Before I spend the rest of this review gushing about the excellent pilot episode of The Americans, I want to get my one complaint out of the way: I’m sick of shows centered on double lives. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Homeland, The Sopranos and Weeds have done their part to establish the modern template for a successful television series (Given Character is a normal, everyday __________, but unbeknownst to his ______________, he’s also a ________________!), and it’s beginning to get tiresome to watch a show strictly for the anxiety over whether the main characters will be caught doing whatever naughty things they like to secretly do. The Americans, a show about Soviet spies in deep cover in 1980s America, hews exactly to this formula, but it’s my hope that this show will be one of the last Great Shows about Double Lives, at least for a while.
Having said that, the first episode of The Americans is a perfectly executed pilot. Up front, the episode covers its bases by easing the viewer into its complex world, setting multiple long-term conflicts in motion, providing a gripping short-term conflict to hold the viewer’s attention, and delivering enough tiny details of character and setting for it to hold the viewer’s interest until the second installment. Independent of these factors, though, or perhaps as their sum, this episode seems to be introducing a series that holds so much goddamn promise. I haven’t been this excited about a series since the pilot of The Walking Dead (wet fart noise), which hopefully is where the parallels end for the two shows.
The series opens with Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart”—the lyrics of which are worth looking up—playing in a smoky bar while a foolish Important Government Man is conned into revealing his secrets by a great blow job from a Smart Spy Lady. We soon learn that the Smart Spy Lady is one half of a married couple, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who are actually Soviet agents that have been living in suburban America for nearly two decades. They’ve raised a family together, they have an unsuspecting daughter and a son in elementary school, and, with the exception of their regular espionage missions for a foreign government, they seem to be happily living the American Dream just outside Washington, D.C. Things go wrong, as they must, when Phillip and Elizabeth act upon intelligence suggesting a meeting between the Important Government Man and a wanted Soviet defector. In short order they find themselves with a three-million-dollar hostage in the trunk of their ’77 Oldsmobile, a total communication shutdown from Moscow, and, by pure coincidence, an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) moving in across the street. A spooked Phillip begins to consider the advantages of defection; Elizabeth is resolute in her loyalty to the Motherland.
Though it’s tempting to do so, I’d rather not blow hot, themey loads all over this first episode. The show’s central question—to whom do we ultimately owe our allegiance, and why?—is just one of many concepts that will surely be teased out over the course of individual episodes, and it will serve us best to let those notions sit until they can be fully addressed in future entries. Instead, I want to discuss the opportunities that The Americans is in a unique position to seize after this first episode.
First, there’s the setting and plot. Modern dramatic television hasn’t yet taken a serious interest in the ’80s or the Cold War, and this show has a chance to capture, critique, and ultimately define the era from a revisionist perspective in the way that Mad Men basically owns the Sixties now. I found myself unexpectedly immersed in Reagan’s America, with its high-waisted jeans and holdover ’70s technology and shitty Genesis songs. The Americans is the only series I can think of right now that offers a glimpse into this world, and it has the potential to pull in viewers simply by playing to their borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s, if you will.
There’s also the character of Elizabeth, who is already positioned to be one of the deepest female leads in television history. Elizabeth seems to be a better agent than Phillip, from her early-episode insistence that the mission comes before tending to a wounded comrade to her repeated kneejerk dismissals of Phillip’s argument for defection. She’s clearly an ice-cold killer who holds the upper hand in their domestic partnership, but it also seems that her armor will necessarily crack over time. In fact, the disintegration of her ironclad allegiance to the Motherland is already underway at the end of this episode, when she begins to tell Phillip about her life in Russia before she became “Elizabeth.” She’s beginning the process of binding her fate to that of her husband, who, though he’s fully committed to the cause now, has also shown reticence to jeopardize the lives they’ve built in America. Time will tell if her decision is final or wise, but I look forward to seeing her wrestle with it.
Finally, The Americans is a unique case in the sense that we know how this story ends. Eventually (say, seven or eight years from where we are now), the characters will find themselves on the losing side of history if they’re still working for Moscow. We know that things will gradually get worse, and the option of defection (assuming it remains on the table) will only become more and more tantalizing. Shows can sometimes struggle to negotiate this sort of predetermined endgame (see: The Walking Dead), but The Americans has enough built-in intrigue and “nascency of conflict,” to invent a phrase, to bring the story right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall if it wants. The kids are young, the wheels are just barely starting to fall off the cart, and Reagan hasn’t been able to refine his counterintelligence strategies quite yet. Thinking long-term, there’s a lot of potential for a graceful, calculated end to the series. That doesn’t really seem important to me now, though, because I’m so enthralled by the beginning.
Official Wig Count for This Episode:
John Bender is a Twitter anarchist with questionable opinions about celebrity lifestyles and the Lost finale. He edits erotic novels by day and works tirelessly by night to improve upon his personal record of 41.06 in the Mecha Marathon minigame in Mario Party 2. He also plays in Fitness.