For a long while, the story we told ourselves as Americans was a simple one: This was a country of unlimited promise and potential. The keys to success weren’t wealth, power, or connections, but ability, ambition, and drive. A job, a family, a home with a yard to mow and gutters to clean: All these things were attainable to anyone, from anywhere, in exchange for a modicum of sweat and a quantity of tears. Life was a ladder, there to be climbed.
In the last few decades, a darker story has taken root. In this version, the American dream is really more of a contract, one larded with fine print and onerous clauses. The life you’re working toward, the one so much “better and richer and fuller” than what you’ve experienced, is always just out of reach — hiding, perhaps, behind that next promotion, that next child, that next wife. From the writings of John Cheever and Richard Wright to the travails of Don Draper and D’Angelo Barksdale, these stories suggest an America built on a bill of goods, not a bill of rights. It’s a cruel trick, realized too late: Someone has tipped the ladder sideways, the rungs casting shadows tall as prison bars.
The Americans, which begins its second season tonight on FX, tells a different sort of story. Its immigrant protagonists, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, are neither tired, nor poor. They don’t huddle. They have no desire to be free. The two are undercover Soviet agents embedded in the monochrome bonhomie of early-’80s suburbia. They’ve arrived to stir the pot, not melt into it. The artifice of their Norman Rockwell existence is precisely the point; the liberty they’re out to destroy is the very thing that welcomed them in. Thanks to KGB largesse and a killer cover story, Philip and Elizabeth have adopted all the signifiers of Reagan-era success: station wagon in the driveway, two kids in their bedrooms, brownies in the oven. But they’re not American dreamers. They’re not even American. The reason they fit in so well is because they’re counting on everyone else staying fast asleep.
The Americans lends itself to big thoughts like this; it’s a show equally devoted to tying its protagonists and its audience up in knots. When it premiered last January,1 the series very quickly asserted itself as the twistiest show on television, an emotionally riveting thriller fueled by a steady diet of double agents and triple crosses. What was remarkable was that its handlers — in this case, creator Joe Weisberg (a former CIA case officer turned high school teacher turned writer), plus co-showrunner Joel Fields and Justified producer Graham Yost — never tripped themselves up. Under their steady stewardship, The Americans’ impossibly complicated premise unpacked itself elegantly, like a line of matryoshka dolls.
Consider the myriad challenges: The Americans is a period piece with no particular nostalgia for its period. It depicts the early ’80s not as the hypercolored yacht party it is in our collective cultural memory, but as the drab, boxy sedan of a decade it actually was.2 Its heroes, as played by the brilliant Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, could pass for homecoming royalty yet hail from the Evil Empire.3 As they traipse about Washington, D.C., bugging phones and tapping assets, the pair hide their true identities under a crush of increasingly elaborate wigs and a web of uncomfortably glib lies — the majority of which appear to be accepted, for now at least, by their loving, apple-cheeked kids, Paige and Henry. Most parents have a few skeletons in their closet. These two have a defector trussed up in the trunk. Rooting for the Jenningses to get away with it all feels as risky as treason and twice as exhilarating.
Their initial antagonist was Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), a square-shouldered G-man tasked with hunting down the mysterious members of the KGB’s “Directorate S.” In the pilot, Stan moves in with his family across the street from the Jenningses; after some early suspicion, he quickly became Philip’s racquetball partner and unwitting source. In a lazier show, Stan would be the real hero. In a darker, lazier show, he’d be a patsy. But in a smart show like The Americans, Stan is beautifully complex. Far from the straight-and-narrow Dick Tracy he first appeared to be, he’s dangerously jangled up from his own undercover years (something about infiltrating a Midwestern gang of white supremacists). In the first season, when his particular corner of the Cold War heated up, he responded by putting a bullet into an innocent apparatchik and pumping his embassy mole, Nina (Annet Mahendru), for more than just information. By season’s end, Nina was running him.
It’s exactly the sort of topsy-turvy turbulence at which The Americans excels. Every character here, from Frank Gaad, Stan’s hawkish boss (played with droll remove by recovering John-Boy Richard Thomas), to the suddenly curious Paige Jennings, spies and is spied upon. With multiple masks to wear and roles to play,4 the only thing binding these disparate characters together is mistrust. Nothing is as it seems; the show feeds on paranoia like oxygen. The spy games are plenty fun — espionage was simply more entertaining in the dead-drop days before cell phones; this guy knows what I’m talking about — but what makes The Americans so devastating is its unflinching surveillance of its characters’ emotional lives. The Jenningses were paired up by the politburo but, in the years since arriving in D.C., their sham marriage has slowly evolved into a real one, replete with inside jokes, petty grievances, and carefully orchestrated car-pool routes. The difference, of course, is that lies haven’t leeched into their union over time. Lies are the foundation on which their entire house is built.
Though they eventually reached a détente, the Jenningses’ relationship upended the traditional power structure of cable dramas: It was Elizabeth who was the brittle killer, while Philip, aficionado of ice cream and cowboy boots, appeared to be more dedicated to her than the cause.5 Their love story in reverse — punctuated with frequent extramarital assignations and the occasional gun battle — was deeply sexy and almost perversely romantic. It suggested that, in work and life, behavior matters more than words and that the borders between people are as closely policed, and ultimately as porous, as those between nations. Fiercely unsentimental, The Americans was the best show on TV about marriage because it dared to treat the subject like the nuclear treaty it truly is. Mutually assured destruction sounds bad, but it sure beats loneliness.
