FX’s Cold War spy thriller is back, and wastes no time ratcheting up the suspense and setting up its themes for a (hopefully) more consistently great second season.

Someone may have to take the fall. Someone always takes the fall.

– Frank Gaad

I won’t try to hide it. I really liked season one of FX’s Cold War spy thriller, but I didn’t love it. The show has a ton of potential, but it frequently followed up a tense, exciting episode with a slow, clunky one. It had some early growing pains but finally started hitting its stride near the end of its first 13 episodes, as the balance between the characters’ personal lives and their respective government missions became a lot more even, and enough subplots developed to give this thriller the intensity and weight that it deserves. So what would they do for a follow up?

The good news is they didn’t fumble the handoff to season two. The Americans picks up the loose strings of its season one cliffhangers and charges forward with confidence. The premiere, “Comrades,” finds Philip and Elizabeth Jennings torn between loyalty to their mission and protecting their family. The family theme is there from the top as Elizabeth has to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a doe and two fawns crossing the road. She stares at the doe, and it stares back. Something dangerous is coming, and a mother and her children may be right in its path.

Elizabeth is just returning home after recovering from the gunshot wound she sustained during the previous season’s finale, but the covert Jennings parents haven’t been completely idle during her time recovering. Our first glimpse of Philip finds him dressed in a fringed jacket and a cowboy hat, impersonating a southern arms trafficker who’s sealing a deal with two middle-eastern men intent on securing arms for the Afghan fight against the Soviet Union. In an offer of friendship, one of the men offers Philip a knife that he claims he used on his first kills: Soviets. Philip kills both men and leaves the restaurant by the kitchen doors. The only man he sees on the way out is a frightened restaurant worker who Philip tells not to worry before shooting him in the head. In the covert spy game, there’s bound to be collateral damage.

There isn’t any less tension at home where the Jennings’s daughter, Paige, has become suspicious of her parents’ odd behavior. She digs through her mother’s suitcase while they’re away on a “date,” (reality: a mission) and opens their bedroom door to see if they’ve actually come home late one night. Philip and Elizabeth are busy doing what newly reunited couples are prone to do together, and it all leads to an awkward breakfast the next morning. Both parents realize that Paige is getting older and more suspicious, and they’ll have to stay on their toes to outsmart her along with everybody else.

Meanwhile, FBI agent Stan Beeman is still haunted by his near miss capturing a pair of Soviet agents in the previous season’s finale. Unbeknownst to him, of course, the agents were his neighbors Elizabeth and Philip. Stan’s boss, Frank Gaad, urges him to move on to new projects, one of which needs to be getting rid of nuisance informant Stanford Prince. Prince supplied the FBI with information about a traitorous Colonel in the season finale, but none of the information ever leads to arrests or operation shutdowns so the FBI will not pay him. These problems, along with any other leads Prince may have had, disappear when the Colonel shoots Prince on his property in “self defense” later in the episode. They suspect the Colonel killed Prince to protect himself from Prince handing any other information over to the FBI, but there’s no way to prove it. As Stan notes, if it were really self defense, the multiple gunshots to Prince’s head may have been a little much.

Stan is also busy juggling his affair with Nina, his own mole embedded in the Russian consulate, and his relationship with his wife who now seems interested in reconciling. The episode contrasts the two women by their reactions to the same movie: Meryl Streep’s tear-jerker The French Lieutenant’s Woman. His wife, Susan, cries through the film’s climactic emotional scenes. Nina rejects them as false, and representative of how men want women to act. Little does he know, Nina has turned double agent against him, and is now informing on him to the KGB while they’re busy compiling interesting, but operationally useless information for her to give to Stan. Stan simply can’t see it coming. He’s too busy seeing Nina for how he wants her to act – his own secret spy/mistress waiting for him lovingly in their shared apartment – to see the danger that she poses.

The Jennings’s first mission since being reunited also involves Leanne and Emmett, another married set of agents from Virginia. Elizabeth and Leanne seduce Roy, a Lockheed aerospace worker with a new, high level security clearance, and Philip and Emmett soon burst into the room posing as Air Force security officers. After the women flee, the two husbands “explain” to Roy that the women were only after his top secret information. But, not to worry, they have new security access passwords for him and a schedule of when to use each one. It’s a nice set up for what’s sure to be a plot point later on this season.

The two couples soon meet again at a local carnival with families in tow. Emmett convinces Philip to help him make a routine document handoff at the carnival, but he insists Philip also take his son, Henry, along so he’ll look less suspicious. What’s more important, family or country? Philip is uneasy, knowing that Elizabeth will hate him using their children in an operation, but he does it anyway. It’s just a quick, routine handoff, after all. But when the Jennings adults go to Emmett and Leanne’s hotel room to hand over the documents they find both parents and their daughter murdered, and Philip realizes just how much danger he really put his own son in. He flees the hotel, but not before he can see the murdered couple’s son find the bodies of his entire family when he comes back from swimming in the hotel pool.

A badly shaken Phil deciphers the documents to reveal a drawing of a piece of machinery, and an address located only a few hours away. Elizabeth is too busy locking all of the home’s doors and windows. When she asks Philip who could have possibly wanted to pull off such a murder he responds, “You want the list?” He doesn’t even have time to comfort her before leaving to spend the night with Martha, the woman he’s tricked into a sham marriage to provide him with an ear inside Stan’s FBI office. It’s one thing for Elizabeth and Philip to have knowingly volunteered for this dangerous covert work, but their children haven’t had the same choice. They’re also involved, like it or not. They’re involved whether they know it or not.

Our season two plotlines are set. The chess pieces are starting to move. Again, what will it be? Family or country?

Grade: A-

One thought on “THE AMERICANS: “Comrades””

  1. It’s so impressive how deftly this show can switch between white-knuckle spycraft and winking humor (care for some bacon?)

    I also loved how they answered one of their (minor) criticisms in the very first scene: the answer you’re looking for is “loads of hairpins and spirit gum.”

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