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The Americans Recap: Way to Commit

THE AMERICANS -- (Premieres Early 2013) Pictured: (l-r) Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings

The pilot for FX’s new spy drama The Americans is lumpy with exposition, its time-shifts don’t always work, and the opening sex-plus-action sequence is so obviously designed to grab us that I found it a bit tedious (more about the opening in a moment). But this is still an assured, adult series that errs on the side of subtlety, a feat that seems more impressive when you think back over the plot and realize how absurd it all is. I love the period details, the Mad Men–style nods to then-current events (germane but not overdone), and, most of all, the performances.

As Russkie-spies-posing-as-boring-suburbanites Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are as attuned to each other as cats born of the same litter. His sensitivity and alert warmth balance her cool remoteness so perfectly that we’re lulled into thinking there’s nothing more to either of them — and then we see how vulnerable she can be, and how vicious he can be, and how fantastically great they are together when they’re surrendering to their reptilian brains. They don’t seem like abstractions on a page but real people who’ve been married so long and been through so much that they can’t live with or without each other; on a series that’s ultimately less about espionage than marriage, that’s maybe nine tenths of the battle. And as the show’s resident Javert, FBI agent Stan Beeman, Noah Emmerich — a scene-stealer since The Truman Show — gets a role befitting his talents. This actor blends sweetness and menace without making a big deal of it, and he’s got a melancholy face; even most cheerful moments have an undertone of sorrow. This is the best role Emmerich has ever had, as eerily, delightfully perfect for him as Tony Soprano was for James Gandolfini.  It’s often hard to tell if Stan knows more about the Jenningses than he’s letting on, or if he’s just one of those guys whose face and voice naturally make it seem as though he’s F-ing with you, even when he’s just making conversation. Emmerich’s voice control and body language are so exquisitely modulated that he can make you laugh just by pausing a bit longer than expected. When the FBI agent tried one of Elizabeth’s welcome brownies in the Beemans', Emmerich’s smile was so unnerving that I half-expected Stan to arrest the whole family on the spot.

About that opening: Though I dug the use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” as chase music and the shock of seeing a blonde-wigged Felicity going down on behalf of Mother Russia, overall it didn’t do much for me. I’d have preferred to get close to the main characters’ faces and psyches in the pilot’s first few minutes. Nothing about it hinted at the emotional wrinkles that the pilot would explore, or the surprises it would spring. Luckily, The Americans gets down to emotional specifics soon enough. The Jenningses were supposed to kidnap a former KGB officer who’d defected and deliver him back to Russia where — as Stan speculated — his bosses would have the pleasure of looking him in the eyes before killing him. But they missed the boat, literally, and had to take the guy home, tie him up, and stash him in the trunk of the family Oldsmobile.

Elizabeth wants to kill the guy because (as we discover in flashback) he coldly and casually raped her during a fight training session, a violation he later tries to slough off as a “perk” of his former job. That, more so than their differences of opinion about the mission, accounts for Elizabeth’s physical coldness toward Phillip in this pilot — particularly in the scene where he sidles up behind her at the sink and comes on to her, and she says “Stop” twice, then wheels around and pulls a knife on him when he ignores her wishes. He’s re-traumatizing her and doesn’t even realize it because he doesn’t know the whole story about what happened to her when she was a cadet. He doesn’t find out about the rape until the two-thirds mark in the story, so he sees their captive mainly as a way to escape their present circumstances: If they defect, he tells Elizabeth, they could get paid millions of dollars and be guaranteed a comfortable, maybe even safe life as bona fide Americans.

Although the dialogue in scenes about the captive and the mission is a bit too direct and expository — couples who’ve been married as long as Phillip and Elizabeth would seem more likely to talk around things, because they already know what the issues are — it still forms the heart of the episode, and maybe the show. These two were bred to be secret agents (assassins, seducers, deceivers) for the USSR, but they want very different things. Elizabeth is fiercely loyal to the motherland and to their mission to undermine and destroy the capitalist pigs of America. Phillip likes it here — he probably started liking it from the minute he and Elizabeth checked into that motel right after their arranged marriage and turned on the air conditioner, a great touch — and he wouldn’t mind making his American-ness official, even if it means cozying up to the feds. Any man who spontaneously dons a pair of cowboy boots in a department store and boot-scoots to Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” isn’t die-for-mother-Russia material. Elizabeth knows this about Phillip and has never stopped resenting him for it.

“Why don’t we make the first move?” he asks, talking to her in the basement midway through the episode. “Offer ourselves to them.” “What would you tell them?” Elizabeth asks, referring to their children. “The truth,” he says, and she instantly slaps him. “You swore — we swore — that we would never tell them,” she scolds, and spins a hopeful scenario wherein their American-born son and daughter become socialists who can see things through Soviet eyes. “They will be Americans,” Phillip tells her, “and you can’t stand that. I see it every day.”

Their differences are resolved, for the moment, anyway, about three quarters of the way through the pilot. Elizabeth enters the garage and finds that Phillip has removed the captive from the trunk and is planning to turn him into Stan Beeman (“I’m taking him to our neighbor”) and collect the reward money and look into defecting. Elizabeth is furious that he’s made a big decision without her input (a no-no even in marriages that don’t involve committing felonies for foreign governments) and even more furious that he’s about to deprive her of the chance to decide whether to exact revenge or not. She’s been dealing with this through the entire episode, an internal struggle made poignant by minute fluctuations in Russell’s eyes. (She’s very good in this extremely constrained, at times nearly inscrutable role.) She beats the crap out of her rapist — a great action scene because it’s tied to a character violently working through her trauma — and is about to kill him with a tire iron; but then she drops the weapon after her rapist offers what sounds like a rationalization rather than an apology. (A “perk.” Seriously.)

