Last season on The Americans: It was 1981. Ugly sweaters weren’t just for Christmas. The KGB sent attractive operatives on long-term, deep-cover missions to infiltrate American suburbia. And the spies also happened to be really hot thirtysomething parents.
When we last saw Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), she was laid up in the hospital following a shootout with the FBI, but finally ready to commit to Philip (Matthew Rhys), even after his sham marriage to unsuspecting secretary Martha. So how did the Jenningses spend their hiatus?
Season two begins at dusk outside a cabin in a secluded forest, with Elizabeth getting in her car and driving off. Who knew KGB agents had such woodsy convalescences? Episode director Thomas Schlamme never focuses on the woman with whom Elizabeth has been staying, but don’t get too excited—she’s definitely not played by Margo Martindale. (Don’t worry, though, Granny will be back soon enough.)
As for Phillip, he’s been spending his time as a single dad by doing skullduggery for the Soviet Union’s now-three-year-old war in Afghanistan. Philip is breaking bread with two Afghan nationals in the back room of a suburban restaurant, posing as a blond, cowboy-hatted American agent. Commence the killing: Philip plugs them both, then stands up for the kill shots, but not before taunting his younger victim that the “KGB is everywhere.” Frankly, that seems sloppy for the otherwise brutally efficient Philip, because his little speech gives one of the wounded freedom fighters a chance to put up a quick fight, rip off the wig, and taunt back, “You Russians don’t know who you’re fu—” before taking one in the head.
Shame for Philip’s government that he didn’t let the kid bleat out “—cking with.” He could have relayed the message back to Moscow and saved the regime so much trouble in Central Asia. Oh, and then Philip exits past a young line cook who overheard the whole thing and gets offed as a result.
Two Afghan militants and a line cook down before the credits roll. Welcome to 1982.
After their mission—and their marriage—nearly unraveled in the first season, Elizabeth and Philip seem resolved to bolster their cover of domestic bliss. Not only are Paige and Henry overjoyed to have their mom back, but Elizabeth actually comes home on Henry’s birthday. There’s a backyard party, Philip settles up with friendly neighborhood FBI agent Stan over a travel deal gone wrong, and everyone seems, at least momentarily, content.
Especially this dweeby guy Roy, whom we meet naked as the day he was born, with an equally nude Elizabeth in a blonde wigstraddling him in a seedy hotel room. Oh, and there’s another woman crawling up his chest, too. But Roy’s romp gets broken up by a couple of suits (Philip in fine wig and false nose form and a friend) from “Air Force security,” who question him at gunpoint while he clutches a very strategic pillow. Who is Roy? I’m not really sure yet, but he’s got a big new job at Lockheed that gets him a good time, at least until the (phony) feds show up.
Meanwhile, back in suburbia, Philip and Elizabeth are spending Henry’s birthday on “date night” for themselves, though they promise the kids they’ll have a whole “Henry weekend.” Date night turns out to be a clandestine meeting with another couple who turn out to be spies just like the Jenningses. New assignments, dead drops, and surviving in the suburbs. Maybe Philip was right—the KGB is everywhere.
But The Americans begins its second season focusing not on the KGB but on Paige, whose distrust of her parents is amping up, even though that feeling often manifests itself in spy-like behavior. Henry catches Paige sifting through Elizabeth’s clothes; her defense is “I’m doing mom’s laundry.”
And now, the season premiere’s critical moment:
Elizabeth and Philip’s parenting style has been governed by one overarching rule: Stay the hell out of our bedroom. Well, in season two, Paige is going boldly where no KGB child has gone before. A few hours after her laundry service, Paige goes creeping into the bedroom to find her parents’ naked bodies intertwined in a position that surely has never been shown on basic cable. But remember this moment, and not just for the extended shot of Keri Russell’s face rising above Matthew Rhys’s nether regions: If a child discovers her parents going down on each other in the season premiere, she will discover her parents’ KGB secrets by the season finale. It’s like Chekhov’s gun, but with way more nudity.
As for Stan, his life isn’t nearly as pleasant as he made it sound at Henry’s party. He’s still shacked up with now-triple agent Nina, who, when she isn’t reporting back to Arkady, is also the world’s biggest Meryl Streep hater. I mean, The French Lieutenant’s Woman isn’t Streep’s best work, but come on: Stan and Nina are getting a home viewing of a decent film thanks to the FBI’s infiltration of an early-1980s movie pirating ring, and it would be too on-the-nose of The Americans to have them watching Reds.
But I digress. The Jenningses and their undercover comrades from earlier (who also have a couple of kids) end the episode at a Kings Dominion-like theme park allegedly placed in Alexandria, with Philip required to take a handoff from another agent played by a completely silent John Carroll Lynch. Philip gets the drop, and he and Elizabeth ditch the kids to drop off whatever it is at the other spies’ hotel. Except when they get there, their spy buddies are very dead.
The Jenningses get home safely, and Paige seems to have put her nocturnal shock behind her, at least for now. But someone is bumping off covert spy families, and while Elizabeth ponders this new danger, Philip ends the season opener as Clark, wrapped up in phony marital bliss with Martha.
Many questions in this first episode. Who is killing KGB agents? How many times will Stan watch The French Lieutenant’s Woman? Will we get a montage set to any of the tracks off Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage?