DVR Hindsight #6 (5/22/14): The Americans – season two, and finale

Americans 2

The Americans – “Echo” Season 2, Ep. 13 (FX)

Season two of The Americans exacted a heavy human toll. The damage was both concentrated and collateral, both highly precise and desperately messy, both pointedly patriotic and heartbreakingly pointless. Season two saw our proxies in the American FBI and Soviet Rezidentura escalate operations while simultaneously digging in their heels and steeling themselves against potentially deadly blowback. It began by embroiling its protagonists (and viewers) in a diabolical, highly personal murder mystery and ended with that mystery’s shocking solution. In the claustrophobic hours in between, the Jennings family scrambled for any vestige of security or stability while continuing to execute its increasingly difficult duties. Lives and careers hung in the balance, double lives became more brittle and ever harder to maintain, and each piece on the chess board began to take on the distinct appearance of a pawn. For all the many that died fighting or being manipulated as part of this tiny swath of the global Cold War, the survivors hardly emerged unscathed either.

It’s hard to imagine a show as multi-faceted and detail-driven as The Americans being a credible part of the television lineup during the period in which it is set. While Hollywood trafficked heavily in geopolitical and outright “spy” thrillers throughout the 1970s and ‘80s (even including some individual pieces after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR where it more or less openly mourned the loss of the genre’s “good old days”), the amount of access – to meeting sites out in the open or behind closed doors, to safe house interrogations, to the fraught politics of both bedrooms and back alleys – we as an audience are given here is fairly amazing, especially when weighed against the analog, comparatively prehistoric state of the technology being used by the show’s principals. Cold War spycraft wasn’t deadly by its nature alone. Operatives risked their lives just to receive a coded message, risked capture or assassination to pass one of their own, depended on pay phones instead of cell phones, lived by the skin of their teeth at seemingly all times.

The ubiquitous nature of telecommunications technology today is a useful prism through which to view the exploits of these Soviet spies on American soil. Jobs that could today conceivably be accomplished online in ten minutes become life and death struggles in the time back before American households could conceptualize the “personal” computer, let alone an internet to connect its users worldwide*. The basic ins and outs of Cold War espionage would be plenty to sustain a show with less ambition, but by seeing beyond a merely sensational premise – Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, homegrown and indoctrinated true believers, are inserted by Moscow into Northern Virginia as spies, where the cover story of their family becomes all too real and threatens to divide and redirect their loyalties at the height of the Cold War – and actually digging deep into these characters, delving into complex dealings not just at ground level but in command centers on both sides, and treating the Jennings marriage and family with equal if not greater care than the plot that threads it, The Americans wages a thrilling, multi-front operation and succeeds on almost every count.

* 1982 is a fertile setting for a television drama, retaining a sort of nostalgic glow even as so many of its realities feel alien in the portable information age. Among the many virtues of “The Americans” are its general mastery of the period – realistic and clever without being showy – and occasional perfectly calibrated musical set pieces. At the beginning of “Echo”, when the Jennings are urgently navigating back streets past a parade of flashing, blaring police cars in an attempt to intercept a wounded asset’s precious cargo, the Golden Earring classic “Twilight Zone” plays in the background as a sort of cool but ominous signifier. My smile widened and my ears perked up immediately.

The Americans has done as well as any show in recent memory at laying effective ground work, and establishing characters, relationships and stakes that would come to a boil in later episodes, if not subsequent seasons. Last night’s season two finale, with its satisfying but difficult multiple payoffs, last minute revelations and queasy, uncertain aftermath, was only the most recent example. This is job #1 of any showrunner on a serial drama, of course, but creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent, and executive producer Joel Fields deserve recognition nonetheless. Season one mostly eschewed large scale spycraft and wisely focused on the Jennings’ marriage and tenuous interpersonal relationship, which, given its state-sanctioned, shotgun origins and heavily manipulated day-to-day existence, was a live wire at all times. Keri Russell, the fresh-faced ’90s “that girl” best known for her starring role on Felicity, initially played Elizabeth Jennings against type, or at least against expectations, as a steely-eyed keeper of the nationalistic Soviet flame, a woman who has lived as long as she has by clearly prioritizing duty over family, a wife who openly questions her husband’s motives. Matthew Rhys, a tightly coiled Welsh actor previously unknown to me, plays Philip Jennings as a soldier, dead-eyed but heart a-flutter, who questions his own motives, and doesn’t quite know what to make of his shadow life, juxtaposed as it is against the undeniable rewards of family and a faint but powerful taste of the American Dream he is supposed to despise.

