While my review of this episode is going to focus mostly on this past week, since this is the first one I figured I would give some over-arching thoughts I have on the show so far since this is the first time we are writing about it:
Overall, I am really loving the show for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is not much else on TV right now that I would consider to be this show’s (arguable) dramatic equal (Homeland; Breaking Bad; Mad Men; Game of Thrones; Downton Abbey are all out of season right now). Secondly, I love that it is on Wednesday nights. Most premier television shows are broadcast on Sunday nights, and even when it’s not my favorite shows I still need to watch something on a Sunday night. So it’s nice to have something in the middle of the week that has the same quality level as typical Sunday night TV.
As to the show itself, I thought the first episode did a stellar job of immediately capturing us in the mindset of 1980’s KGB deep undercover spies. With the beautiful use of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk‘ playing throughout the episode, and the best use of ‘In the Air Tonight’ I’ve ever seen in TV or film, which played in a wordless sequence that I won’t give away if you haven’t watched the show yet, the show has kept me enthralled so far. I am already very interested in Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) lives going forward and yes, I will admit I am rooting for them to succeed. This is incredible considering it would be the equivalent of having a show now where we actually rooted for Islamic terrorists to succeed. Homeland does this in some sense, but Brody is much more shaky than Philip and Elizabeth.
On the other side of the fight, the show has done an equally good job of establishing Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) as the guy who wants to catch them. The tension in scenes where they are together is great, as is his character who has justifiable paranoia after having been deep undercover himself embedded with the KKK for years. I love the parallels between the storylines (including in the opening theme where they show American videos spliced with Russian counterparts). All the characters so far have been well-written and are interesting and I am excited to keep watching this show week to week.
SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD
I do have a few criticisms so far:
1. I’m not sure I’m convinced that they are committed to Mother Russia. Obviously this is understandable as they have been living in the US for over a decade at this point and have come to assimilate some of the culture, but it seems to me like they were given ‘outs’ that were worth taking. I wasn’t exactly sold on why they wouldn’t have defected right then and there and pocketed their $3 million or however much they would’ve gotten. Especially considering Elizabeth was raped by one of her superiors you would think she would be more sympathetic to defecting than Philip.
2. A criticism that I share with Todd VanDerWerff is that the show appears to want us to sympathize with Philip at the expense of Elizabeth. Philip seems like the good guy in general–he gets revenge against the creep checking out his daughter, he’s the one who falls in love with his ‘wife,’ he wants them to hold off on sending information to Moscow regarding a potential coup (after Reagan’s assassination attempt) despite their orders, etc. I just hope in the future there are times when Elizabeth is right about the course of action to take so the characters’ choices don’t become too predictable.
On to this week’s episode, and my comments will be relatively brief. I have no interest in recapping the whole episode–just talking about what I thought was interesting. I felt there were two main thematic elements: how sex can be used as a transaction to acquire something, and the husband-wife relationship. There are 3 relationships we deal with in the episode: Philip and Elizabeth, Stan Beeman and Mrs. Beeman, and the jittery asset who has recently lost his wife. As Philip and Elizabeth have begun to act more and more like a married couple since Episode 1, the Beemans are drifting apart. We see Stan choose to practice his Russian and thus spurn his wife’s advances. It doesn’t matter that she put on a sexy lil’ outfit for him or reminds him of the way things used to be. In contrast, when Philip sees the lashes on Elizabeth’s back he rashly springs into action, only to be held back. When Philip remarks that he is her husband and that’s what husbands do, she coldly responds that ‘she wouldn’t know.’ Despite this scene, which is in keeping with Elizabeth’s character as fairly cold in general, we know that they have gotten much closer as a couple. Perhaps we could view the third relationship as a potential foreshadowing of what would happen if Elizabeth was killed. The jittery asset is considering doing something bad for the Russians after (I think) 27 years passing them information. But the relationship between a husband and wife is a powerful one, and I think the episode as a whole suggests as Philip and Elizabeth get closer their decision-making may be compromised by their love for each other.
