Like so many who were long excited for the show, I recently finished binge watching House of Cards. I’ve been less than compelled to talk about the show, think about the show, much less actually write about the show. And that very sentiment might be the best way to sum up my experience of watching Netflix’s first major original series. This is not to say that I’m always compelled write about something I enjoy or that I write about everything I see. It’s also not to say that I disliked House of Cards per se. In fact, there’s a great many interesting shows or movies that I can’t find the words or the time to talk about. However, House of Cards, with its uniquely cold presentation and iffy “entire season at once” output, feels specifically forgettable. Andy Greenwald recently wrote an engaging piece about the nature of TV or, more appropriately, how we as viewers are accustomed to watching TV. I agree with Greenwald that House of Cards may have built more of a cumulative effect had it be shown, like most TV shows, per week. Yet, I believe that the major issue with David Fincher’s show (and the issue with most forgettable pieces of media) is that not much happens and the characters are one-dimensional throughout. The only character with colors, as Greenwald mentions, is a pawn in the game of so many cardboard cutouts. And this character dies off before Season Two can even begin (I’ve never been so irritated by a character being killed off… ever). The problems with the show lay in the storytelling. There’s a lazy coldness to the way the moments unfold that feel more like a frat boy’s fantasy of the inner workings of government than a realistic or well-played metaphorical take. House of Cards tried to be cool where it needed to be new.
On the other hand, I’ve gotten through the first four episodes of FX’s The Americans, a show that gets it right where House of Cards consistently got it wrong. The characters are all deeply flawed and it’s their crippled emotions that threaten to undo them. When Homeland works best it does what The Americans currently does episode after episode. The greatest success of the series thus far is how it weaves inter-connected and somehow entirely fresh plots around familiar character development. The first four episodes feel like original one-offs tied together by a thread that is only gradually (read: hesitantly) being joined into the rest of the fabric. Perhaps audiences will grow disengaged by these fickle main characters whose motivations are gray and whose commitment to their ’cause’ can get soggy. To me, that’s what keeps this show a step ahead of a show like House of Cards, with its controlled one-tracked-mindedness playing like a repeated beat.
Episode One of The Americans begins with a cinematic chase sequence that follows the kidnapping of a Russian spy and the stabbing of an active KGB operative. Like the icy opening of House of Cards, our leads – Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, Russian Spies – show their murderous side by sacrificing one’s soul at the cost of the logical choice. Here, however, there’s trepidation in this spy couple that establish two people who will remain on the brink of allowing their humanist emotional base to outlast their political commitments. The rest of the episode centers on what to do with Timochev – the abducted spy – and whether a nosy neighbor who works for the FBI might be onto them. The stress has reached a fever pitch for Philip, who suggests that he and Elizabeth defect from Russia and build a ‘normal’ life in America. She resists, as the one more focused on the task at hand. By the episode’s end, Philip has shown his diligence to both the motherland and a wife that he truly loves by murdering Timochev.
In Episode Two, The Americans flexes its plot muscles. While the story isn’t devoid of emotions and again trains its trigger finger primarily on character choices rather than plot turns, there’s literally a ticking time bomb here that forces the story into James Bond territory. After Philip seduces a beautiful party guest, he convinces her to secretly take pictures in the office of the Secretary of Defense. They then plant a bug in the office where Margeret Thatcher will be having a meeting in the coming days. The Jennings use the relationship between a mother and a son to recruit the Secretary’s cleaning lady to plant the bug. To do this they poison her son and make her an ultimatum: either she commits treason on her country or her son dies. Once again The Americans pits raw human emotion against robotic spy trade.
Episode Three is all about relationships. The Jennings’ relationship has met a strange crossroads where Philip has expressed his desire to put his wife and family ahead of his career, while Elizabeth’s commitment to the cause has outwardly outweighed her interest in Philip. To complicate matters, she believes in her relationship to Philip now more than ever and while nothing will tear her away from her KGB ways, she’s dedicated to being a good wife and mother. The gray emotions are handled interestingly and grow more
complicated when we meet a lover with whom Elizabeth has past ties. The lover expresses genuine shock that Elizabeth has now fallen for her ‘cover’ (Philip). Additionally, there’s another relationship that comes to the fore in this episode. Rob, the man stabbed in the first episode, had a wife and child unbeknownst to the KGB. The FBI gets wind of this connection between the night of Timochev’s abduction and Rob’s stabbing and simultaneously tracks the wife. Like the Jennings’ relationship, here the love between a man and wife comes uncomfortably close to destructing spy intelligence operations. In the end, like in the pilot, the commitment to the cause must supersede any real emotions and, while Rob’s baby is sent back to Russia his wife must be sacrificed as a bystander who knows too much.
As sensational as Episode Three is, Episode Four threatens to out due the previous in terms of clever plot weavings. Taking a page from the Homeland book of character-driven one week and plot-driven the next, this time around the show is framed by the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Dueling storylines deliver a FBI frenzy to unveil the KGB’s involvement in the shooting while the Russians work tirelessly to salvage their image in the face of potential war. In no other spy story can I remember spies working so diligently to prove themselves not guilty of wrongdoings. On the other hand, the FBI seems equally eager to believe that this attempted murder was an act of insanity rather than warfare. Unlike so many recent offerings that portray nihilistic characters giddy at the thought of world annihilation, The Americans provides motivations that are patriotic but fearful of the horrors this kind of dedication can cause. There’s something consistently human, if also difficult to pin down, about what makes these spies tick. Further, Episode Four places subtly emphasis on an age before Twitter and iPhones where misinformation and wrongful reporting was just beginning to brand itself into our mind’s eye. The daughter, who would now be of age to use Social Media, is initially perplexed and disgusted by repeated broadcasts of attempted murder. She’s perhaps correctly put off by its necessity. However, by the end of the episode she’s come around to the importance of honoring those who have been hurt by showing these images. It’s a prevailing conundrum that has only heightened in the decades since 1981.
Beyond the storytelling conceits, The Americans has style. It’s sultry, sexy, and cinematic. The period undertones are there but unlike cheap impersonations like Magic City or, at infrequent times, Mad Men, the period elements just hold the show up like a hidden skeleton. Of course, the espionage can border on corny and overblown, but that’s too be expected in these forms. Most interesting about the aesthetic is the Scorsese-esque use of montage and 80s music. Never does this threaten to be cutesy (a la Drive), but instead it comes full force to the surface, served up by the boatful. There’s something refreshing about creators embracing their medium without irony.
The Americans is a unique show because it’s about contradictory human choices. Most of the bad that occurs happens because of judgement calls that are steeped in hesitant emotions or poor character. For a show so ostensibly about plot this is a pleasant surprise. As I emphasized in regards to Homeland, when these sorts of shows become about complex relationships they tend to be elevated to a special level of storytelling. When they devolve into 24-style plot renderings, they tend to flatline. Maybe House of Cards is only a comparison because it’s timely, but there does seem to be a distinct connection between the daring, serious nature of The Americans and the coolness (in every sense of the term) in House of Cards. Despite its viewership teetering, I’m pleased that FX continues to have enough ingenuity, and money in the budget, to keep these kinds of shows alive. They’ve already renewed The Americans for a second season. I’m curious how the rest of this show plays out and if more people will start to give it a chance. I suspect as more see it more will catch on to its magnetism. Word of mouth will likely help The Americans. One must only hope that by the time the show gets the kinds of numbers it deserves, it’s not long gone.
More about The Americans to come.