A rapidly unfolding spy thriller without a clear semblance of stakes and a spine of dynamic relationships without distinguished truth between characters, The Americans continues to be a surprising and challenging entry in cable TV. As numbers hover only a few points above the Mendoza line, Americans (the real people out there) are missing out on a show that’s as cinematic as it is thoughtful and exciting as it is heady. The correlation to critics darling Homeland becomes more pronounced in COMINT (1.5) and Trust Me (1.6), however, unlike Showtime’s juggernaut, the stakes for The Americans remain in shadows. Still, by episode six, I defy any viewer to make a definitive statement on what Phillip and Elizabeth intend to get from the United States, save just being on the ground to do the motherland’s biding. There’s something Mamet-like about the humanity behind the games and the raw emotions that crawl under the skin of logistical and political work.
COMINT opens with Elizabeth meeting the owner of a private company who she quickly finds to be a KGB Agent named Udacha. After their night together, it’s revealed that the FBI now has new encrypted radios that won’t allow the KGB to know when they are being followed. In an elaborate set up that sucks Elizabeth behind enemy lines, she and Phillip devise to break into a FBI vehicle decode a radio. Between the schemes, COMINT is a downright sexualized episode filled with blowjobs, semen spitting, and spankings. Far from gratuitous, The Americans has the gaul to be as grown-up and lustful as it does Spielbergian in its Hollywood construction. The pull and tug of pure cinematic entertainment and a grungy coldness made popular by the likes of HBO programming and David Fincher, make this show a rare cross-breed. If anything, what COMINT proves is that when focused on the potboiler aspect of its world, The Americans can play with any of the TV thriller big boys. The grand reveal of COMINT is that the Russians discover the United States has a mole in their ranks. The mole, who we know is Nina, has gotten in close with Stan, using every tactic in her femme fatale spy book to give the United States what they want. By episode’s end, it occurs to Nina that it’s only a matter of time before her appeal to the KGB higher-ups wear off and she’s unveiled as the rat. By way of Stan’s quick reaction to lead the KGB to see others as the potential mole and his growing rift with his own wife, it’s starts to come into focus that he cares for Nina on a level beyond using her for her “skills.” The Americans consistently defies superficial plot threads by stirring in a thick dose of irrational emotions.
Because the angle of children learning to grow up in a world corrupted by distrust and cover-ups has become a trend in these types of dramas since The Sopranos, Trust Me is The Americans first entry into the sub-genre. For as procedural as the form felt, however, The Americans uses its children to a dynamic effect, seeing as the root of their creepy abduction by a man who picks them up while hitchhiking comes from one of the children protecting the other. Protection, as when Phillip threatens to undo the Jennings’ entire investigation as a knee jerk reaction to seeing Elizabeth’s lust-induced whipping scars, seems something that outlasts and supersedes big picture loyalty. Where The Americans’ children are different is that they care about each other and they work together. The other shows whose children have had significant devoted screen time, especially Mad Men and Homeland, give us selfish and insulated characters navigating the loneliness of being misunderstood in adolescence. As with everything in The Americans, the “team work” of these two siblings feels like a throwback classic storytelling about American values and familial ideals (another thread that both matches and confounds the Reaganism of the show as a whole).
For their part, Phillip and Elizabeth spend most of Trust Me in a similarly complex bind as they are kidnapped by people who turn out to be on their side, Russians devoted to vetting out the mole. Once free, Elizabeth is so broken by what she perceives as baseless betrayal that she beats another spy to a bloody pulp. A window into Elizabeth as an idealistic devotee, she seems confused by how people who were supposed to “protect” her could threaten her in this manner. Again, the concept of protection versus big picture attachment get brought under a microscope. Further, Elizabeth knows instinctually that she needs Phillip’s spousal love not only as a way to paint a picture of a pretty American family but to protect her like an honest husband should. While she might loathe this aspect of herself, she’s undeniably subservient to it as well.
I wish I would have come to The Americans sooner so I could have written about each episode individually. As it stands, I’m almost caught up and might have the opportunity to see the first season home with specific write-ups. I can’t say enough about this show. The Hollywood underbelly rears in bursts of semi-contrived entertainment, but even then there’s old Noir cleverness at work. Like a Raymond Chandler novel or Humphrey Bogart plot, the stories get a giddy pleasure from coming up with the most unusual way to wriggle our inscrutable main couple into and out of trouble. Nothing is as satisfying as stories with brains that are not above appealing to the inner kid in us who get pleasure from watching Kevin McCallister set up paint cans to catch the bad guys in Home Alone. For all the mediocrity in media, there’s an awful lot of bad feelings for anything that isn’t “cool enough” or “serious enough” or “hip enough.” The Americans skews these pretensions by advancing its plot through (and not around) the development of honest-blue-collar-family-oriented- twisted-murderous master spies.