After my lukewarm reaction to its first year, I’ve been keeping subsequent seasons of The Americans in my back pocket for a rainy day. I’ve finally gotten back to it and as many friends promised, the show gets considerably stronger in season two, an immersive and convincing period spy drama that layers relationship drama over espionage trappings—or perhaps the other way around.
Set in early eighties Washington, D.C., the show centers on a typical married couple—Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phil (Matthew Rhys) Jennings—who also happen to be Soviet sleeper agents on a deep-cover mission to undermine the United States. The Jennings’ narrative this time centers around a mystery: the unexplained murder of two fellow sleepers, which sets in motion a chain of unpredictable events. As they work deftly to maneuver their sources and agents into turning over crucial American military secrets, one of their assets goes rogue and starts jeopardizing everything.
The Americans is an assured, highly professional spy drama driven by impressive, convincing performances from Rhys and especially Russell, who turns it up a notch this season. Even more so this year, it leverages genre tropes expertly: honey traps, false-flag ops, assassinations, parallel missions, double crosses, infiltrations, and more, all carried off with aplomb. But these surface details are given a subtle, intriguing flavor by the way the lies and deceit and hidden agendas illuminate the characaters and their relationships: romantic, sexual, operational, even parental. The fraught, urgent Cold War interactions shine a light on more mundane human truths, like when the Jennings’ inherent criminal behavior begins to turn up in their children, who are unaware of their parents’ true nature.
For all its strengths, The Americans still takes some effort to get into. Its atmosphere is masterful, but there’s something methodical and distancing about the narrative, making it a show I appreciate without ever quite craving. But it’s a worthwhile program that knows what it wants to do, and executes with panache.