From the start, The Americans felt like something special. Telling the story of two KGB spies posing as an suburban couple in 1981 America, the show had a compelling hook and an attention-getting star – Keri Russell as a Russian spy! Could it live up to expectations? The answer was a loud yes, as a great pilot episode announced this was a quality show right out of the gate.
Creator Joe Weisberg and his fellow executive producer, Joel Fields, deserve a lot of credit for so deftly juggling The Americans’ different elements so well. In other hands, The Americans could have collapsed or just come off goofy or outright ridiculous, as we followed Elizabeth (Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and saw their insane lives – running a travel agency as part of their cover, raising two kids (who they had in the first place in order to sell the lie) and, you know, going on various spy missions, complete with elaborate disguises, which often involve having sex with or killing various people.
But the scenario, as heightened as it was, felt genuine and engaging the vast majority of the time throughout the first season. It felt real and the Jennings were characters easy to invest in and care about – all the more notable given they are, ultimately, The Enemy, working against the United States.
An invaluable reason for this investment was, of course, thanks to the performances. Russell and Rhys are simply terrific in The Americans, playing two people who are asked to do the unthinkable time and again. She’s the hard-edged one; much more militant, much more strict. He is quicker to turn to sentiment or be affected by emotion. But both are very smart and very skilled and Russell and Rhys sold all of these qualities. We bought it when Elizabeth and Phillip were growing closer and sharing warm, genuine moments, while also believing these two could perform amazingly dangerous acts – and also be utterly deadly in a fight. It’s a tricky mix that not every actor could pull off so well.
A strong supporting cast surrounded them throughout the first season as well. Margo Martindale was predictably wonderful as the Jennings’ new handler, Claudia, bringing the same sort of unassuming ferocity she had on Justified. Martindale and Russell both went all out as Claudia and Elizabeth had increasingly angry conversations – which one time turned outright when Elizabeth assaulted Claudia. “Tell whoever approved this that your face is a present from me to them!” is still a standout moment.
Noah Emmerich brought exactly the right quiet intensity to his role as Stan, the FBI agent who seemed quite rational and thoughtful – but who clearly had seen some bad stuff in his time on the job (which hopefully we’ll learn more about in the future – including his time undercover with white supremacists). And Alison Wright and Annet Mahendru were both strong as Martha and Nina; two very different women whose similar scenarios, working in offices the KGB and FBI were targeting, led them to both be pulled into the Jennings’ and Stan’s plans.
Of course, Martha remained completely unaware of what was going on all season – a tragedy ready to happen, as she fell so hard for “Clark,” a man who doesn’t exist. Nina in the meantime was aware what had happened from the get go and her eventual decision to turn the tables on the man who had, in fact, forced her to become a double agent in the first place, made a lot of sense. I’m excited and nervous to see what happens for both Martha and Nina in Season 2, with both Mahendru and Wright promoted to series regular status.
The Americans moved fast – sometimes a bit too fast. It still seems like a bit of a waste to have Gregory (Derek Luke) killed so quickly, when their felt like a lot more could be done with the idea of this American who had been turned by Elizabeth and also become her true confidant and lover. It also seemed surprisingly early in the series to have Elizabeth and Phillip split from one another, since the fact that this was only Season 1 made their reconciliation feel like a certainty the entire time they were apart. Still, plenty of great drama did come from this situation and by the time Elizabeth asked Phillip, in Russian no less, “Come home,” it was very easy to feel genuine empathy and emotion for them…
…which is all the more impressive considering what we’ve seen them do. They’ve committed all sorts of crimes, including threatening to kill a college kid whose mother was important to their mission, and took out more than a few people along the way. All in service of defeating America. And let’s not forget that poor security guard Elizabeth killed in cold blood, when he nearly (unwittingly) stopped them. There’s no sugar coating that act. And yet, we know Elizabeth is no psychopathic killer. She killed that man because he was endangering their mission and Elizabeth is a loyalist through and through – determined to do what she thinks is for the greater good, which means following her country’s orders.
On the heels of Vic Mackey, Walter White and Tony Sorpano, The Americans offered a very different kind of anti-hero with the Jennings’, and especially with Elizabeth. If you’re an American, she is quite literally the enemy, given the era and scenario of this show. But she and Phillip are so fully formed as characters that we can still empathize with them and see their point of view. If viewers can be so involved with corrupt, murderous cops and drug dealing egomaniacs, this show asked why we couldn’t be invested in the story of a Russian spy determined to subvert the American way of life. And it proved, quickly, that we certainly could be, when offered characters this strong.
What was also great about The Americans was it made sure that in a world packed with spies, there was a level playing field. Characters rarely did dumb things just to move the plot along. Nina’s bosses noticed her questionable behavior and had her followed – and the FBI noticed she was being tailed and abruptly called off the meet. Sometimes attempts to assassinate or grab someone hit a snag, because the person begin targeted was well trained themself and able to fight back. Victories had to be earned.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of twists and turns and escalating tension, with the threat of the Jennings being found out a constant threat – one that also extended to Nina by the end. With Elizabeth’s contact in custody and her daughter now suspicious, there’s plenty to worry about next season and beyond… And at this point, how can you not be hooked?
Oh, and let’s not forget, the 80s music is awesome!