Tonight’s premiere, “Comrades,” moves the doomsday clock ahead significantly. Though I loved the first season of The Americans dearly, I was in no way prepared for the burst of pure pleasure I felt while watching the first few episodes of Season 2. All the show’s considerable charms — its sly wit,6 its erotic intimacy, the way it pours out shots of adrenaline like vodka — are present and accounted for. Yet the entire series feels elevated, its storytelling more fraught and focused. When I interviewed showrunners Weisberg and Fields last year, they admitted that unlike nearly every one of their competitors, they stuck closely to the production schedule, turning in scripts as early as possible. This allowed them the relative luxury of sanding rough edges and tying off loose ends. One could only imagine what they were able to do with an entire summer of planning. It’s the difference between a ground battle and space lasers.
The plot has moved to 1982, and though it’s yet to be specifically cited, one quote from that year in particular seems to resonate. On January 26, in his first State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan declared that “The time has come to control the uncontrollable.” It’s a nice rhetorical flourish, but it’s also empty rhetoric. The uncontrollable, by definition, can’t be controlled. And yet here is Stan trying and failing to find a middle ground between Nina, his lover at work, and Sandra, his wife at home who is quickly becoming a stranger. (Actress Susan Misner, so good as the ignored Mrs. Beeman, is now a series regular.) It’s the rare show that can hinge such a delicate balance on a 30-year-old art-house film — here Stan uses the metafictional soap operatics of The French Lieutenant’s Woman to woo both his women — but it’s the even rarer actor who can communicate so much anguish with such an economy of movement. Emmerich plays Stan methodically, like a man chiseling Mount Rushmore by hand. Mahendru’s fierce Nina, by contrast, is laying into him with a hammer and sickle.
For the Jenningses, the uncontrollable takes the form of their rapidly maturing children. The closing image of the first-season finale was of Paige taking a tentative step into the laundry room, the place where her parents spend so much mysterious time. (Considering the frequency with which Philip and Elizabeth use a simple permanent-press cycle as a cover for photo developing, message decoding, and wig applying, it’s a wonder they weren’t busted sooner — by one of the kids or the local water utility.) This season pushes things even further, as Paige tracks down the “sick aunt” her mother claimed she was caring for (when she was really recovering from a gunshot wound), and, in a particularly memorable scene, pushes her way into her parents’ bedroom after hours. The closed door at the end of the hall that once loomed as ominously as Checkpoint Charlie swings open as easily as a turnstile. What Paige sees on the other side of it is a first for her — and, I believe, for basic cable. (I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say Philip and Elizabeth appear to be paying tribute to the year of the infamous Sino-Soviet border conflict.)
Thanks to the strong performances by Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati, the children here aren’t the liabilities they often are in other series. Instead, they’re essential. Every teenager thinks their parents are frauds — it’s true whether you grew up in the United States or in Ukraine. But on a deeper level, all teenagers are also equally desperate to be proved wrong. The villain hanging like storm clouds over The Americans’ second season isn’t Uncle Sam and it isn’t the unknown operative who appears to be targeting Directorate S.7 The bad guy here is the truth, and you can feel its noose tighten in every succeeding hour.
Teenagers aren’t the only ones who struggle with the changing relationships of adolescence. Parents have a hell of a time accepting their kids as independent people, not as obedient helpers or reflections of their best selves. This is doubly true on The Americans: Paige and Henry began as props and cover stories. Now they’re the only things to which their duplicitous parents could ever truly pledge allegiance. It’s a contingency the chilly KGB never planned for: You can have a fake name and you can even have a fake marriage. But you can’t have fake kids. (In this, at least, Sting was more prescient than Khrushchev.) That Philip and Elizabeth still try to have it both ways with their children — there’s a moment when Philip has one hand wrapped around pilfered satellite plans and the other around Henry’s shoulder — is chilling and bordering on unforgivable. In tonight’s episode, written by Weisberg and Fields and ably directed by TV veteran8 Tommy Schlamme (The West Wing), the Jennings family spends what’s meant to be a lazy Saturday at a local carnival. At one point, Paige and Henry come barreling out of a haunted house and right into the arms of their parents, who scream and holler like the monsters they’ve just fled. It’s not a metaphor. It’s a warning.
And if last year is any indication, it won’t be heeded until it’s almost too late. Near the end of last season, when Philip’s long con on Martha, an FBI secretary played with vigor by Alison Wright, threatened to blow up in his face, he responded by tossing a bomb of his own: He proposed. Soon enough, Clark, Philip’s cleverly named alter ego, was walking down the aisle with Martha. Elizabeth, Philip’s actual wife, was in attendance and in mufti as Clark’s sister. This was certifiably insane: Not only is Clark already married, Clark also doesn’t even exist. But it was also inspiring, proof The Americans believed enough in its cause to risk its life — or at least its credibility — when it mattered most. This year, that cosmonaut-like spirit to push forward, recklessly into the unknown, continues. Week by week, as the stakes rise and the lies tumble down, The Americans pirouettes on the head of a pin — not the type you use to darn socks, but the kind that plugs up grenades. There are booby-trapped lockboxes, country-singing Israelis, and honeypots that sting. The limits of bigamy are tested, while its potential advantages are (noisily) considered. The Americans is a show that never says nyet. When pushed to the limit, it goes Dada.
But it also never strays too far from home. Not the motherland or morning in the Gipper’s America — I’m talking about the actual house, with aluminum siding and a two-car garage, the place where the Jenningses plot and scheme, bicker and screw like nearly every married couple, even the ones without fake mustaches hidden in the floorboards. Nothing else on TV can match The Americans for the dizzying highs of its suspense or the unsettling depths of its emotion. But the reason it’s become the best show on television is more simple: In spite of its radical premise and perilous plots, the most discomfiting aspect of The Americans is its familiarity. All long-term relationships, whether between nation-states or lovers, involve delicate negotiations. They all demand loyalty. And they all require sacrifice. Recognizing this doesn’t make us American. It makes us human. The glorious struggle is our own.