If anything held back The Americans’ crackerjack first season, it was a lack of stakes in the show’s various domestic settings. As Soviet spies in a sham marriage, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys put a novel spin on TV matrimony: Elizabeth and Philip Jennings were a couple who had trouble connecting because that connection was a fabrication of Cold War espionage. Theirs was a fake relationship, but it was more compelling than the genuine-yet-troubled marriage across the street or the tactical romance Philip maintained with a FBI secretary. And what about Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), the Jennings’ living, breathing liabilities who only started to get wise to mom and dad’s odd behavior near the end of season one? Creator Joe Weisberg and crew had their war zones nailed down—they just needed to introduce a true sense of danger on the home front.
The second season wastes no time on that count, beginning with a painful reminder of the risks the Jennings take everyday. Re-upping Philip and Elizabeth’s protective impulses introduces a new element of danger to their lives, one more threatening and immediate than Stan Beeman, friendly neighborhood counterintelligence operative (Noah Emmerich). The episodes that follow repeatedly emphasize those themes of family and loyalty, portraying an anxious night in with the kids or showing interludes from the second faux household Philip built within the Capital Beltway. Though Rhys’ character bears the brunt of the fears—they’re shoved in his face during a pair of hostage situations—they bring the most out of Russell. The actress still plays Elizabeth as an emotionally distant professional, but when that epic, Margo Martindale-leveling temper gets a hold of the character, there’s now a clearer motivation behind it.
There’s now a heightened impression that the main characters are penned in by their circumstances, but tightening that noose isn’t the best development for a series whose world can feel so small. Beyond the Jennings’ front yard, The Americans is still be a big tangle of plot: Stan’s affair with Nina (Annet Mahendru) continues apace, each convinced they can get the other to defect. And Philip’s shadow life with Martha has pulled Elizabeth into its orbit, meaning Russell and Rhys are now responsible for an additional identity separate from their characters’ day-to-day cover as the D.C. area’s most conspicuously worldly travel agents. Though the show occasionally threatens to spin out of its orbit, at least its leads are up to the task.
But even if the rest of The Americans was an unsalvageable mess, it’d still be worth watching for the story at its core. That’s the most promising aspect of The Americans’ choice to reinvest in the home: Rhys and Russell have tapped into a unique and exciting portrait of commitment, and it’s only growing stronger as the series goes on. It’s a high-wire version of a relationship that exists on practically every other scripted TV series, so it’s a bit of a letdown that the actors have to spend so much of the series separated by space and plot. The intensity of their scenes together is now transferring to their work with Taylor and Sellati, however, with Paige’s increased curiosity about her parents’ lives introducing another razor-edge dynamic to the Jennings residence.
Paige is just an average teen unknowingly surrounded by extraordinary circumstances, and The Americans is getting better at handling that blend. The character could unwittingly trip into Dana Brody territory at some point—but for now, most of what she’s going through is grounded in relatable adolescent searching. The series is at its most potent when it reframes the everyday in the context of the Cold War, like Philip comparing notes on home life with a Mossad operative or Elizabeth displaying a flash of vulnerability in front of a government-contracted dupe. (And then betraying that parental bond by turning it into a threat.) Other aspects of the show would do well to find this middle ground; they’re getting there in season two.
Still, the most succinct summary of everything the show does correctly is found at the end of the season’s fifth episode, “The Deal”: After the end of a very long, very harrowing night, Philip collapses on the living room couch with Elizabeth. It only takes two minutes of screen time for an alarm clock to pierce the intimacy, followed shortly by Paige’s call for a missing piece of laundry. “They’re up,” Elizabeth says. “Another day?” Philip responds. It’s incredible that The Americans can make such mundane weariness sound so thrilling.
Created by: Joe Weisberg
Starring: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Keidrich Sellati, Holly Taylor, Noah Emmerich
Returns: Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX
Format: Hour-long spy drama
Five season-two episodes watched for review