Some of the best cable dramas are built around sustained acts of deception. The chemistry teacher is a drug manufacturer. The waste-management consultant is a gangster. The attractive young travel agents and devoted parents who live in that boring suburban house are Soviet spies who screw and kill for the Motherland. The element of playacting makes things fun for the audience — at times it’s almost a sitcom-ish, I Love Lucy sort of fun, as in, “How on earth will the heroine fool law enforcement this time?” — but it also makes things pleasurably dizzying, because it lifts familiar issues and questions out of their standard contexts and makes you think about them as statements, and about the words themselves, and what they refer to.
When, during the season-two premiere of FX’s The Americans — the one about the Soviet spies, natch — a character says “I’m not sure I’m cut out for this,” the subject is marriage, or seems to be. But because the marriage is a sham — entered into by the speaker, Soviet spy Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), so that he can gain state secrets via his new “wife,” Martha (Alison Wright), a secretary in the Washington, D.C. FBI counter-terrorist office — you don’t respond to it as you would if it were just some TV husband discussing some standard TV marriage. The “this” in the sentence could refer his specific, “real” marriage, entered into under false pretenses. Or it could refer to Philip’s real marriage to fellow spy Elizabeth (Keri Russell), the mother of his two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), or to the umbrella deception that is unfurled over everything: the notion that Philip is actually an American.
Funny thing is, of course, a lot of the time, he feels like he is an American. (He loves country music.) And his “real” marriage, to Elizabeth, was never formalized with a marriage certificate; it’s just another role, one they’ve both been performing for nearly two decades. Not for nothing does this first episode pivot on screenings of the 1981 drama The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a film about acting based on a novel about storytelling. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night — and as I’ve quoted so many times in my Americans recaps — we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. And isn’t that what much of life is? Pretending? Deciding to live the day-to-day performance of an ideal, a belief, an emotion, a set of principles, a faith?
These are the sorts of 3 a.m.-in-the-dorm questions that The Americans invites. It’s a testament to series creator Joe Weisberg, executive producer Joel Fields, and their writers, filmmakers, and actors that you don’t immediately think about Philip and Elizabeth as case studies, or as characters anchoring ethical puzzles. You’re too busy enjoying the spycraft, the fights, the chases, and the sex.
But it’s these deeper questions that give the action and melodrama a bit of existential heft, and redirect our vicarious enjoyment away from fantasy and back towards reality. FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) — the Jenningses’ neighbor, and the man in whose office Martha works — is half-assedly performing a “happy marriage” with his wife Sandra (Susan Misner) while secretly diddling his KGB “contact” Nina (Annet Mahendru) in a “safe house.” (If any series begs for ironic quotation marks, it’s this one.) But there’s still real affection between Stan and Sandra, however sad and dilapidated their marriage has become; there’s also real affection in the Stan-Nina relationship, even though it’s outwardly based on mutual exploitation (each is trying to gain secrets from, and spread misinformation through, the other). In a future episode, a colleague of Nina’s who knows about her relationship with Stan warns that even when the mind knows that a sexual relationship is purely mercenary or expedient, the body reads it as sincere. The blood that rushes excitedly toward certain parts doesn’t care about the intellectual aspect of the performance. It just knows, Here I am with the body that gives me pleasure. How much “acting” is going on, really? How much acting is going on when Philip or Elizabeth seduces a mark while dressed (and bewigged) as some fantasy construct? Is the role-playing that happens in the show’s sex scenes really all that profoundly different from the role-playing that happens in anyone’s bedroom, apart from the fact that it involves the possible exchange of state secrets as well as fluids?
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t described the plot of the new season in detail. That’s because I’m going to be recapping it again this season, and I’d rather not ruin key developments that I myself appreciated. Suffice to say that the emphasis shifts a bit, away from marriage (or “marriage”) and toward family, and that the Philip/Martha marriage seems less of a sitcom flourish and more of a tragedy in the making, and that Paige’s suspicions about her parents become increasingly central to the show’s emotions, even though she isn’t entirely sure what bad deeds her parents are enacting. Also: The wig thing is addressed, excitingly, immediately, and with humor. See you every Thursday morning for the next three months, everybody.