[Note: This recap reveals spoilers through the first episode of The Americans.]
It’s hard not to think FX’s new drama, The Americans, is inspired at least in part by Richard and Cynthia Murphy. The Murphys were an ordinary couple living in Montclair, New Jersey, with two daughters. She baked brownies, he grilled hamburgers on the deck; on weekends the whole family went to the Char-Broil diner for brunch, according to the Daily Telegraph. It was the kind of wholesome American cuteness that could only mean one thing: The Murphys were Russian spies.
They were also Russian spies in 2010, long after the embers of the Cold War had burned out, in an era when the relationship between the US and the former USSR was supposed to have been positively balmy by comparison. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, the couple at the heart of The Americans, are similarly Brady Bunch-esque, but the show’s creators have placed them in 1981 instead, opening the door to all kinds of spy scenarios involving park bench dead drops, ugly wigs, and Reagan speeches (as well as a stellar soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins). It’s a brilliant concept given our collective cultural fascination with the ’80s, but it’s also a distraction from the fact that this is as much a show about marriage as it is a costume drama about a pair of unlikely but efficient Soviet agents.
In last night’s pilot episode, we saw the icily ruthless and dogmatic Elizabeth (Keri Russell) using sex to get information from a DOJ official, threatening her husband with a knife, and baking brownies from scratch to win favor with her new neighbors (one of whom, Stan—played by the brilliant Noah Emmerich—happens to be an FBI agent with an eerily effective radar for trouble). We saw her husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys), line dance in a shopping mall, pry facts from an FBI agent under the guise of being an internal affairs investigator, stab a man in the hand with a fork for threatening his daughter, and strangle a Russian defector before disposing of the body in an extremely visual and gory way.
And yet, despite his capacity for brilliantly choreographed violence, it’s Phillip who’s the weak link in the operation, a fact over which his wife has apparently been expressing concerns to higher-ups for years. It’s Phillip who listens to tapes of his wife prying information from gullible men with an unreadable expression on his face, and Phillip who wants to defect so he can get $3 million from the FBI and ensure his children’s safety. It’s Phillip who wants their marriage to be pleasure rather than business, and who kills a defector out of loyalty to Elizabeth (who was raped by that same Russian) rather than loyalty to the regime. In The Americans, the ties that bind are an impossibly knotted web of ideals and real affection. Rhys’s performance is quite exceptional in the way he manages to make his character both sympathetic and believable.
As Elizabeth, Russell has a different task—her character is stunningly single-minded when it comes to the cause, flipping gender stereotypes in a pleasingly complex way. “You’re my wife,” Phillip tells her right after she attempts to pull a knife on him. “Is that right?” she replies. And yet her devotion to her children is genuine, as is her barely concealed horror that both of them are growing up to become true-blue Americans, with no notion of what their parents actually do. “They’re not going to be socialists,” Phillip tells her, dispelling her hopes that they might become trade unionists or even socialists (lol at that in the cynical new millennium). “This place doesn’t turn out socialists.” In attempting to protect her children from the consequences of her mission, Elizabeth has to face that they’re also becoming the very thing she most despises.
Despite the fact that it’s a tautly crafted drama, by its very nature, The Americans is also a comedy. It’s impossible to see Rhys transform himself with wigs, makeup, and glasses without snickering at the old-fashionedness of it all, or to watch Elizabeth try to undermine America’s achievements to her kids without appreciating the absurd nature of her task. Phillip attends an event at his son’s school and sings “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one hand over his heart, while the camera zooms in on his quizzical features. And after the act of killing a KGB defector finally unites the two (as well as some in-car action accompanied by “In the Air Tonight”), they drink vodka shots in bed and hold hands like James Bond and one of his Slavic conquests.
“There’s a weakness in these people. I can feel it,” Elizabeth tells her new husband after the pair first arrive in the US, and both are surprised by the luxury of an air conditioning unit. Luckily for viewers, the chinks in this show as yet are much harder to identify.
What did you think about the pilot of The Americans? Let us know in the comments.