People like to joke that it’s not fair when someone extraordinarily beautiful also has a great personality. Life’s gifts should be handed out more equitably: The pimply faced loser should not also have to bear the burden of being a total drip, the supermodel should not be blessed with a razor-sharp mind.
A similar sort of thought wandered through my head as I devoured the first five episodes of the new, second season of FX’s “The Americans,” but instead of decrying the unequal allotment of resources, I was too busy enjoying them.
“The Americans” is a spy series, an action show, a romance, a period piece and a love story with plot that would be fun to watch if it had not one thought in its badly bewigged yet still extremely pretty little head (I always liked “Alias”) — but instead of no thoughts it has many. It is a kicky, swift-moving ride that uses its double agent protagonists to explore the divided loyalties and self-delusions that plague all humans, not just extremely attractive and nasty Soviet spies. The extremely attractive and nasty Soviet spies do, of course, help make the show’s headier messages go down very easy.
In the first season, we were introduced to Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), two deep cover double agents enjoying a comfortable life in Reagan-era America (living outside D.C., working at a travel agency) while also operating on the very front lines of the Cold War. Moscow had placed them in an arranged, fraught, long-term marriage that time, children and enforced intimacy had rendered almost indistinguishable from a real one. Over the course of the season, Phillip and Elizabeth made their marriage, for the first time, entirely real to one another. They finally fell in love. The cover became the truth.
The new season tackles another cover that has never been just a pretense for Phillip and Elizabeth: parenthood. The show picks up a few months after it left off, with Elizabeth finally returning home to her husband and two children, fully recovered from the gunshot wound she sustained in the season finale. Almost immediately, Elizabeth and Phillip are forced to confront the extent to which their spy duties conflict with their parental responsibilities, the extent to which they have already, unthinkingly, put Mother Russia before their American children.
Meanwhile, Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is increasingly suspicious of her parents, both because she is intuitive (there’s a lot to be suspicious of) and because she is adolescent (parents are strange!). The show has previously winked at the ways that being a KGB agent is not so dissimilar from being a sort of organic-products-obsessed parent — No TV! War on the mall! It now highlights the ways that living with a teenager, even a regular one, is not so dissimilar from living with a burgeoning double agent, an intimate who is often hostile to and suspicious of the regime of parental authority, and ready to carve out an identity all her own.
Just about every character on “The Americans” is some kind of double agent, whether they know it or not. Martha (Alison Wright), Phillip’s other wife — Elizabeth and Phillip’s marriage is solid, but not uncomplicated — thinks she’s just helping her government-employee husband do his job by sneaking a microphone into the head of FBI-counterintelligence’s office, but she’s also committing a treasonable offense. FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) may be doing everything he can to catch Russian spies, but he lies endlessly at home. He’s cheating on his wife with a Soviet attaché Nina (Annet Mahendru), whom he only thinks he is running, but is actually running him — she’s the show’s first triple agent.
“The Americans” is one of the few series on TV that has accrued, over time, not more male characters, but more female ones. Nina and Martha were both deservingly added to the cast as regulars in the off-season, and with Elizabeth they illustrate the power and dangers of using and being used by sex. Elizabeth, who was once raped and emotionally shut down with Phillip for decades as a result, still regularly works as a honey pot. Nina uses sex to control Stan, but then has to contend with the way her reports, full of the nitty-gritty details of her espionage work, read to her all male bosses at the embassy. Martha is completely lovesick over her husband, and his prowess in bed. One of my favorite scenes from the new season has Martha and Elizabeth, in disguise as Phillip’s sister, talking about Phillip as a lover: It’s quintessential “Americans,” psychologically astute, pleasingly tawdry, and fundamentally twisted.
All of these characters — however flawed, however Russian — are presented sympathetically. “The Americans” is not particularly interested in telegraphing a judgment of its protagonists to the audience. Elizabeth and Phillips really are ruthlessly waging war on America; in one of the show’s first sequences, Phillip, imitating a Southern-fried Texan, kills a number of people, one in cold blood. But the show treats them with understanding, as people motivated not by psychosis but principle and family. Watching, it is almost impossible not to root for these two Communists as they do any and everything they can to undermine America. In this regard, “The Americans” works its American audience as effectively as its heroes work their marks: It makes double agents of us all.