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.
FX

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.

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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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