The Americans is a show about borders, the arbitrary ones that separate competing countries and rival ideologies and the even more pliable frontiers we use to define and delineate our lives. Last season, after enduring a brutal civil war that took them to the brink of defection, death, and divorce, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings drew a bright line around their suburban home. With their devotion to their Soviet masters no longer absolute, they pledged allegiance instead to each other and the home life that they themselves had created. It’s not something a true believer like Elizabeth would ever admit aloud, but the personal had become paramount for both of them; Paige and Henry were far more present and demanding than the glorious struggle ever was. Over time, their family life had become a cover story that comforted, a mask that felt more genuine than the truth. Ever the good soldiers, Philip and Elizabeth would continue to do their dirty work outside their house but only in the hopes that it wouldn’t follow them home.
So much for that plan. The stunning second-season finale of The Americans was called “Echo,” and it referred to much more than a top-secret computer program. For 13 increasingly desperate hours we’ve watched the Jenningses do terrible, unspeakable things in order to protect their cover and maintain their lives. They’ve shot unarmed busboys in the face, slit the screaming throats of soldiers, stuffed students into trash cans, and torn weeping fathers from their sons. Somehow, throughout all of this physical and emotional carnage, Philip and Elizabeth firmly held on to the belief that blowback could be avoided, that the awful energy they put out into the world would never boomerang back through their front door.
Last night, like some perverse version of The Secret, all of those bloody chickens came home to roost. The hideous sounds of Jared’s dying confession and the harshness ringing in Claudia’s final commands were the echoes of everything Philip and Elizabeth had done and a terrifying reminder of how little control they truly have. Though they act in the name of others, the consequences of those actions are theirs and theirs alone. You’d think they’d have been more aware of this, maybe been caught less off guard. But with a military killer to avoid, a revolution to foment, and a chicken to roast, they can be forgiven for being a little distracted even if they can never be forgiven for what they’ve done. Philip and Elizabeth are so good at being spies that, for a few excruciating weeks, they managed to deceive even themselves.
Though its characters struggle mightily with identity, The Americans itself does not. This triumphant and devastating second season only affirms what the show’s fans have known for some time: This is the brightest and best young series on television. With Mad Men ending, nothing else on the air is as committed to the unpredictable inner lives of its characters or the cruel and untidy exigencies of the human heart. The Americans is a fascinating and thorough accounting of The Way Things Were 30 years ago — when spying meant wearing wigs and seducing sources, not intercepting emails — a time when the world teetered precariously on the outcome of a zero-sum game. (On the one side, blue jeans. On the other, mushroom clouds.) But it’s even better as a mirror into The Way We Are Now, and maybe The Way We’ve Always Been: a country full of damaged optimists, as committed to trusting others as we are to hiding our innermost selves. There are plenty of shows with twisty plots, but only The Americans curls and tightens around its viewers like a noose.
The first year of the show started slowly, with a handful of episodes that felt almost like stand-alones: the one with the clock, the one with Derek Luke. Eventually, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields wove these threads into a larger tapestry about the limits of fidelity, whether to a government or another person. By contrast, this second year told a single punishing story, from beginning to bitter end. The result was more thematically ambitious and, ultimately, more satisfying. As the season ended, I was drawn back repeatedly to images of where it began: Philip in the car after the botched Afghan hit, his hands shaking as he looks in the mirror; Elizabeth nearly running over a family of deer in the woods outside the safe house upstate; Paige pushing through a closed door and running from what she saw. In our podcast conversation, Weisberg and Fields discussed their rigor in staying ahead of the production schedule, allowing them the relative luxury of planning plots in advance and seeding early stories with ideas that wouldn’t bloom until much later. This makes me both very excited for the future and very worried about a certain handgun resting in someone’s kitchen drawer.
This meticulous order behind the scenes made everything in front of them messy in the best possible way. As the complications and corpses piled up, there was barely enough time to swap out one wig for the next. Bloodstains lingered, even after being scrubbed. Philip and Elizabeth began using their real emotional turmoil as fuel for their fictional missions: The way the lingering trauma from her sexual assault helped hook the young seaman; the way his anguish over the botched training camp raid fed into Clark’s anger with the doctored audiotape. And Freud would have a field day with the confusion that ensued when Elizabeth (not her real name) wanted Philip (not his real name) to seduce her, in character, as Clark, the made-up person married to someone else. Ther result wasn’t kink, it was real pain. Being a skilled liar doesn’t make one any less vulnerable to the truth.
