I used to be against new shows premiering after the official set start date of September for new programming. However I have gotten so used to it with the advent of DVR culture that a crop of new series halfway through the TV calendar year is a delight. So now there are really four seasons of TV: Fall, mid-season replacement shows, new programming after the New Year and summer TV. The Americans falls into the third category and after just a short three episodes has proved to be a show that can take on any of the big four networks’ one hour dramas. After a stellar one-two punch of the first two episodes, the operatives for Directorate “S” continue their deep cover mission in the burbs of our nation’s capital. And it is really starting to get good.
The show opens as promised with a racquetball match between Phillip and Stan. God if you only knew how popular that sport was in its time. In fact, I hope it makes a comeback. In the pilot episode Phillip and Liz had their fellow Directorate “S” KGB deep cover agent Robert with them during the kidnapping of high-ranking official Nikolai Timoshev. During the melee that ensues while trying to kidnap Timoshev, Robert takes a killing stroke of the knife to his liver by the elder Russian bull. Without any other choice, Phillip and Claire leave their fallen comrade at a hospital to bleed out after doctors do what they can. Nina, Stan’s woman on the inside of the Russian embassy finally has her first meet with the seasoned FBI Agent. Nina reports that she overheard that Directorate “S” lost an agent at a local hospital. This is a coup for the newly placed Stan, who is heading up the unit only answering to Agent Gaad (Veteran actor Richard Thomas of The Waltons fame).
Phillip and Paige are out to lunch at a local coffee shop when he sees a coded message in the newspaper want ads. It is Spy 101 that this practice has been used for years by spies, encoding messages in plain sight with no one getting suspicious. Bonus points to Paige who is reading Girl’s World at the diner table with Facts of Life sitcom star Nancy McKeon on the cover. It is funny to see Phillip react to a girl’s teen magazine that in the Soviet Union at that time would be considered salacious. A woman at the other table tells Phillip how lovely his daughter is and it strikes him as odd, so they leave the restaurant. Phillip decodes the message from that day’s newspaper and it is from Robert. One problem though; Robert has been dead for two weeks. After explaining to Elizabeth what the situation is she asks her to go to Philadelphia for a meeting with Gregory (Derek Luke) to help with the op. As it turns out the message was sent by Robert’s wife Joyce as a just in case given to her by her late husband. Joyce is a young Puerto Rican girl with Robert’s infant son and is terribly confused about the mystery surrounding her husband’s death. She was told that if anything should happen to him to post that ad and she would hear from someone.
Spotting a tail that evening, Phillip confronts the woman following him. It is the woman from the coffee shop; the Jennings’ new KGB handler Claudia. Played by the brilliant character actress Margo Martindale, she has replaced Gabriel because of his loose way of handling his agents and assures that they all answer to Moscow when asked if he answers to her now. She looks and sounds like an all-American Grandma but she bleeds red and yellow; her allegiance is to the hammer and sickle of the USSR. After telling her that Robert had a secret wife and child in Philadelphia, Claudia offers up that the dead agent was on to something big. She tells Phillip that before expiring, Robert was close to getting new American missile technology secrets that would make Russia’s missile arsenal vulnerable.
While Elizabeth is on the hard streets of Philly sticking out like a sore thumb, she meets Gregory at night playing chess before they go up to his place. Immediately you realize that these two have a history together. Not just professionally but intimately. Although not a KGB agent, Gregory is devoted to the cause and more importantly to Elizabeth. They have a history going back to the 60’s and the days of Martin Luther King and Vietnam. Liz tries to explain that there will be no more funny business between the sheets for the two of them and that after almost two decades she is giving her “marriage” a shot. They need Gregory’s people on the street to help extract Robert’s wife Joyce and infant son Oscar to a safe house while under FBI surveillance. Gregory’s team comes through and is able to snatch Joyce and the little one, getting them to safety. At the safe house Phillip and Gregory have words as the latter divulges his feelings for Liz, making Phillip very unhappy as he was unaware of his wife’s longtime liasion. While they are gently pressing Joyce for any information she may have about who Robert really was, the scared wife says that she thought he was a drug dealer. As she takes in everything Joyce realizes that her dead husband was a spy. Probably not words that she should have said out loud a minute later.
Phillip goes alone to the meet with the men Robert was dealing with to exchange a briefcase full of cash for the missile intel. I like that Phillip takes out the two guards before making the deal. It reiterates his skills and I would love to see more action sequences because they are composed perfectly. The Jennings’ drop off Joyce and Oscar under the cloak of night to Claudia and put Joyce at ease by telling her that Cuba will be great for her and her baby son. It is haunting to see them taken away in an ominous black van because you just get that gut feeling that no one is going to Cuba. When the Jennings’ return to the suburbs after an exhaustive night, Liz breaks down, explaining to Phillip that her affair was something she had to do because Gregory was so passionate about every cause she believed in. The light of dawn is just coming through the kitchen as she explains to Phillip in not so many words that she is genuinely falling for him. They have been partners for years but now they may actually be falling in love. Stan and his agents find a car with a dead body in it with a tourniquet tied around the arm and a needle. It is Joyce. They cut to a shot of Russia that looks so freezing cold you want to put a snow hat on. In a crowded trailer-park type tenement area, a Russian officer presents baby Oscar to Robert’s grieving parents, telling them their son died a hero.
The quick investment in the lead characters I have made is getting a great return. The thought of living a double-life is exhausting, but the Jennings’ devotion is almost admirable. They are tirelessly working for an empire that will begin to crumble before the end of the decade. Layering that with the idea of active spies living the American dream makes for powerful television. They genuinely want to be recognized as good, upstanding Americans but their world is one of shadows. Codes, old school gadgets, dead drops, sex, lies, betrayal, drama, tension and action all in one show? To be sure, The Americans is all-American indeed.