Amid sex, spies and all those lies, 'The Americans' gives us sympathetic Soviets

Foreign PolicyMarch 6, 2014 

Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings ((Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) live undercover in the United States working as travel agents.


  • ON TV

    'The Americans'

    10 p.m. Wed.on FX


WASHINGTON — You know that Washington, D.C.-based drama, the one with all the murder, sex, intrigue and timely political innuendoes? No, no, not House of Cards. The one with all the wigs. You know, The Americans.

With last week's debut of season two of FX's spy thriller The Americans coming just two weeks after the second season of Netflix's buzzy, bingeable House of Cards, the comparisons are inevitable

Here's the thing, though: It's not a fair comparison. The Americans complements House of Cards. In fact, The Americans is the antidote to House of Cards. While House of Cards is obsessed with high office and overt power, The Americans succeeds by intimately focusing on the personal.

The Americans, for the uninitiated, is a period drama set during the Reagan-era 1980s that traces the professional and personal lives of the Jennings family: Elizabeth (Keri Russell), Philip (Matthew Rhys), and their two children. Elizabeth and Philip are mild-mannered suburbanites who run a Washington travel agency by day and by night spy for the Soviet Union. They are deep-undercover KGB operatives in an arranged marriage who were smuggled into the United States a decade earlier. Much of the first season focused on a cat-and-mouse game between the Jenningses and their neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counterintelligence agent.

The Americans' second-season debut saw an 81 percent increase over its first-season premiere last year.

The Americans and House of Cards take place in the same city, but not in the same world. The Washington of House of Cards is driven by sheer, unrestrained greed — it's all smoke-filled rooms, executive offices, marble hallways. The Washington of The Americans is, in its own twisted way, driven by love — of family and of country, and the characters' conflicted loyalties to both. It takes place in suburban bedrooms and the offices of mid-level federal bureaucrats, not the corridors of power on which House of Cards is so fixated. People in high office are scarcely present in The Americans. President Ronald Reagan is seen only in news stories. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger is a disembodied voice — one tape-recorded in his bugged office. Unlike House of Cards, a soap opera built on its capacity to shock, the characters in The Americans do everything in their power to act normal — trying to manage their conflicting loyalties to the people and ideals they care about.

The Americans is, at its heart, a family drama, even if it requires preposterous high jinks. Much of the first season dealt with the dynamics of Elizabeth and Philip's marriage. After more than a decade of acting like a loving couple, they finally became one, despite Elizabeth's stronger commitment to the Soviet cause. The new season finds Stan, the FBI agent across the street, ambivalent about his marriage. He has been forced out of his home for having an affair with an informant, Nina, an attaché at the Soviet Embassy. Nina, meanwhile, feels betrayed after the FBI declined to give her citizenship ("exfiltrate" is a term on the show) and has begun spying for the embassy: a triple agent. Meanwhile, Philip is still trying to juggle his marriage to Elizabeth with his marriage to Martha (Alison Wright), a source he has cultivated in the FBI's counterintelligence office and who think he's an FBI agent named Clark probing the office for moles.

The second season opened with Elizabeth returning to what is, for the first time, a happy, loving marriage with Philip. Driving back to Washington from a safe house where she has been recuperating from a gunshot wound, she nearly hits a doe and its fawns, startled in the headlights of her car. Elizabeth and Philip rendezvous with another deep-cover KGB couple for a routine operation that goes off the rails and demonstrates how fragile their family's security can be. Meanwhile, their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), is growing suspicious of her parents, and Elizabeth is still struggling to balance her love and loyalty for the Soviet Union with her love and loyalty for her American children.

"How are we going to live like this?" Elizabeth asks at the end of the second episode. The deer-in-headlights scene is ominous: Something is coming, and she is trapped in the middle, a mother trying to protect her children.

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