The Americans: Pilot

Developed by Graham Yost (Justified) and Joe Weisberg (former CIA), the new FX show The Americans is about Russian sleeper agents in the early 1980s. They speak English, they buy cowboy boots, they worry their daughter is growing up too fast—and they’ve committed themselves to protecting the motherland and defeating America and its capitalist ideology. More or less.

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?)

22 comments:

sunbunny said...

I'm intrigued by the concept, mostly because it reminds me of Alias. I was born in the late eighties, missing the Cold War pretty completely. I love American political history from back then, though. It's fascinating the way political rhetoric and capitalist propaganda (for lack of a better word) melded with popular culture to create a weird shoulder-padded, mega-permed monster. One day I shall write a book about Reaganomics and Ducktales...

Josie Kafka said...

Sunbunny, I just watched The Iron Lady on Showtime--it's the Margaret Thatcher movie with Meryl Streep. If 80s politics are your thing, you might enjoy it. Although I don't know enough about Thatcher to say whether it is accurate.

ChrisB said...

This knocked my socks off. It didn’t begin well for me. I had to watch the cold open twice as I lost track of who was whom (all three men looked a lot alike to me); and I was repulsed by Elizabeth. As the story began to unfold, however, I found myself pondering some pretty big questions. How is it possible to honestly believe that your country is more important than your family? The one is a geographical location and a cultural identity while the other is living, breathing people whom, one assumes, you love.

How do you continue to so strongly associate yourself with a cultural identity when you have lived for so long not only in another country but as another person? I have often thought about this as I lived abroad for twelve years, but certainly not as another person nor did I ever give up my American citizenship or sensibilities.

Is it possible to live with someone as a spouse, pretending to love him or her in front of the world without feeling something for that person? This, for me, was the most interesting part of the episode. From literally pushing Phillip away at the beginning, we watch Elizabeth realize that her “husband” loves her and proves it in a very real way. Watching them together in the car after the event, I had the distinct feeling that this was the first time they had ever made love as opposed to simply having sex.

As I am twenty years older than you are, Josie, and damn near thirty years older than you are, sunbunny, I remember the Cold War very well. In fact, when I was in grade school, we still had what TPTB euphemistically called “Civil Defense Drills.” We would all line up facing the walls of the hallway, kneel down and shield our faces with our hands. Because, of course, that would protect us from a direct nuclear strike. My aunt and uncle had a cellar full of canned goods (when I say full, I mean enough to feed their family of four for at least two years) and when we landed on the moon, I remember a lot of the grown-ups cheering the fact that we had beaten the Russians. (As an aside, I loved the part in this episode where Elizabeth tells her son that just getting into space was an accomplishment.)

It is much easier to rule when the people over whom you preside are afraid. When I was a child, it was Russia and its weapons. Luckily, I had parents who were very smart, very literate and who didn’t accept what they were told just because they were told so I was spared a lot of the nonsense. However, I cried and cheered when the wall came down. It was the end of an era and, in many ways, the symbolic end to my childhood.

I felt at the end of this episode the way I always do at the end of Das Boot, the ultimate shades of grey movie. Who are the good guys and who are the bad? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Josie Kafka said...

Chris, I got confused during the cold open, too. It was very dark (at least on my TV, which is old) and I think that made it harder to see.

What struck me about the family vs. patriotism question is the way that, in some ways, it's not a question at all. Especially for Philip: when he imagined defecting, he assumed they would all still be together, and he and Elizabeth would be married. She didn't contradict him on that. The kids might be an excuse, but I think they're "married" just as much as any other married couple--even if they got there differently. I found that really touching.

I wrote this review right after watching the episode, and I spent all day wishing I could watch another one. Not to find out what happens, just because it was so interesting. That's a good sign.

CrazyCris said...

