The Americans: “Pilot” Recap
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star in FX’s excellent new Cold War-era drama about your average, everyday suburban KGB sleeper agents living next door.
Creator Joel Wiesberg has created something vibrant and unique here, full of tension and emotion that one wouldn’t expect to be mined from this point in espionage history. And now that we all have sufficient distance from the events of the early ’80s, we can look back with objective eyes and empathize with people who used to be painted as the enemy. Not that everyone viewed America’s dangerous and irresponsible international chess game with the Soviet Union in such a cut and dry manner, but that’s certainly what modern history books choose to reflect.
Russell and Rhys play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, two Soviet spies who have been living in the United States for over a decade, fully assimilated to American life, never having been allowed to speak in their native tongue for even a single, short sentence. And now, after a long marriage, that was originally arranged by their government, they have two full-blooded American kids who have no idea that their parents are spies for Russia. Also complicating their spousal relationship is the fact that, as spies, they often have to, um, coerce their targets using any means at their disposal. And in this pilot episode, it’s Elizabeth who’s doing the seducing while Phillip, unbeknownst to her, listens later on to the recordings of her sexcapade.
It’s also Keri Russell’s Elizabeth who does a ton of ass-kicking in this one; at one point striking revenge against her former rapist by kicking his head through a garage wall. The choice to make Russell’s character the hardliner, the one who doesn’t question her orders no matter how much America has provided her, is bold and exciting. It’s Phillip who has doubts. It’s Phillip who thinks of their children and the day when they might be captured. And their mission in this first episode – the retrieval of a high-ranking defector – makes Phillip wonder if they too should defect and cash in on their secrets. So it’s the husband who’s got the maternal instincts here while the mother would die for the cause.
Which makes the choice Phillip makes in the end, after having listened to Elizabeth tell her mark, a Department of Justice stooge, that he wasn’t manly enough in the sack, all the more transformative. After learning the truth about Elizabeth and their captive, he snaps and uses his maternal rage, his protective instincts, to kill the man. And, like clockwork, that turns her on. Not just his sudden strength, but his support for her. And speaking of Phillip losing it, more of his mama bear ferocity reared up when he donned a wig and kicked the absolute crap out of a guy who’d made an off-color remark about his daughter’s choice of attire. So even though he has his doubts, he’s still a man of action. Just a patient man of action. He was also ready to drop his FBI Agent neighbor too when it looked like he was getting too close.
There are a few moments in the pilot that don’t fit smoothly. The use of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” evokes too many other TV and film projects to be effective, even if it is of the era. And the TV-ish choice to have Noah Emmerich’s red, white and blue-blooded counterintelligence agent, Stan Beeman, move in right across the street from the Jennings felt choppy and gimmick-y. Although, to give Beeman credit, he suspects something is up with the Jennings right away, invading their garage with the hopes of uncovering dirt. I’m sure it’ll lead to many a tense situation down the line, but for right now it feels fairly “log line”-y. Emmerich himself though does a great job of showing us a patriot who’s not offensively intolerant or boorish. He’s relatable as well even though his priorities are out-dated. He even seems to have a convention-defying stable marriage.
Overall though, The Americans is a taut and evocative thriller, showing us the many layers of lies and emotions involved in living two, even three, different lives. It’s high concept, but it feels sharp and grounded
Follow Matt Fowler on Twitter at @TheMattFowler