The Americans Is the Realest, and Scariest, Spy Show on TV

"Comrades," the second-season premiere, raises the FX series' stakes by making its secret agents face a universal fear.
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Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the protagonists of FX’s The Americans, are very good spies. But they aren’t super spies. We’re reminded of this at the start of Wednesday’s Season Two premiere. Elizabeth leaves the cabin where she’s been convalescing for months after a botched intelligence operation. Philip’s attempt to send an intimidating message back to Afghani freedom fighters turns bad, and he’s forced to kill two more people than he’d wanted to—including an innocent teenager.

Spying, see, is hard. This is something that pop culture's depictions of the trade often forget. Yes, James Bond faces tough challenges, but he wins out with the help of superhuman tech, suaveness, and athletic ability. His only real threats are guys with lasers and metal jaws and control of all the world’s computer systems. In other words, he and the threats he faces aren’t real.

Lately, TV has been making covert agents seem a smidge realer than Bond. But that still doesn’t mean they’re relatable. Huck on Scandal is a savant; he’s also a traumatized, unstable sadist. Carrie on Homeland is a savant; she’s also a bipolar, unstable crusader. This makes sense. Part of the appeal of spies is that they’re a different class of person—invisibly affecting the world, but fundamentally not of the world.

On The Americans, though, spies seem just like most people. Which, of course, is their job—to blend in. But the genius of Joe Weisberg’s tale about 1980s KGB agents living as a suburban American married couple is that spying just feels like variant of a very quotidian, universal behavior—deception. The FBI agent next door lies to his wife and his source; his source lies to him. The Jennings lie to their kids in much the same way any other parents would. Philip and Elizabeth are slightly more committed and self-aware when it comes to their ruses, but they’re temperamentally not that different from you or me. 

In fact, the Season Two premiere, “Comrades,” will go down as one of the best TV episodes of the year precisely for the way it intermingles spycraft with a difficult but deeply “normal” concern: the welfare of one’s kids.

The Jennings children, Paige and Henry, were largely incidental in Season One. The show instead focused on the marital tension between the Jennings parents, who spent a number of episodes separated. But slowly over the course of the first hour of the second season, we come to see that the kids are going to matter more. It starts when Elizabeth drives away from that recovery cabin. She almost hits a doe and two fawns—a development that feels poetic in the moment and portentous in retrospect. Next, Philip comforts then murders a teenage boy in the kitchen of a restaurant. When he gets in his car and drives away, we can see he’s shaken.

Elizabeth arrives back home in time for her son's birthday. Henry seems like the overeager, oblivious preteen he always was; Paige, last seen snooping around her parents’ laundry room, looks "older," says Elizabeth. Paige agrees with that assessment, and we soon see she still suspects something is up with mom and dad. But she learns more than any teen would want to know when she barges in on her parents having sex. In moments like this, The Americans feels like an uncanny portrait not of spies but of family life. Who doesn’t remember being worried at the idea of your parents not coming home at night? Even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves, the ensuing breakfast scene and euphemistic lecture comes off as entirely relatable. You can imagine it being on a suburban-family sitcom.

With the introduction of another covert KGB couple, it initially appears we’re in for a comparison of spying styles. Duping a Lockheed underling, the square-jawed agent Emmett plays the bad cop to Philip’s good one. (Notice that Phil has a verbal tick: gentle, reassuring repetition, whether it's on the job—“It’s a question; it’s a real question”—or talking to his kids—“It’s ok; it is ok.”) When Emmett says he may need the Jennings to assist in a hit job, Philip nervously objects that he has his children there. “So do we,” Emmett says simply. He’s not worried.

That confidence, that steeliness, is typical of pop culture’s spies. Here, it leads to horror. Unknown assailants shoot Emmett, Leanne, and their daughter in their hotel room; their son walks in to find their corpses. His screams are about as disturbing as anything I’ve seen on, say, Game of Thrones.

The murder of this family is not much of a plot twist, per se. We barely knew these people. But it is a game change—a psychic reorientation for the characters, for the show, and maybe even for TV dramas. Chatting earlier about bake sales and boys as a concern for teenage girls, Philips says there’s “nothing much else to worry about for these kids”—a boomtime Reagan-‘80s parental statement if there ever was on. Soon, though, Elizabeth flinches at her daughter wearing the same facepaint as their slain friend’s daughter. Philip tells his fake FBI wife Martha that the job has started to get to him in ways he didn’t expect.

Other dramas in the zeitgeist right now, like Scandal or House of Cards, go out of their ways to make sure the antiheroes’ progeny are nonexistent or off-screen—very certainly, off limits to the dangers of the plot. Homeland, for however much it obsesses over the psychological domestic effects of Brody’s betrayal, never puts Chris or Dana in mortal peril. Even Game of Thrones seems to hold a soft spot for its smallest hero, Arya Stark. (Though, book-reading commenters, I beg, please don’t tell me if she ends up with her head on a spike or whatever).

Even in this shocking episode, The Americans feels a bit less serious than those other shows; the wigs and the fake accents and the self-help guru on the TV in the background of the Beemans’ house lend it an air of camp. But don’t be deceived. The show is all about the connection between the ordinary and the brutal. Phil and Elizabeth feel new paranoia about their kids because of the hazards of their spying. But that heartbreaking, worried look Elizabeth casts down the hallway in the final shot of the episode isn’t one of a secret agent concerned about a mission. It’s of a parent faced with the highest stakes there are. 

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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