This post discusses plot points from the February 26 episode of The Americans.
The wigs that married KGB spies Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) wear in FX’s Cold War drama The Americans are so outrageous that they’ve become something of a running joke and a cause for speculation. Does anyone really believe that hair looks like that? How do they get them to stay put, especially given the couple’s vigorous schedule of honeytrapping? And where could the Jennings possibly have room to hide this voluminous collection from their increasingly curious children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati)?
So it’s fitting that the second season of the show starts with Phillip, who is impersonating a cowboy-like American intelligence operative to lure in two Taliban fighters seeking American funding, gets his blonde thatch ripped off during a brutal fight with the younger of his adversaries, revealing a schematic of bobby pins and hair grease underneath. The wigs are off, and anything’s possible. It’s a nasty start to an episode that’s all about the end of illusions, particularly the ones that children hold about their parents.
True, there’s a sweet note to the episode: Elizabeth and Phillip are reunited, and the “it” that Elizabeth said last season “never really happened for us” appears to be crackling between them. But even as they’re grossing out Henry and giving Paige hope, the world around them is becoming more tenuous. Their FBI agent neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich) and his wife Sandra (Susan Misner) are separated from each other, though each appears to hold out tentative hopes for a reconciliation. In an effort to keep his relationship with Soviet bureaucrat Nina (Annet Mahendru) romantic, Stan, in one of the episode’s nods to the issues from the 1980s that persist today, visits the FBI’s archive of seized pirated movies and picks out The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But it only reveals the growing staleness between them.
“I think she’s too much of what a man thinks a woman is. What he wants her to be. Why, if she loves him, does it make her a whore? Was Anna Karenina a whore because she gave her heart, her life, to Vronsky?” Nina fillets Meryl Streep’s performance, making fun of Stan for not having read the novel, demanding to know if he thinks she’s trash for sleeping with him.
Elizabeth and Phillip’s work is getting harder, too. It’s hard to think of another show on television that’s more clear-eyed about the consequence of the violence its characters visit on other people, and that they risk incurring themselves. When Phillip kills the Taliban operatives he’s been running to send a message that “America can’t protect you. Allah can’t protect you. And the KGB is everywhere,” it’s a cowboy move in keeping with the Stetson he’s smashed on top of his wig as a surprise. But of course he can’t get out of the operation even that cleanly. There’s a boy working in the kitchen with the misfortune to have heard everything, and Phillip, stripped of his disguise, tells him gently “It’s okay,” before killing him. He’s kind enough to take away his fear, but not to grant the young man back his life.
And it’s awful to watch Phillip linger in the hallway after discovering the slaughtered family that he and Elizabeth have been working with. He’s seen their son, who survived the massacre because he happened to be down at the pool for a swim, walking through the hallway and towards what will turn out to be the end of the boy’s childhood. The smarter thing would be for Phillip to get away as fast as possible, but he lingers, bearing a horrible sort of witness to the boy’s key turning in the lock. “Nothing prepares you for them growing up. Here,” his mother told Phillip and Elizabeth the night before, but the ugly violence he’s encountered is proof that “Here” and the Soviet Union aren’t so easy to separate.
Just as its characters are on the lookout for the minor details that make an operation or an intelligence revelation, The Americans is sharply attuned to gestural precision, to the tiny variations in tone of voice that give characters away. There may be lilting wonder in Elizabeth’s voice when she tells her friend “We’re better,” marveling at the small miracle of her reunion with Phillip.
But more often in the premiere of the second season, the characters seem a on the very edge of control. “Don’t jump on your mother!” Phillip snaps at Henry, his voice made sharp by his knowledge of Elizabeth’s still-healing bullet wound, when his son rushes to welcome his mother home. Phillip manages to modulate himself just in time, telling Henry, “You’re getting too big now.” But it’s just one of many clues the Jennings children will get this episode that all is not well with their newly reunited parents. Elizabeth’s panicked breathing when she and Phillip find their friends dead is the closest we’ve ever seen her to utterly falling apart. When Elizabeth finds Paige getting her face painted, her rebuke to her daughter is too strained, Phillip’s eagerness to depart the amusement park all out of proportion to the fact that visiting hours are almost over. Even if Paige hadn’t already been moved to snoop through her mother’s laundry and walk through closed doors without knocking, the Jennings children are on alert now.
And even without the carnage in the hotel room, even without the possible ramifications of Paige’s learning her parents’ true occupation, The Americans captures the tragedy of growing up and realizing your parents aren’t quite what they seem. “Privacy and respect, this is why we have those rules,” Phillip tells his daughter the morning after she walked in on her parents in bed together. “I know,” she tells them, trying to live up to the adult standard they’re demanding of her. “Why would you open a closed door?” Elizabeth wants to know, confused, as always, by her very American daughter, even if Paige isn’t subjecting her to the indignities of boy mania and bake sales. “I missed you, Mom,” Paige tells her, very much a little girl in a way it seems it was impossible for Elizabeth to have been. The gulf between mother and daughter is wider than the crack between door and jamb, and the truths that Paige will learn are greater and more terrifying than the fact that her parents are sexual, sensual animals. The Americans may have foregone the showy soundtrack choices that made an instant impression last season for this year’s opener. But the chorus of last year’s finale still echo in our ears. Games without frontiers, indeed.