by Scott McNee
Wigs, poisoned umbrellas and microphones hidden in pens are not what has come to be expected of quality American cable shows like Breaking Bad or Deadwood, but The Americans joyfully indulges the retro spy imagery as often as possible, and is the more unique for it. Entering its second season on ITV, the premiere saw Matthew Rhys’ Philip dawn a wig and a Texan accent to gun down two men in the back room of a restaurant.
On the page, such a scene wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond film. Indeed, the whole series – based on the premise of Soviet spies in deep cover as a suburban American couple, invokes the knee-jerk label of pulp fiction. And yet, The Americans is one of the best shows on television, thanks to strong writing and cinematography alongside excellent performances from the central cast.
Playing opposite Rhys’ Philip Jennings is Keri Russell’s Elizabeth, the cold Soviet hardliner to Philip’s family focused spy. Perhaps The Americans represents the logical end-point for the buddy cop genre by simply having the central odd couple as a married pair. More so than Rhys, Russell is the show’s centre – a stoic professional slowly warming to her life in the country she despises. The brilliance of The Americans is the continued focus on Philip and Elizabeth’s marital and parental issues while international relations and assassinations threaten to expose everything the pair has managed to establish.
Similar to Breaking Bad, the show finds a convenient antagonist in close proximity to the main characters – Noah Emmerich as the Jennings’ FBI agent neighbour brings the necessary prowling intensity to a shrewd investigator, and some weary likability to a character who would otherwise be the focus of a series. Smartly, the show avoids too much overlap between the FBI and the Jennings – instead the FBI investigations directly impact the KGB agents working in the Soviet Embassy, with collateral damage often shaping the Jennings’ actions and objectives.
The supporting cast is exceptionally strong and developed for such a young series – with special mention going to Margo Martindale’s terrifying, sympathetic and strangely funny performance as KGB handler Claudia. Martindale is always a welcome presence, whether her scenes involve her cheerfully ruminating on playing Pac-Man at the arcade to calmly ordering torture and murder.
The sympathetic portrayals of the characters and the endearing Eighties spy intrigue leads to a deep moral ambiguity at the show’s heart. As viewers, we want to see Philip and Elizabeth survive both the American investigators and their coldly bureaucratic Soviet masters, even as they are forced into terrible actions. The third episode of Season 2 brings this to the forefront, as Elizabeth stalks around a hapless bystander pleading for the life of his children – a cold reminder of the realities of such a life.
The Americans steps up to, and largely succeeds in filling the hole left by Breaking Bad: it’s simultaneously slick, brutal and funny.
The Americans is on ITV, Saturdays at 10:30pm.}