I was intrigued by the premise of this series, and after watching the pilot I'm in! Like Josie I found myself wishing I could watch another episode asap! :o)

ChrisB, I've lived so long in "other countries" I no longer have a clear cultural identity... so I find it even more mysterious that Elizabeth could still hold on to the "Motherland" for so long! It's easier for me to believe in Philip's evolving view. He did what he did in the end for her, not the "motherland". But I guess Elizabeth has been conditioned for this from a very young age what with her father dying in WW2 and her mother working for "the party". It's conditioning from such a young age it's very difficult to overcome.

I too loved the scene with her son and "it's not all about landing on the moon, getting to space first is more important"! :o)
If anything were to make Elizabeth flip I think it would be a threat to her children... Say her bosses want 2nd generation spies? The daughter would be the right age to start... THAT would get the parents riled up!

The '80s... man were those cars boxy!!! I'm not used to seeing that many rectangular cars anymore! :p

This is going to be fun! Please tell me you guys will keep reviewing it? :o)

celticmarc said...

Shame on me Josie, because I haven't read your review, but rather spent some time on the comments....

Wow the comments are getting (allllllmost) as good (wink wink) as the reviews themselves. No wonder I enjoy my time here.

The eighties : the best decade for pop music. Period. Non negotiable. The best.

The cold war. Best example on how a few people can manage to hold the rest of the population hostage in fear. Thank you Kennedy for keeping your cool in 1960 : WW3 avoided. (I was born in sept. 63; in November, my late dad cried when he learned the news of his assassination)(and he was Canadian).

I've spent 2 wonderful in Berlin back in 2000...in the formally eastern part of the city. Needless to say that they were a huge amount of crying and relief when the wall fell. After 11 years, the people I visited were still affected by the cold war and the iron curtain.

Some of the members of the family I was visiting were finally able to travel freely around the world and they sure did. A lot. Quite a paradox for me to cross an ocean and watch a videotape of the Montreal' olympic stadium by tourists. (And I now live close to it) (that memory still brings a smile to my face)

Unfortunately, I do not exactly remember the title, but there was a movie about the illegal surveillance of people in the former East Germany.

We should be thanking Heaven that we are living in a relatively free country, regardless may it be G-B, CDN, USA or any other one. Dictatorship is not good for the Human soul.

CrazyCris said...

The Life of Others (en Fran├žais La Vie Des Autres) is the movie you're thinking of Marc. Excellent film!

My mom (Spanish, living in Spain) also cried when Kennedy died... he seems to have had that effect on people all around the world.

Jess Lynde said...

I thought this was a very strong pilot. I definitely had that whole "who should I be rooting for here?" reaction. They've done an amazing job of making the spies sympathetic, particularly Phillip. Lots of fascinating character questions to chew on, too, which Josie and the commenters have covered quite well. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this series progresses.

celticmarc said...

Merci Cris

Justement celui-la !

What I find a bit ironic today about Kennedy, is that "they" insist on his womanizer side. Irish blood; that reminds me of someone. (nah, I probably have a few drops myself !)

Nadim said...

I just saw this and wanted to pop in here before I even ATTEMPTED to write my own review... WOW! I LOVED this. It was just so wonderfully layered and compelling!

And how has no one mentioned the rape? So disturbing particularly in the midst of "training." I was SO pleased when Phillip let loose on his wife's attacker.

I can't WAIT to watch another episode and this has so rarely happened with pilots recently. Aaaaah the thrill of a brand new show that's just so confident and kickass!

HellBlazerRaiser said...

I haven't watched the whole pilot yet, but I did see my sweet, beloved Felicity kicking a man in the head multiple times in the car in the opening scene.

I taped it. I'll be watching it tonight or tomorrow.

Josie Kafka said...

HBR, this probably would have passed me by if you hadn't mentioned it in the comments of the Winter Premiere Dates post. Thank you!

PlatinumRosebud said...

Enjoyed the pilot.
And of course, like I have said
before, my viewing isn't complete until I have read a comment from Doux News. :)
Good job, Josie!

Lots of story points.

On the personal relationship
between Philip and Elizabeth,
it seems like the establishment
of their emotional bond with
each other is just starting.