She leaves the final decision of what to do with the guy to Philip. Now that he’s realized why his wife wanted to commit murder (“How did he hurt you?”), he chokes the bastard and snaps his neck; the killing is framed so that the fighters are out of focus and we’re watching Elizabeth’s reaction in the background. She seems surprised, then elated and approving. Although she didn’t consciously intend it this way, the scene in the garage represented a test of Phillip’s love and loyalty, and he passed with flying colors.

And it’s here that The Americans embraces pulp values wholeheartedly: What happens next isn’t politically correct — in fact, it’s deeply melodramatic and silly and fundamentally adolescent. It’s also thrilling because it’s so unironic and presented with such directness. You know how people joke about a really close friend, “He’d help me bury a body”? This is the marital version of that sentiment, played straight; your mileage will vary, as it always does, but I found it powerfully romantic, not to mention authentically sexy, in a who-gives-a-damn-about-respectability, let’s-tickle-the-reptilian-brain sort of way. The exchange of close-ups between Russell and Rhys just before the tryst is piercing, because they both seem so vulnerable. They’re not protecting themselves at all. They don’t have to discuss the significance of what transpired, because they each know the other has felt and understood it. Elizabeth and Phillip were at odds — over the mission specifically, and the future of their marriage generally — and by the end they’re on the same page again. 

Right before the trip to the warehouse, when Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” kicked in (a song most memorably used in the 1984 pilot of Miami Vice), I laughed out loud, and thought, They aren’t really going there, are they? By there, I don’t just mean brazenly appropriating a song that’s been stamped “Property of Michael Mann” for nearly 30 years — a decision that’s as gutsy, maybe reckless, as a filmmaker other than Scorsese putting a Rolling Stones song in a tough-guy montage. I also mean straight to the beating heart of melodrama. When that Collins song kicks in, the episode enters a kind of fugue state, and it doesn’t come out of it for several minutes; within that fugue, the couple works through deep conflicts in their marriage wordlessly, by going to work together, then getting it on afterward. It’s primitive, even mammalian: kill, then rut. When Phillip and Elizabeth dissolve a body in acid and then have sex in the car afterward, it’s a ludicrously overripe, film noir indulgence, but it’s also a tender affirmation of their union. Way to commit, Americans. Way to commit.

Odds and Ends

  • The episode goes on for about twenty minutes after reaching a natural, um, climax in that Phil Collins montage, but there’s intriguing information here — particularly about the signing of an executive order authorizing the FBI to pursue any and all measures to root out Russian agents on American soil. And I love those two late scenes between Phillip and Stan: Stan remarking on Phillip’s mysterious neck scratches, and Stan invading their garage to look in the trunk of the Olds to see if there’s more than a jack and a spare tire back there. The final shot in this scene — Stan closing the garage door behind him, Phillip silhouetted in the foreground with a gun — is a poster-worthy image.
  • I love the slow-motion close-up of Phillip at the end of the school assembly. I love the assembly itself — the way its content gives us a metaphor for Phillip’s internal state. The event celebrates Thomas P. Stafford, a hero of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz test project. Phillip’s joyous yet troubled reaction mingles patriotism and caution. He’s Russian, he’s American. A test project, unfinished.
  • This show features some of the most mysterious and arresting close-ups I’ve seen on a TV drama in a while. My favorites are Phillip at the assembly and Phillip and Elizabeth looking at each other in the front seat of the Olds (both discussed higher up), and the close-up of Elizabeth pondering murder while considering her reflection in a knife blade. The latter is a clichéd image, but the writing and Russell’s performance sell it, just as they helped sell the corpse-disposal-car-tryst in the Phil Collins montage. Clichés can be hugely satisfying, even revelatory, if everyone involved in them has the guts to commit.
  • I didn’t like the scene where Phillip visits that brawny pedophile creep who intimidated him and his daughter in the department store and beats him up and sticks a barbecue fork in his crotch. Everything about it felt cheap, including the symbolism of showing the creep cooking hot dogs right before Phillip attacked him — a phallic image and an allusion to American iconography, and way too easy no matter how you interpret it. I didn’t like the way the creep was written, either. He was too transparently evil, too much the cartoon bully. I think the pilot could have done without him entirely. If he had to appear in the department store scene, I’d rather The Americans had never returned to him and instead forced us to live with the reality of a Russian spy’s life: No matter how satisfying it might be to thrash and maim this A-hole, Phillip can’t do it, because it might expose him and his family to greater harm.
  • Nice to see Richard Thomas, a.k.a. John Boy Walton, as FBI officer Gadd. I hope they give him more to do in future episodes.
  • I like the conversation between Stan and Phillip in the garage when he goes to get Stan the tire iron. It’s already a tense scene because we know there’s more in that trunk than Phillip can reveal, but the mundane conversation adds a layer of tension, and Stan’s remarks about Phillip buying an American car rather than one of those “Japanese upstarts” is a great period detail that isn’t hammered too hard. 
  • Nice scene between Mr. and Mrs. Beeman near the end. It drives home the notion that this show is ultimately about marriage as both institution and metaphor. The Jenningses and the Beemans are actual married couples; Stan and his FBI partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez) are basically workplace spouses; Elizabeth and Phillip’s mutually suspicious relationship with their KGB bosses sometimes has marriagelike overtones, as does the Cold War itself, with its alternating periods of full-throated belligerence and détente.
  • An early Stan–Chris scene hints at a possible future revelation: Apparently Stan came to the FBI's D.C. office by way of St. Louis, Missouri, where he'd gone undercover as a white supremacist. Seems like he was in too deep, as they used to say in undercover cop dramas. 
  • The flashbacks were all well done, but I didn’t always like the placement or the way the episode segued in and out of the present. Hopefully this is something The Americans can perfect over time.
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX