superiors, and instructed to reveal nothing about their past lives to each other. A major theme of the pilot was the state of this constructed marriage. How real is it? After being paired off together for 19 years, including 16 in the U.S., and raising 2 children together, how connected are Elizabeth and Phillip? Keep reading only if you’ve seen the episode, as spoilers follow.
Russell’s Elizabeth comes off as cold and distant from her husband, while Rhys’s Phillip seems to deeply care for his wife, and desire a closer connection. Yet as the pilot goes on, we learn why Elizabeth might be so distant, as she suffered a violent sexual assault during her cadet training. In fact, Timochev, the KGB defector whom the couple captured at the start of the episode, was her rapist. Killing Timochev and disposing of his body brings the couple closer—nothing like pouring acid on a corpse to spark the libido, I guess—and they share a pretty hot love scene. Ultimately, the drama builds up to a moment where she stands up for her husband’s trustworthiness to a KGB general, putting her reputation on the line to protect a man who very recently suggested that they betray the motherland in exchange for millions of dollars and the American dream. Elizabeth—who previously claimed “I would lose everything before I would betray my country!”—now must lie to her superiors. Possibly in the name of love? And finally, this serial rule-follower breaks the rules and tells Phillip her previous name—the one she was born with. It seems that the Jennings may be actual husband and wife after all, though I’m sure that won’t make their relationship any less complicated.
And of course, let’s not forget another highlight of The Americans: Felicity gets to kick butt. Or, more accurately, she gets to kick a face into a wall. And then some. There is certainly some long-earned humor in Keri Russell playing a spy. As many of you probably know, J.J. Abrams famously developed Alias out of the idea of “What if Felicity were a spy?” When breaking story on Felicity became tricky, he reportedly mused about how much easier it would be if she could be an international woman of mystery, with exciting missions in exotic locales. For my part, I found it incredibly satisfying to see the girl who used to cry over Ben and Noel, and freak out over midterms, beat up a dirt bag in such a convincing manner. And yes, her hair looks fabulous, in case you were wondering.
In addition to the fun action scenes, Elizabeth is a well-drawn character with a complicated history and interior life. She’s deeply committed to the political ideals of her homeland. She trained for years for this mission, and will do anything, including perform oral sex on an FBI agent (and other things I won’t include here), to get the necessary results. She puts on a leather bustier and blonde wig to get the job done, but her resemblance to Sydney Bristow stops there. This is not PG rated espionage. Watching the flashback scene featuring Elizabeth’s rape, and then the moment where she faces her attacker, 21 years later, was gut-wrenching. Well played, Keri Russell. The tension of the scene where she was left home alone with Timochev, holding that knife, was harrowing. What would Elizabeth decide? The fact that this scene was followed by her making plans to meet the new next-door neighbors, and using the knife to cut brownies? Wow. My poor nerves.
As for Matthew Rhys, I hope this series makes him a huge star. Huge. I always loved his portrayal of Kevin in Brothers and Sisters, but The Americans really gives him the opportunity to shine. He brings a sweetness and emotional depth to the series, along with some lightness and humor. Right from the get-go he is established as being less rigid in following orders than his wife, sacrificing the mission in order to get his injured comrade close to a hospital. He may be a Soviet spy, but he cares! And when Phillip tries on the black cowboy boots in the department store and does a little western dance in front of the mirror? Priceless. There is a certain element of boyish wonder in Rhys’s performance, where you can see a longing for the America that he is ostensibly fighting against. He has bought into the promise of happiness and prosperity, despite his upbringing, training, and oaths of loyalty.
In the scene where Phillip enjoys ice-cream with his family, for example, you can just see how much he loves them, and how much he wants his cover life to be his real life. Later, he says to his wife, “Look, maybe this is an opportunity. Maybe this is the perfect time for us just to think about living the life we’ve been living, but just really living it—just being us.” He elaborates, “I’m also saying we are Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings. We have been for a long time.” While Elizabeth thinks this idea is crazy, I was completely sold. I will defect from the motherland with you, Matthew Rhys. Any. Time. And I would totally let you build a secret underground chamber in the basement that doubles as a wine cellar. (Oh and in case any of you want to hear Matthew Rhys speak in his real-life Welsh accent, here you go.)
I watched the pilot with my mom, and after explaining the premise, she asked, “So, they’re bad guys?” KGB agents hiding in U.S. suburbia are not typically the heroes (or anti-heroes, as the case may be) in American film and television. I found it to be an interesting choice to make the Soviet spies the main characters. It’s all about perspective after all, and it will be interesting to see how this is handled in future episodes. I can’t think of another American spy show that has featured foreign spies as the protagonists (if you can, let me know in the comments), so there’s no blueprint for how this will play out. But I can’t wait to see the story unfold! The second episode will air on Wednesday at 10pm on FX.
Photo Credit: FX.