The Americans is an FX channel original series set in the 1980s about two Soviet agents deeply embedded in American society. The second season premiered on February 26th of this year and ran for 13 hour long episodes. The series stars Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings and Mathew Rhys as her "husband" Phillip Jennings.
While I did enjoy the first season of The Americans, at the time I didn't see a need to review it, as it sort of fell into my good but not great bin. To give a brief overview, the first season takes place in 1981 after Ronald Reagan has assumed the presidency of the United States. The Jennings family, who live in Washington DC, appear to be your average American family, but they are not. Parents Phillip and Elizabeth are actually a pair of Russian spies who work for the extremely secretive Directorate S branch of the KGB under the guise of US citizens. Their children, Paige and Henry, are their biological children but they know nothing of their parent's double lives. In the first season, we see their regular espionage routine begin to heat up as the Reagan administration begins to more aggressively fight the Cold War. On top of this, their new neighbor Stan Beeman is an FBI agent who is looking into rumors of a pair of Soviet agents posing as an American family (basically, Phil and Liz). We learn their regular routine and, over the course of the first season, watch it start to fray under the strain of increasing super power tensions.
As I have said numerous times before, sophomore seasons are always pretty treacherous territory, but The Americans proves to be more than up to the challenge. Season two opens with Elizabeth recovering from wounds received at the end of the previous season from an assignment that turned out to be a trap. Part of this recovery process is a family vacation with another embedded family similar to their own. Of course, they limit their direct interaction with one another for security reasons and rely on the mutual closeness to give each other support. This ultimately leads to tragedy when Phil, crossing paths with the couple's son, ends up responding to his screams after he enters his family's hotel room. It turns out that while the son was at the pool, someone murdered his parents and younger sister. This immediately ratchets up the tension for the season as Liz and Phil now have to discover how Directorate S security has been breached, while simultaneously protecting their own children. On top of this, they have their normal work assignments from the motherland, the first of which goes less than ideally, with the potential to compromise their cover. It also turns out that the Americans are now fighting back on the intelligence level when a supposedly secret set of plans for stealth submarine propellers turns out to be a deliberately planted set of fakes that sink the Soviet submarine they are tested on. Their major assignment, which takes us to the season finale, is to get information on the US secret Contra training program, which the Soviets hope to be able to use as political leverage against the US. And as if all this wasn't enough, their daughter Paige joins the then burgeoning Born Again Christian movement. While the mystery of who murdered the other Directorate S family is resolved, the revelation reveals a frightening new aspect of that particular operation, leaving one hell of a cliffhanger for season three.
What I love most about The Americans is how it takes the standard espionage story and turns it completely on its head. In the equally excellent FX series The Shield, while I liked Vic Mackey as a character, I was still able to separate myself enough from him to want to see justice catch up with him in the end. In this season of The Americans I found myself actually rooting for Phillip and Elizabeth, even though they are working to destroy the very country I live in. That counts as some pretty impressive writing and acting in my book. The tension level of the second season hits the ground running in the first episode and never lets up, as the agents are under attack from all sides, including potentially, their own leadership within the Directorate.
While I didn't appreciate it at the time, I was clearly sucked in by the story. This only became apparent to me at the season finale, which I had not thought was the finale because it felt like I had only watched about half of the number of the actual 13 episodes. When a story moves at this pace, that is exceptional writing. I really feel this series is going places and is something worth catching up to in time for season three.
By Nick Sauer