We’ve all been there. Your KGB bosses demand that you plant a bug inside the home office of the Secretary of Defense, which is seemingly impossible until you locate a maid who works for the SoD’s household, surreptitiously poison her son with a mysterious substance that kills within 72 hours to which only you have the antidote, and then blackmail her until she steals a clock for you. Then, when her brother unexpectedly pulls a gun on you, threatening both your life and the integrity of your false eyebrows and mustache, you’re forced to get very, very violent. And the whole time, all you really want to do is sit in your son Henry’s room and watch him creepily while he sleeps, enjoying your conflicted feelings about family, loyalty, and smothering other people’s children.
Except we haven’t been there, or even remotely close to it, so kudos to Matthew Rhys for making the most full-on bonkers TV storyline since Walter White robbed a train full of chemicals seem practically as natural as breathing. Last night’s episode of The Americans, succinctly titled “The Clock,” offered a glimpse at Philip Jennings’s dark side, last exhibited when he was stabbing a pedophile in the hand with grilling implements. But it also incorporated some of the absurdist humor Breaking Bad employs so well, namely when Philip (a KGB spy) and Stan (his neighbor, an FBI agent on his tail) snacked on $500-a-pound Beluga caviar with Doritos.
Like Walter White and his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank, having Philip and Stan operate in such close proximity to one another offers plenty of potential for dramatic tension, especially given that one knows the other might be suspicious of him. As tactical plot devices go, it could seem clunky if it weren’t for the brilliant performances of Rhys and Noah Emmerich (Emmerich especially seems to be winking at viewers with almost everything he does). But here we are, two episodes in, with two very different organizations closing in on one another because of the efficiency of these two men. Thanks to Stan’s unconventional interrogations in an audio shop, the FBI has a spy inside the Russian embassy. And thanks to Philip (never Phil, you’ll notice), the KGB has a bug inside the Secretary of Defense’s office, right when Margaret Thatcher happens to be paying Washington a visit.
Fans of old-fashioned spycraft had plenty to relish in “The Clock,” from Philip’s never-ending supply of disguises to mysterious, slow-acting poisons to bugs and radio equipment so oversize it’s larger than the average briefcase. As much as The Americans cribs from Homeland and Breaking Bad, it also seems to nod heartily at James Bond, particularly with the bimbo Philip’s pumping for information whose husband is an undersecretary at the Pentagon. In fact, there was so much Philip in this episode that we only got glimpses of Elizabeth, who seemed mostly concerned with her daughter Paige’s red bra. “I worry about her,” Elizabeth says to her husband. “She’s . . . delicate, somehow.” (Since Paige seems more robustly cheerful and confident than other girls her age, we can only assume her mother’s talking about her susceptibility to the cloying influences of capitalism. Although the bra was red, so . . .)
Some more thoughts:
If the pilot was all about Philip wanting to defect and Elizabeth’s burning loyalty to Russia, we got glimpses of a shift in the closing moments of last night’s episode. “They shouldn’t ask us to do impossible things,” she told him, letting down her guard for a moment, even though previously she’d been packing heat so she could kill herself rather than turn traitor to the regime.
Paige’s geometric bedroom wallpaper is ghastly. Kudos.
Also kudos for filming a few scenes in Washington this week (Georgetown University, views of the Kennedy Center), given that the pilot looked like it was filmed entirely in Harlem.
What will the KGB do now that they know the US is constructing a ballistic missile shield? “Think what a different world we’ll live in when we don’t have to worry about those damn nuclear missiles,” said the British SoD. To which, from 2013, we laugh, wearily.
It’s becoming pretty clear that Elizabeth’s gargantuan Achilles heel is her children, as displayed by the discomfort in her eyes when Philip held the pillow over Grayson’s face.
We get that you have to do graphic sex scenes, FX, just like Showtime had to do in Homeland’s first few episodes. But, enough. They don’t actually offer anything to the plot, and this isn’t pay cable.
What did you think of last night’s episode of The Americans? Let us know in the comments.