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This week FX premiered The Americans, a Cold War spy drama that follows two Soviet sleeper agents (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) who have lived for more than a decade as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a seemingly normal couple in suburban Washington, D.C.
Over the course of the pilot, we learn they were trained by the KGB to perfectly imitate Americans, to the point where they’re not even permitted to know each other’s real names or utter a word of Russian. When the partners bungle the capture of a Soviet defector, Elizabeth and Philip wrestle over what to do next. Meanwhile, they navigate the needs of their two children, as well as the appearance of a nosy new neighbor (Noah Emmerich), who just so happens to be an FBI counter-intelligence agent.
Unable to reach their KGB superiors, Elizabeth and Philip stash the defector Timoshev in the trunk of their car. Concerned the appearance of the FBI agent means the real Americans are on to them, Elizabeth wants to kill the captive on the spot. Philip argues they should turn themselves in, take a $3 million reward from the U.S. government, and live out the rest of their lives as a “normal” family. It’s not until Philip learns that Timoshev raped Elizabeth during training that he changes his mind and kills the traitor. They dump the body together, have sex together, and go back to living a lie together.
The pilot isn’t perfect (it’s a pilot, after all), but the show has layers upon layers of potential. In a single episode, Philip has already come dangerously close to turning his back on Mother Russia. He enjoys shopping malls and air conditioning just a little too much to go back to bread lines in the old country. After playing the happily married couple for so many years, he feels he and his wife are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. He may have lost his loyalty to the Soviet Union, but, if you threaten his wife or his family, expect to get a barbeque fork to the groin.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a true believer. Russell plays her as though she is literally wearing an Iron Curtain. She is emotionally distant from the children and her husband; the strain of living this lie is starting to show. It’s a powerful metaphor for the kind of family breakdown that was happening all across America in the early 1980s. Certainly, many people in tense relationships have felt as if their marriage was a sham put on for outsiders — but few of them were actually forcibly paired off by the KGB.
Every character in The Americans has some part of themselves they’re keeping from everyone else. Even the FBI agent-neighbor Stan initially covers up his experience as an undercover operative embedded with a white supremacist group. When his colleague asks him if he participated in burning crosses and chanting “Heil Hitler,” Stan only replies, “It was a little deeper than that.”
At the end of the episode, Elizabeth meets privately with her KGB handler, who questions whether Philip can still be counted on to fulfill his mission. Elizabeth defends her husband. Back home, she violates the rules of their assignment by telling Philip about her old identity. It’s unclear whether Elizabeth has opened up to Philip because she loves him and is coming around to his side, or because she has figured out she can push the right buttons to bring him into line.
The Americans is a far more sophisticated thriller than you might expect from a spy vs. spy cable drama. The cheesy “Hail Mother Russia” rants are minimal, and most scenes hang on the icy stares between the two star-crossed KGB agents. Thus far, The Americans seems destined to be a show about trust, lies and loyalty — spiked with just the right amount of Cold War adrenaline.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.