by Josie Kafka
Elizabeth and Philip Jennings didn’t have it easy: trained by the KGB to imitate Americans, transplanted to a new country, forced to live as a married couple despite not knowing each other—all of these early challenges take place in the show’s background, with the flashbacks providing brief explanations of how Elizabeth and Philip came to be the people they are (and the people they pretend to be). In the present-day of the show, Elizabeth and Philip have fully committed to their assumed lives. They have two children, occupy a house in the suburbs, and debate adding a wine-cellar/prison to their basement.
Keri Russell, made famous as the adorable curly-haired titular character on Felicity, does a wonderful job projecting steely reserve and understated emotional conflicts about the half-sham, half-reality of Elizabeth Jennings’s life. Elizabeth’s husband Philip, played by Matthew Rhys, has a puppy-dog quality that makes his occasional violent outbursts understandable rather than horrifying. (I cheered him on in one scene.)
Needless to say, their lives are complicated. Elizabeth and Philip were not allowed to tell each other their “real” pre-KGB lives, so they’ve only known each other’s fake backstories. And they live a fake “now-story” every day. But you can’t fake living: Elizabeth makes brownies to give to a new neighbor, and her motives might be fake—but does it matter? She’s still doing the neighborly thing. If you act married and live a married life, isn’t your fake-husband pretty much the real thing? Or at least as real and flawed as the many imperfect marriages out there?
Philip seems to think so, which is a source of tension in their marriage. Unlike Elizabeth, he is not driven by strict adherence to Russia and socialism. He enjoys America, and he enjoys his life with a beautiful wife and cute children. Elizabeth’s hard-nosed devotion to the country she actually calls “the motherland” was off-putting at first, but her simple, straightforward love for her children tempers any shrillness that her (otherwise intense) character might generate. Her coldness, in other words, is just part of her—and possibly just as much a mask as the mom jeans. One of the final scenes in the pilot episode shows her, finally, breaking a KGB rule and solidifying her relationship with Philip as she does so. And The Americans trusts us to understand the importance of that moment, without forcing awkward emotional exposition from either of the two characters.
That excellent characterization takes place against a backdrop of 1980s spycraft, which consists of flashlights, wigs, lockpicks, and other pleasantly low-tech devices. Setting this show in the 1980s was a great decision: shoe leather and gumption is more fun to watch than distant surveillance (unless we’re talking about Person of Interest, which manages to make that work).
The Reagan-era setting also makes it that much easier to sympathize with two characters who, on the face of it, want to destroy America and all it stands for. I was born in the early 80s, so it’s hard for me to hear “Russian” and think “evil villain”—the Cold War was over before I was old enough to care. In fact, I found myself nodding along with Elizabeth as, in a moment of desperate honesty, she tried to figure out how to help her children grow into something other than capitalistic robots. And, let’s be honest, a lot of the American political rhetoric of the 1980s was horrifying. I’d be curious to know how other viewers felt about this question—is it hard to identify with Russian spies if you really experienced the long years of the Cold War?
Anyway, I don’t want to give away too much of what happens in the pilot. The Americans's style of suspense is slow-paced and low-key; it feels real in a way quite unlike the adrenaline-fueled madness of something like 24 or even Homeland. At this point, it is more of a character study with the characters in a strange, tense situation. And for that reason, I enjoyed it immensely, and award it three and a half out of four hammer-and-sickles.
(Although I’ve avoided spoilers in this review, please consider the comments fair game.)
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)