Last night we learned that the killer who had haunted the margins of the entire season was hiding in plain sight all along. Emmett and Leanne weren’t shot by Andrew Larrick or Claudia’s vengeful lover or a short-circuiting mail robot. It was their own son, Jared, who did it, his mind puffed up with the same mixture of genuine longing and naive ego that’s currently vibrating off Paige like radio waves. The revelation was particularly cruel for Elizabeth. She had spent much of the episode — and, indirectly, much of the season — projecting all of her own parenting hopes and fears onto Jared. When she spoke of “the risks” taken by Emmett and Leanne, how it was all for something “greater than themselves,” she was really rehearsing an argument she’d made many times in her head to Paige and Henry. When she said she’d “never met” anyone who loved their kids so much, she was rationalizing with herself. How could anyone who loves their kids lie to them with such ease and abandon? Elizabeth flatters herself when she identifies her own passion and yearning in Paige, as if converting her daughter to the cause would absolve Elizabeth from all the killing she’s done. It’s all too tidy, a way to root Paige in the dream world Elizabeth desperately wants to help create.
But children aren’t assets. They can’t be so easily manipulated; when things go topsy-turvy you can’t leave them to bleed out in a phone booth. Henry is still young enough to fall for things like surprise vacations, but he won’t be for long. Paige, like all teenagers, is convinced her parents are serial liars. What sort of damage will it cause when she learns that she’s right? The horrible truth of what the KGB did to Jared is what sends Philip to a confrontation with Arkady — the first time the characters have ever shared the screen. Philip needs his kids to believe in the goodness and normalcy of their family in the same way Martha needs to believe in Clark: The alternative is too catastrophic for words. Remember the agonizing moment when Henry, caught sneaking into the neighbors’ house, lay on his bed insisting, “I’m a good person!” The cry could have easily been coming from Philip’s own battered conscience.
Elizabeth sees it another way. In a conversation that foreshadows the conflict to come in Season 3, she suggests that maybe the Center’s plan for “second generation illegals” isn’t such a bad one. “She’s looking for something in her life,” Elizabeth says of Paige. “What if this is it?” There’s a way to look at her thinking in which it almost appears reasonable. Elizabeth just saw what happens to a child when his life is exploded from the outside — wouldn’t it be better for a mother to flip the detonator herself? But the more realistic explanation for Elizabeth’s wavering is a dash of the same vanity that lingers within every parent, even the supposedly selfless ones. All parents want a better life for their kids, but sometimes the temptation to be recognized by those same kids can be overwhelming. It’s possible that confessing to Paige would benefit someone. But I don’t think that someone would be Paige.
Elizabeth, as an immigrant, wants her struggle to be both validated and, in some ways, echoed by her American children. She’s jealous of them even as she pushes them forward. In the car with Philip, just before all hell broke loose on the police scanner, she opened up about her own hard childhood, when she was forced to care for her sick mother without complaint or help. When Philip said “that must have been hard for you,” the look on Elizabeth’s face was astonishing. It was as if no one had ever offered her kindness before, or empathy. Those are things we all deserve from our parents; if we don’t get it from them, it can be tough sledding. Some holes just can’t be filled, no matter how hard we try. I think Philip knows that the best way to parent Paige would be to try to understand her, not to throw up his hands in frustration. But the former might jeopardize his cover — and now we learn it might jeopardize all of their lives. It’s not too late for Paige to find what she’s looking for. But it’s not something that can be handed to her. And she shouldn’t have to find it herself.
As usual, the weight of the Jenningses story has forced me to give short shrift to the anguish occurring just across the street. While Philip and Elizabeth sought to keep their family together, Stan Beeman was as isolated as Laika, the cosmonaut dog floating forever in the depths of space. (It was nice having Susan Misner in the main cast this year as Sandra even though she appeared more in the credits than the actual show.) Though I never really thought he would go through with his espionage, it was still heartbreaking to watch him walk away from both women in his life. (I’m confident we haven’t seen the last of the wonderful Annet Mahendru — as Fields told me, “Nina’s a survivor.” And I’m thrilled at the prospect of Costa Ronin’s return as the New Wave–bopping Oleg. He quickly established himself as one of the strongest performers on a show brimming with them.) Poor Stan. It’s a fairly common phrase to call someone “a man without a country.” What do you call a man who has nothing else?
The writers’ room for Season 3 of The Americans won’t even convene until this summer, but already the possibilities appear as overloaded as the Jenningses’ groaning dinner table. Will Stan’s lonely bachelorhood bring him closer to Philip even as the latter is struggling to extricate himself from his professional obligations? Will Elizabeth’s interest in recruiting Paige disrupt a fake marriage that only just started to feel real? Which set of Americans are the enemy here, the ones with badges or the ones with braces? As impatient as I am to find out, it’s clear that the drama will never stray too far from the cold war raging within the Jenningses’ own home. And nor should it.
The life of any adult, whether you have a forged passport in the laundry room or not, can often seem as if it requires secret compartments for survival. The cost of total exposure can seem too high. It’s what makes stealth technology sound so attractive, even today. What these two excellent seasons of television have made very plain is that nearly anything can be faked — identities, love, facial hair — but not family. Family sees us in the ways we’d rather not be seen, touches us in places we thought couldn’t be reached. For good or ill, family is the only door that can’t be locked.