The Americans slowed down a little bit this week to take stock of the Big Event that occurred in the premiere. In that spirit of reflection, I started thinking about what is making the show so much stronger this year. The Americans took some time to get off the ground, though that criticism has also been lobbied at shows that, of course, turned into some of TV’s best (like Mad Men andThe Wire, both of which began as slow-burns). This second season of The Americans is proving that the setup and the time it took for it to find its footing last year is now paying off through a narrative cohesion the show lacked, to a certain degree, in its first season. Hit the jump for why “I’m gonna get a gun!”
For some (myself included), The Americans needed go deeper. This year, it already has. But, one of the absolute best things the show did last year was its examination of marriage, both in all the ways it can go wrong, and eventually, in the ways it can be healed. A reason that might have resonated so much with viewers was because it gave the Jennings emotional dimension. To make the spy stories viable to last, there needs to be more going on.
Last week’s “Comrades” showed us exactly what that new depth means, with Elizabeth this week in “Cardinal” admitting that it took her seeing Amelia dead to make her internalize the danger that her life as a spy means, not only for herself and for Philip, but for their children. “What does ‘take care of’ mean?” she asks Philip, regarding the son of their slain friends, who was left alive. Philip couldn’t answer that, or at least, didn’t want to face the possibility that “taken care of” might mean “taken out.” Suddenly the scales fell away from their eyes as they realized that despite their belief otherwise, their children really are a part of this, too.
At this point, there are three major arcs happening, two with the Jennings and one with Stan and Nina, that all connect. This has been giving the show a lot more narrative cohesion than in the past. Philip went to check on Fred, who had made the drop with him the day Emmett and his family were killed, something Fred didn’t piece together because he had only known Emmett as “Paul,” in disguise. But he knew about his children, and that fact saved Philip (the children really are the lynchpin of this season). The idea though that their deaths could have been completely in vain if the Russians don’t move on this information immediately sparked worry in Philip. Is it too soon to make a move, since they don’t know yet who is targeting them?
The episode’s weakest plot, though, which felt tossed in just to give some acknowledgement to the Nicaraguan communist movement, was Elizabeth helping the girl with her partied-out mark. But, what made it connect was how she had to once again find a way to distract her kids. However, Paige is old enough now to notice that this behavior is strange, and it doesn’t always connect from one minute to another (“let’s play a game … no, I’m on the phone … let’s go the movies! … I’ll drop you off”). Paige’s snooping went up a level, big time, when she attempted to call where her mother had supposedly been staying while she was away. Philip and Elizabeth seem too seasoned to make Elizabeth’s “vacation” that shallow and easy to break apart, but regardless, Paige is going to find out something she’s not supposed to eventually, adding another dimension to the chaos of their home life (even though Philip and Elizabeth seem to be back on track).
Back at the Rezidentura, a walk-in with ties to the World Bank puts everyone on edge, but why Nina was told to let Stan in on that information is not yet clear (or at least, not clear to me), and he later stalks him down. Nina’s feelings towards Stan are also in question. She coldly types up their interactions for review by Arkady, but does the juxtaposition of the visual of them together speak to her conflicted feelings, or to just how devoted she is to bringing down Viktor’s killer? (Who is of course Stan, though she doesn’t know that yet). Stan keeps this connected to the Jennings, but all of them are ultimately affected by the confusion over the hotel killings.
Like last year, there’s a sense of chaos both with the Russians and the Americans, who can’t seem to control their own enough to know who is behind many of this high-profile attacks. No one looks good here, and it’s easy to see why these kinds of things could make the Jennings less committed, in some ways, to an operation that doesn’t seem to have itself together.
Further, there’s a new sense of constant suspicion and suspense (something the show played up really well with Philip while he was in Fred’s house). The theme of duality is still heavy in the series, with every major character playing at least two roles. So far things have gone so well for everyone, it could be that this year, some things start to break apart.
Episode Rating: A-
Musings and Miscellanea:
— I like how The Americans is incorporating Paige and Henry more as distractions, for Elizabeth in particular, who has to continue to choose, daily, how to balance her two lives.
— Poor Martha. I’m not sure if the writing is being too blunt, or if Martha is just supposed to be so dull that Philip can press her that hard about getting a job in the counterintelligence division. Her desire to get a gun seems like it will not end well for someone … probably her.
— The fact that Philip rushed home to see Elizabeth and not the sick Martha was telling about his renewed devotion to her and to his family.
— Did anyone else notice a painting on Fred’s wall looked just like the avatar of the now defunct @horse_ebooks?
— Oleg Igorevich is making a play for Nina, but she is not having it.
— I’m guessing the operative that Elizabeth helped out is Nicaraguan since they had a communist revolution going on at that time, and she mentioned Central America, but I could be wrong.
— I laughed at Elizabeth’s lack of skill when trying to conjure up a good locale for a bachelor’s weekend in … Montreal?