Both performances are absorbing, lived in, and absolutely electric, and part of the genius of The Americans lies in how deep these interpretations have remained as the potentially stock characters they inhabit have been allowed to evolve over time into a far more cohesive family unit – albeit one up to its neck in treasonous espionage – full of doubt and determination and even some semblance of love. That doubt edged over into terror early in season two when the Jennings’ best friends, a married couple of fellow spies, was executed in a hotel room along with its teenaged daughter, a shocking last minute reveal that crawled into the Jennings’ collective consciousness and turned the season on its head right from the start. Philip and Elizabeth, galvanized into a married unit by the emotional gauntlet of season one, now have good reason to fear for their safety of their young family, and their beautifully played discomfort at the reality of a drastically altered landscape and rule set is the engine that drives the season. The search for the couple’s killer and care of their surviving son was also complicated by the introduction of a new handler, several new potential assets to manage (one to seduce, one to intimidate, one to reason with, one to kidnap), the return of a betrayed asset hell bent on revenge, and the Soviet Rezidentura’s determination to turn the balance of power by securing the secrets of Stealth flight technology as it is first being developed.

The Americans also has a bit of genius in common with The Wire, which is its steadfast refusal, in the face of a clearly defined war, to ever choose sides. Instead, like the unending struggle between Baltimore PD and the Barksdale then Stanfield-led inner city drug trade, it dives deep into the thought processes fueling the conflict, as the FBI and Rezidentura clamor to gain advantage in a perpetual game of oneupsmanship. Every participant here has recognizable motivations, aspirations and weaknesses, hard choices to make, and difficult consequences looming. Plenty of people face the wrong end of a gun on The Americans, but rarely are they ever traditional cannon fodder. Even comparative bit players – like the Cuban revolutionary who lets passion tragically override her mission, or the aforementioned rouge asset whose quest for revenge puts an implacable face on the season’s ultimate stakes – are allowed to live and breathe instead of merely existing as plot mechanisms onscreen.

One of season one’s prominent arcs was the story of the shifting relationship between FBI agent and Jennings neighbor Stan Beeman (an existentially fragmented Noah Emmerich) and resourceful Rezidentura clerk Nina Sergeevna, who he converts into an FBI asset only to develop deep feelings that might jeopardize national security. By the end of season two, Stan and Nina’s relationship has taken several increasingly dire turns. He is now hopelessly in love and she is a double agent, leveraged by the Soviets to force him to reveal Stealth secrets in exchange for her freedom. Stan’s impossible predicament and Nina’s mirror one another. Stan must betray his country or lose the woman he loves. Though Nina never fully shows her cards, it’s hard to imagine she has no feelings for Stan, though she has started a concurrent affair with a high-ranking Soviet official. She may conning multiple people at the same time. The show, to its credit, leaves that to its audience to decide. Regardless, Stan must come through, or Nina will be deported to answer for her initial offenses (and for aiding the FBI), and, upon arrival, possibly killed. On a show that, by its nature, must tell at least as much as it shows, the turmoil on the faces of Emmerich and Annet Mahendru as zero hour approaches starkly reveal more than a hundred lines of exposition ever could.

I notice I haven’t gone very far into specifics on the various endgames played out during “Echo”, and I realize now it was by design. If I’m subconsciously attempting to avoid spoilers, it’s because I so value what this show is able to accomplish, and think that its many surprises should be left for its viewers to discover. Indeed, the ending of “Echo” barely qualifies as any kind of end at all. Philip and Elizabeth, who have suddenly both dispatched a mortal threat and discovered the original killer’s identity, sit listening to his dying confession wearing a mixture of weariness, shock, resignation, revulsion and despair. In a later scene, Philip meets with the head of the Rezidentura for the first time ever, and brazenly dictates new terms to his boss, then spends a nervous night with his wife, waiting for the next shoe to drop. On The Americans, one of a handful of the very best shows on television, the end is never the end, merely a transition, into a new season of fascinating shadow craft and harrowing human toll. If the show is honest enough to not position its protagonists as anything close to heroes, it still makes them imminently relatable, in all the fears which seem destined to trump their hopes, and in their determination to keep their children from reaping the consequences of the life they were born into.

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