On the other topic, this show has demonstrated many times that the characters will use any means necessary to get information. This episode was no exception. I want to focus particularly on the conversation between Stan and Nina, where Stan makes sure to remark twice that Nina is “beautiful” in insisting time is of the essence in getting information out of the embassy. My interpretation at the time he said it was that Stan is attracted to Nina. I think he feels more at peace with himself when he is in the field than when he is at home, so when he is dealing with an asset he can show affection. This was underscored for me when after she tells him that she “sucked his cock like you told me to” he reacted with a tempered visible level of horror. It seemed genuine to me–he was remarking that she was beautiful before because he liked her and was trying to give her positive encouragement. However, from the reviews I have read from the episode most people think he was suggesting she actually do something sexually with Vasili. I have to disagree with them there.
Overall though, I loved the episode and it was a great contribution to a very strong first 5 showings. I would recommend the show to anyone.
Lastly, I want to note that I tend to read 3 reviews of the show each week for anyone who wants to follow along. My favorites are Alan Sepinwall and Todd VanDerWerff. I also read Andy Greenwald but enjoy his reviews and agree with him less (all links to their reviews of this episode). Occasionally I will check out Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker as well.
UPDATE (buckeyedpeas): I agree with Kyra’s general assessment of The Americans—it’s been a very strong opening half even if it feels a little less substantial than, say, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. The overall “spy thriller” aspect to the show, like the fight or stake-out sequences, don’t detract from the whole the way they do in Homeland (for me, anyway); in fact they’re a part of what the show does best. The way I see it, The Americans isn’t trying to make some bold pronouncement on The Way the World Works, it’s trying to be a solid hour-long drama about marriage and a “marriage,” patriotism, and the personal cost of doing your job well. Thus, when Phil and Elizabeth get in disguise to go on missions, whether they’re blackmailing some bureaucrat or killing a security guard who’s standing in the way, I’m less concerned with suspending my disbelief than the impact that some caper might have on Phil and Elizabeth’s relationship.*
* In terms of the plausibility of the capers themselves, the show’s 1980 setting really helps. Case in point, take this week’s episode where Elizabeth clambered out of a car in the FBI parking lot. This is something that would undoubtedly be seen by security cameras today, so I’m nowhere near as bothered by this than I would be if Brody pulled a similar stunt on Homeland.
Obviously, the central conceit to the show is that the two principals are Soviet spies who for all appearances are otherwise American: their family, their accents, their clothes, their jobs (travel agents, and here’s guessing there weren’t many of them in the USSR in 1980). Adding further intrigue, though, is that both Phil and Elizabeth have different attitudes with regard to their American identities. Ostensibly Elizabeth is the hard-line, committed Soviet who is portrayed as the dominant partner: it was her idea to stake out Caspar Weinberger’s after Reagan was shot, just as it’s basically been her call to ignite some sort of romance with Phil, who until this point had been a fellow spy and cohabitant rather than a husband. As Kyra noted above, she doesn’t seem to mind subjecting herself to sexual violence: it’s just part of the job for her.
Phil, by contrast, is more sympathetic to the American way of life: in Episode 1 he’s shown marveling at a motel room’s air conditioner, for example. I think the audience is, for this reason, supposed to side more with Phil (Kyra touched on this, too), but I think the character could have been drawn a little better. At times, I’m not sure if Phil is either practical or naive. Certainly, there’s a strong argument that assimilating into your surroundings can make you a better spy, but it hasn’t been clear to me that Phil is trying to assimilate for this reason. Why else go gah-gah over an air conditioner when you first arrive, a time when you should be most steadfast to the cause? If this has been Phil’s attitude, you’d think that Elizabeth has probably complained up the ladder about him in the past. (Of course, given the depth of their ruse, which has included some baby-making, any attempt of hers to get Phil out of the picture might not be worth the suspicion a missing father would generate.) Phil did show his practical side in Episode 4: he was strongly against the stake-out that led to the security officer’s death, but given what I’ve seen of him his shifts between smart instincts and naiveté is somewhat jarring. I’m eager to see how his character develops.
Other notes: Strong praise for Noah Emmerich’s work as Stan, the FBI agent; Kyra nicely detailed at length the comparison the show highlights between his strained marriage and Elizabeth/Phil. Emmerich is probably a lesser known character actor but I often find his work to be stronger than the movie he’s appearing in, so it’s nice to see him in an entertaining and successful series. I also have some high praise for the music choices, which are very reflective of the era, even if I thought the use of “In the Air Tonight” was cheesy and clichéd at this point (Risky Business is still the title-holder for best use of this song).