Marc, I also grew up in the 80s
and yeah, for me, nothing beats
the music of these years.

It's great to watch the spy era
during the 80s.
The "old" methods and procedures;
the signals and dead drops.
I think the "players" during those
time are genius in creating/
inventing these nuances.
What is interesting is that they
vary; unlike nowadays, you can
predict that these things will be
via comm devices and other electronic gadgets.

sunbunny said...

Just actually watched it and it was really good. I'm especially interested in the undercover background of the FBI neighbor person. I never would have watched if it weren't for this review so thanks Josie!
P.S. Zomg Mom jeans. If they're not flattering on Keri Russell, who would they be flattering on?

Billie Doux said...

I saw it last night and thought it was terrific. The couple in particular have such a complicated and unique relationship that I think I'd watch just for that -- it's what I was hoping they would do with Undercovers. The 80s setting, the way they constantly shifted from an ordinary American family life to murder in the garage, the FBI agent moving in across the street, the music! I'm definitely going to keep watching and I hope that the rest of it is as good as the pilot.

Anonymous said...

1981 was my first year at university [college], so I grew up with the hovering threat of the cold war. I will never forget a late seventies documentary that put the odds of the world being blown up in a nuclear holocaust by the end of the Eighties at 50/50. Yeah, that was fun.

But I'm not American, and that gives me a very different perspective on it. I'm puzzled, for example, Josie, that you find it weird that Elizabeth calls Russia the Motherland, because I find the American use of Homeland (as in Honeland Security etc) has the exact same propaganda-y ring to it! Same with the scene where they're singing the national anthem with their hands over their hearts - I know Americans grow up with that and think nothing of it, but to non-Americans it seems very similar in tone to the fervour the Communists used to display towards the Soviet Union. So from my perspective Elizabeth's feelings about her country look pretty much the same as the Americans' feelings about theirs. What with that and, probably, the fact that they're not targeting my own country, I don't find it difficult finding her a sympathetic character to follow.

Gavrielle

Anonymous said...

Just in case my last comment wasn't long enough, I should add that Russians do customarily refer to their country as the Motherland (like the Germans call theirs the Fatherland).

Gavrielle

celticmarc said...

And, on top of all these discussions, I am announcing that I was firstly a citizen of the Planet. Do not ask me to get a weapon and kill someone for a Flag, a different religion, skin color, different way of thinking, etc. Embrace the difference, don't fear it.

WAY too much terror on this planet with anything, anyone, any politic party, any corporation, etc that has extremist views.

How can you be really, totally happy in your Life when, in the background, remains the possibility of total annihilation ! That background has been increasing since 1945...

HellBlazerRaiser said...

HBR, this probably would have passed me by if you hadn't mentioned it in the comments of the Winter Premiere Dates post. Thank you!

Yay!!! You made my day!!! :)

I've gotten a few of my friends to watch it too. I had to tell my FELICITY buddies that Felicity stars in it and my BROTHERS AND SISTERS buddies that Kevin stars in it.

Bringing two worlds together....

celticmarc said...

(whoah ! I was on a roll in feb the 4th LOL)

I've decided to plunge into the pilot tonight; glad I did. Solid acting. Seeing the black camaro (or Trans Am, whatever) made me smile and brought a few memories (even though I never drove one) (but wish I did). Loved the chase scene with Tusk in the background music. Wow.

Promising show, although I'm still uncertain if I'd commit. (I'm preparing for the Buffy Fest instead)

The car plate : JFQ.. I wonder why but I kept thinking about... John F. ...Quennedy !

celticmarc said...

ChrisB,

Being the same age as you, I did NOT have the "chance" of having C.D. drills like you. But I had neighbors who had air raid sirens in their backyards ! COOL !!

Quite am impression when those suckers had a false alarm ! Oh my ! "Unfortunately", they have been removed since. (and they always reminded me of the first The Time Machine movie)

celticmarc said...

PlatinumRosebud, glad you love the music too. I spent way too much time watching music videos back then.

It was good from A ha to ZZ Top...