It’s fair to say that I’ve been speculating about The Americans rather than reviewing it for these first two episodes, which I think has been the right approach. The first two episodes of any serialized drama are all about potential—setting up the big picture and then showing us what a standard chapter in this story might look like. But episode three is where it becomes necessary to start grading the show primarily on the product it’s putting out rather than what it might eventually achieve. I guess this is my roundabout way of saying that the third episode’s grade was probably bound to drop anyway, but I want to be clear up front that I was really dissatisfied with “Gregory.”
The premise is promising enough. “Robert,” the Directorate S operative who died in the first episode (I think I called it “Directive S” last week, but surely that’s a forgivable error), had a secret family, and he left his wife instructions for contacting his fellow agents in the event that he should die in the field. Phillip and Elizabeth go to investigate, but because Robert’s been dead for two weeks, they decide to enlist a surveillance team for the meet-up. Enter Gregory, the handsome, weed-smoking, Elizabeth-lovin’, weirdly bohemian surveillance guy.
Look, I was ready to be sold on the Gregory plotline once it was revealed that Elizabeth had once considered leaving Phillip to be with him. It’s a valuable point because it further explains her extreme mentality in the pilot episode. We now know that when we first met Elizabeth, she was still committed to the notion of dying in a hail of bullets for The Cause—with her passionate, devoted lover at her side, it now seems—and it was clear that her “family” and “husband” would have to fend for themselves. The turning point for her, then, came when Phillip brutally killed Timochev in their garage. It kindled something between them that was fiercer and more adult than her longtime dalliance with Gregory, and Elizabeth seems to be drawn to that kind of intensity. Although she is reluctant to end what she has with Gregory, she ultimately calls it quits, cementing her renewed commitment to Phillip. Okay. Makes sense.
But this isn’t particularly revelatory. We already knew that Phillip’s throat-smash in the pilot made Elizabeth hot for some Phil Collins-soundtracked lovin’, and it was clear that she had doubled down on her marriage by the end of that episode. The issue of infidelity has also been touched upon already, with Elizabeth’s recon blowjob and Phillip’s Annalise troubles taking up disproportionate amounts of time in the first two episodes of the series. What, exactly, is Gregory’s presence supposed to highlight about the two main characters? All he does is piss off Phillip and fail to lure Elizabeth into an extraordinarily ill-advised relationship. His team of Philly surveillance guys is possibly going to play a role in future episodes, I guess, but besides that, I kind of felt like this episode tried way too hard to stress that this series is about both espionage and marriage. We get it already.
Which brings me to the largest flaw in the show thus far: its tendency toward overwrought scenes that state the obvious. I often have no problem overlooking clichés in television—I’m a huge fan of Lost, after all—but there is something grating about an otherwise understated show lingering on Elizabeth nervously fingering her wedding ring, or showing us Joyce’s “overdosed” corpse in a car at the end (I was getting some serious Goodfellas/”Layla” vibes while Roxy Music’s “Sunset” played over this closing montage) or having Phillip say to nobody at all after Stan leaves the racquetball room, “I’ll win any way I can.” I had hoped that by the third episode, the show would stop spelling things out so clearly, but this worrisome trend toward condescension persists. I’m beginning to have nightmares about the final scene of the series unfolding as follows:
We got you guys. We won. You lost.
But we worked so hard for Mother Russia! How could this have been the outcome? You monsters… Who do you think you are?
We are…the Americans.
HIGH ENOUGH by DAMN YANKEES plays over closing credits
It’s not that I’m particularly offended by the show spelling everything out in unnecessary detail. It’s more that The Americans has at times established a uniquely low-key tone for an espionage series thus far, and that tone is jeopardized whenever characters indulge in lengthy monologues or meaningful gazes. The show doesn’t have a breakout star to speak of at this point (although it seems to be gradually insisting that Keri Russell might be this person), and it has plenty of scenes that are effective because they avoid excessive theatrics. Take the nifty scene in which Gregory’s men whisk Joyce away to the safe house, or Phillip’s calm deciphering of Robert’s code while Gregory tries to be starting some drama in his face. These moments have a businesslike, kinetic energy, and the characters move with egalitarian anonymity across the set, which is a new kind of approach to an espionage/intrigue tale. I think it fits well with the premise of KGB agents working in deep cover in Reagan’s America, and the further they get from this aesthetic, the worse the show looks.
There’s still plenty of promise here, and I did like that they killed off Joyce and sent her baby to the Surface level from GoldenEye, but there are some troubling elements in this episode that will hopefully resolve themselves as we move forward. I remain optimistic.
: 1.5 (Phillip disguised as U2’s Edge counts as a half wig)
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.