We really do care about Phillip and Elizabeth
By Valerie Milano
Pasadena, CA (Hollywood Today) 2/1/13 – All is definitely not fair in love and war in the new FX Series “The Americans.” Two embedded KGB spies (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) pose as a happily married suburban couple while using sex, violence, sadistic emotional torture – whatever it takes – to win cat-and-mouse espionage missions for Mother Russia. Once you get past some pretty overt plot coincidences, the storytelling is smart, brisk and suspenseful. Best of all, the central relationship between Rhys and Russell as two spies assigned to marry and raise a family raises provocative questions about love, loyalty, parenting and what it is to be American.
The year is 1981, when newly-elected President Ronald Reagan directed much of his attention and rhetoric towards our Cold War “Evil Empire” enemies. The spy game on both sides was apparently in full bloom (series creator-writer Joe Weisberg worked for the CIA, so one has to accept his veracity certain veracity about the series) and the stakes were high.
As Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, Rhys and Russell offer a married couple with uniquely complicated issues. They must obey orders from their High Command without question, no matter the risks. Therefore, their lives are constantly on the line as the threat of discovery or death in the field shadows them everywhere.
The fun of the show is watching two sympathetic characters transition back and forth from elite assassins to All-American parents while trying to hide the scars and gashes of that peculiar workplace. This is fertile ground for mordant humor, a specialty of Executive Producer Graham Yost who also supervises : “Justified,” a weekly trove of delicious characters and said black humor. “The Americans” is more serious in tone than “Justified” but Yost’s wry wit surfaces in measured, wonderful moments. For instance, we watch Phillip threaten to kill an abducted agent gagged and bound in the trunk of his car parked inside his garage, then follow him directly into the kitchen where he paternally chats up his son and daughter (Keidrich Sellati and Holly Taylor) over their pre-school breakfasts.
Their daily paranoia takes a quantum leap when the lead agent running a counter-terrorism unit for the FBI, Chris Amador (Noah Emmerich), just happens to move across the street from the Jennings’. It’s not the contrivance of a direct antagonist moving next door that’s annoying, it’s the blunt way it occurs. For a moment, you wonder if the Amadors have moved there by coincidence or by design. Not knowing creates terrific tension and suspense between the two families, but the writers quickly abandon this gambit by revealing its just coincidence. Meh. Equally bothersome is when Agent Amador has a dead car battery and asks Phillip if he has jumper cables. Instead of just saying no like a trained agent would do, Phillip takes him into the garage where the KGB agent lies imprisoned in the car trunk. Not only is he risking the agent kicking and screaming for help (I mean, what has he got to lose?), but Phillip knows that the FBI have identified the very make and model of this car as the one used to abduct the KGB agent. We like Phillip a lot less when he’s this stupid.
And while we’re quibbling, when Phillip and Elizabeth welcome the Amadors to the neighborhood with homemade BROWNIES, Chris can’t wait to gush about how he works on the counter-terrorism unit of the FBI. I don’t know about you, but every FBI/CIA agent I’ve ever met has been vague and evasive about the specifics of their job. As they should be. I know the writers need to get this information to Phillip and Elizabeth, but they couldn’t they discover it in a less ham-handed (and hopefully clever) way?
One of the most fascinating and satisfying elements of the show is how Phillip and Elizabeth must prioritize loyalty to country over family and each other. We assume that they have spent the last ten or so years working dutifully for Moscow without much question or second-guessing. But the series opens with Phillip and Elizabeth at a sort of crossroads in their lives. Steel-willed Elizabeth is resolutely dedicated to scythe and star. Her ferocious chauvinism keeps her remote and chilly to Phillip’s sensuous desires. Moreover, Phillip is experiencing a crisis of conscience and patriotism. Although he and Elizabeth were an arranged marriage for a long-term espionage assignment, he has genuinely fallen in love with his wife, which now clouds his judgment and convictions.
In the pilot episode, Phillip and Elizabeth apprehend a KGB defector before he can betray their identities to the U.S. government. It’s an exciting opening sequence set to a throbbing remix of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” The music not only sets a kinetic primal/tribal pulse to the action, but the very-American-sounding brass band provides a sly cultural counterpoint.
(A kindly note to the Music Supervisor. “Tusk” was a brilliant reworking of a period song that established “The Americans” unique milieu. However, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” took us right out of the show and back to Miami (Vice). Please stick to undiscovered/underused classic songs that aren’t synonymous with somebody else’s show.)
Circumstances force Phillip and Elizabeth to miss their prisoner drop (Moscow is eager to “reprimand” their traitorous-KGB agent back home) and now they must keep the rogue Russian traitor in the trunk of their car parked in their bland suburban home. The feisty hostage offers Phillip $3 million for his release – which, in Phillip’s current state of rumination, gives him pause.
This puts Phillip and Elizabeth at new odds. She is ready to kill and dispose of the KGB agent before he becomes more of a liability. But Phillip suggests to Elizabeth that they take the money and just disappear. Instead of living with the constant threat of capture or death, they could cash in and spend the rest of their days as a happy/normal American family. “Maybe this is an opportunity to live the life we’ve been living, but really living it. Just being us.” Elizabeth heatedly rejects this and accuses Phillip of betraying Mother Russia. Phillip is clearly more concerned about their family than their homeland of 20 years ago and thus their central conflict is defined: Elizabeth is a hardened patriot, Phillip is “softening into a humanist.” Elizabeth rejects Phillips’s dream as readily as she rejects his carnal advances and voices her concerns about his reliability to their superiors.
Things spin into a darker and more compelling direction when we learn the KGB agent in the trunk once violated Elizabeth in the worst possible way during training in Moscow. Now we know why Elizabeth is so keen on killing him. And when Phillip discovers this awful truth…well, let’s just say nothing says “I love you” better than killing your wife’s rapist right before her very eyes. In this brutal moment, Elizabeth finally realizes how deeply Phillip cares for her and a thaw begins within their own Cold War. Elizabeth warms to Phillip and we sense they are now united.
But united as what? Super spies sworn to thwart the U.S. government, damn the risks? Guardians of two children innocently born into this toxic environment? Or husband and wife who have found true love in the most unlikeliest – and deadliest – of scenarios?
Russell has come a long, impressive way from the willowy ingénue of “Dawson’s Creek.” Elizabeth Jennings is a kickass spy who can kill, torture and destroy with stone-cold regard. She understands the mission and performs it with ruthless determination. This makes the tender scenes with her 13 year-old daughter all the more poignant. When she pierces her daughter’s ear for the very first time, both seem aware that they are experiencing a powerful bonding ritual. And when Russell draws blood, all sorts of nuanced emotions wrinkle across her face. Likewise, Rhys brings an original pathos to Phillip, the lethal commando now longing for a simpler, normal life. Both are very aware that the other often uses sex for information. But when Rhys listens to a recording of Elizabeth sexing up a government executive, his face betrays admiration for her skill but also a sadness and resentment
Perversely, in the best possible way, we really do care about Phillip and Elizabeth – sworn enemies and saboteurs of our precious American way of life. We fear they will be caught and anxiously hope they prevail. They are fighting for truth (their truth) by living a great lie – and so far it’s great fun to watch.