Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Two!
After hearing rave reviews for The Americans for years, I was pleased to finally have a chance to watch season one a few months ago. I thought it was pretty great (click here for my review) and so didn’t waste too much time before moving on to season two. The continuing story of Philip and Elizabeth, Russian spies posing as a normal suburban American family in the 1980’s, remains twisty and thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable.
Season two of The Americans succeeds in addressing my main complaint about season one, which was the ups-and-downs of Philip and Elizabeth’s constantly shifting relationship. (In season one that relationship felt like a crazy pendulum, with Philip in love with Elizabeth but her hating him in one episode, and then in the next swinging around to Philip hating Elizabeth but her in love with him, and back and forth and back and forth.) Here in season two, there is still tension in the relationship (which makes sense, as a source of drama for the show), but it felt to me like it unfolded far more smoothly over the course of the season. It’s also fun, and interesting, to see Philip and Elizabeth in the type of real, emotionally-involved relationship that they both (at different times) seemed to want in season one. It’s a nice progression for these characters.
In this post Breaking Bad world, many shows have adopted that show’s groundbreakingly speedy way it burned through plot-lines. For years I was often frustrated how TV shows would generally stick to their status quo, long-past the point when it made sense based on all the stories that had come before. That’s not much of an issue for most TV shows today, and The Americans is one of the more successful examples of this. There’s not a lot of fat in this thirteen episode season. Events unfold fast and furious.
Even so, the show surprised me by how quickly the Nina Sergeevna/Stan Beeman story-line unraveled in the latter half of the season. I enjoyed the introduction of Oleg Igorevich Burov at the start of this season as a new challenge for Nina and, eventually, a third player in her complicated romantic relationships. Once he started blackmailing Stan, it felt like that brought new life to the Nina-Stan story-line, and so I was surprised by how quickly that plot moved forward in the latter half of the season. That’s not a complaint, it made for exciting TV. Once Stan got backed into a corner, I think he made the only choice he could, and so I guess there wasn’t much farther that story could go. Still, I love Nina — she might be my favorite character on the show! — and I don’t like the idea of her exiting the story.
Aside number one: how great is it every time a Russian character says “Nina Sergeevna”? It’s interesting, I’ve often felt the Russian habit of saying someone’s full name to be very formal, but here on this show the Russian actors make it feel very intimate.
Aside number two: while I think the Nina-Stan story-line (which became Nina-Stan-Oleg this season) is one of the show’s best story-lines, I’m not sure that I fully bought into the idea this season that Nina was somewhat in love with both men by the end of the season. She has plenty of reasons for hating Stan (both for his murder of poor Vlad last season, and the way he blackmailed her into working for him, which led to a sexual relationship that she can’t have wanted, at least not at first) and it felt clear to me that she started a romantic relationship with Oleg because she was using him once he’d used his political strings to gain access to the truth of what she was up to with Stan. So I was somewhat surprised when, at the end of this season, it seemed like the show was trying to say that she had strong, real feelings for both men. I’m not sure the show really sold that successfully.
Season two threw lots of new obstacles in Philip and Elizabeth’s path, most notably the season-long mystery of who had killed the other family of Directorate S agents. That was a great way to raise the stakes on the show — showing us the very real fate that might await the Jennings family, including their two kids, if they make any mistakes. It also provided a great narrative through-line for the season. I wasn’t 100% sold on the answer we were given at the end, but I can live with it. (I get what they were trying to do by also raising the stakes on Philip and Elizabeth’s dilemma as to whether or not to tell their daughter Paige the truth about who they really are, but it felt too far out of left field from what we had gotten to know all season about the character revealed as the murderer.)
I loved the introduction of tough, angry military man Andrew Larrick as another threat to Philip and Elizabeth this season (in addition to their constant game of cat-and-mouse with Stan Beeman and the American FBI). It was only a one-off appearance, but Zeljko Ivanek did great work in “Stealth” as a man dying of cancer who became an informant for Philip. I also loved the introduction this season of Fred (played by fantastic character actor John Carroll Lynch) as a new informant working on a defense contract. I was sorry to see both Larrick and Fred’s stories end by the season finale, though as I noted before I like how The Americans doesn’t let its plot-lines drag on for too long.
Though one story-line that IS dragging on too long, at least for me, is the story of Philip’s pretend marriage to Martha. This story-line made me a little nuts in the first season, and here in season two I found it to be my least favorite aspect of the show, for two main reasons. First, it’s so cruel to Martha, who has been established as a sweet, smart, lovely woman, that I find it among the more distasteful actions we’ve seen Philip take (and we’ve seen him and Elizabeth kill plenty of innocent people). Second, it stretches the bounds of plausibility to me. Yes, this season showed Paige starting to question her parents. But still, how many nights a week does Philip spend with Martha? How do he and Elizabeth possibly explain to their kids why he doesn’t come home at all multiple nights every week?? I just don’t get that at all.
I’m enjoying the way The Americans allows the audience to sympathize with and root for Philip and Elizabeth, despite the fact that, to American viewers, they are very much “the bad guys.” The show also doesn’t pull its punches in reminding us that both Philip and Elizabeth are willing to do a lot of not-very-nice stuff in pursuit of their goals. Right away in the season two premiere, “Comrades,” we see Philip murder two Afghans along with a poor busboy who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Philip’s murder of the poor computer technician he encounters when trying to steal the Arpanet in “Arpanet” also comes to mind as a really tough-to-watch act taken by one of the main characters of the show. Even tougher for me: watching their actions dragging Jewish refusenik Anton away from his family in the U.S. and back to Russia in “The Deal” — this was a particularly cruel and heartbreaking act. Following those developments, I was interested by the twist in “New Car,” in which Philip refused to kill the truck driver. I’m interested to see if that was a one-off thing or if we’ll see Philip continue to develop qualms over the killing of innocents in the future.
The show also, enjoyably, pushes the envelope on the type of sexy-time fun we can see these characters getting up to. In the season premiere, poor Paige walks in on her parents in a compromising position that, well, I don’t recall ever seeing before presented on TV! On the less fun side of the coin, in one of the season’s most unforgettable scenes, things turn nasty when Elizabeth urges Philip to have sex with her in his “Clark” persona (in “Behind the Red Door”).
Speaking of Paige, I’ve enjoyed how she has had more to do this season. Her starting to get wise to the many lies her parents have told her, and the way her need for belonging drives her towards a Christian Church group that is anathema to Philip and especially Elizabeth, is a terrific plot-line. It makes perfect sense for these characters, and it provided another source of drama and tension in the Jennings household this season. I am very eager to see what develops with Paige in the next season.
The Americans continues to be a fun, exciting, twisty spy story. I’m hoping to catch up with season three before season four airs this spring! (Though, as I noted at the beginning of my list of my Fifteen Favorite Episodes of TV in 2015, there is SO MUCH great TV I am hoping to get to! Choices for my next show to dive into include season three of The Americans, season two of Fargo which is sitting patiently in my DVR, and season one of Better Call Saul, which is sitting patiently on my DVD shelf. I also just finished the amazing book Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I am eager to watch the BBC’s mini-series adaptation. So much TV, so little time! Thanks for reading, everyone!)