Monday, January 19, 2015

The Americans: Season Two Overview


The Americans is the most emotionally conflicting show on television.  It asks us to identify with people who kill and commit acts of war against our country, and it almost always succeeds because we find it hard to dislike them as individuals.  Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are not just Soviet spies, but devoted parents trying to raise two kids and in their own way, shield them from danger.

That danger of course being slightly different than most dangers, like trained assassins willing to kill children.

It's interesting that a lot of the thrust for Season Two involves Philip and Elizabeth's fierce protection of Paige and Henry.  The most obvious one involves how their fellow agents Emmett and Leann Connors were killed along with their daughter Amelia, with Jared being 'miraculously' spared.  This triggered a greater determination to ensure that no harm come to Paige and Henry.  However, by season's end they see that the danger to them is coming from all fronts, as The Centre now has determined that Paige should be integrated into working for the Soviet Union.

Here, we see what will be one of the great conflicts of Season Three.  It seemed that both Philip and Elizabeth were dead-set against getting the kids involved in their shady business.  In fact, in the season opener Comrades, Philip was extremely opposed to using Henry as a prop to signal that he was the one who would be receiving information meant for Emmett and does so with intense opposition.  Now Philip finds that despite all his work, the Centre, to whom he's given so much of, wants the one thing he is unwilling to give.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, seems to be wavering, not in her devotion to the State, but in her willingness to bring Paige into her world.  Paige's embrace of religion horrifies Elizabeth, a fierce Soviet-style atheist.  However, she begins to think that perhaps Paige is looking for something to motivate her life and sees a lot of herself in her daughter.  Elizabeth now sees Paige's religious fervor as being merely a sign of looking in the wrong place. 

Isn't that a great conflict when it comes to parenting?  We want our children to be happy, but there are so many ways about it.  Will they be happy if they follow their own path or if they follow their parent's footsteps?  Apart from the spying and killing, is Elizabeth's growing idea that Paige should do what she does any different than seeing Peyton and Eli Manning make their careers out of what their father Archie did?  I'm sure the senior Manning would have been happy if his middle and youngest son had made different choices, but they had such skills from birth and Archie was extremely adept at having them play football. 

There's also a greater conflict between Elizabeth and Philip in their worldviews.  Elizabeth is the one who is more loyal to the State.  "It's nicer here.  It's easier here.  It's not better here," she tells her husband when he asks her if she enjoys anything about America.  Philip, for his part, while not completely willing to defect is one who is more able to appreciate the joys of Yankee living.  Elizabeth and Philip are in a lot of ways, the two types of parents.  Philip is the more permissive part (he would send Paige to Youth Camp), Elizabeth the stricter disciplinarian (she won't hear of it, believing it is a way to indoctrinate her daughter to the ways of the decadent West). 

However, they can be at times a bit of the reverse.  Elizabeth agrees to let Paige go to a church-sponsored protest,  Philip will not tolerate Paige lying to him or looking into what they do.  Still, on the whole we see in The Americans an interesting portrait of a marriage and family as well as some really intense and exciting espionage work.

At this point,  let's look at the performances.  Matthew Rhys is simply brilliant as Philip Jennings, a really gentle man who does evil things.  While he is efficient in his spy work, we also see that Philip is one haunted by his acts, especially when he has to kill an innocent bystander.  He's had to kill many not involved in his actions (in the opening, when he has to kill a dishwasher, and in ARPANET, when he has to kill a computer student who stumbled into Philip, and those are just two).  These things play on him, and he finds it if not harder to do, at least harder to deal with.  When he unleashes on his daughter in Martial Eagle, we see that within Philip is an extremely tortured being. 

We know if Philip loves anything, it's his children.  He however has been carrying a lot of guilt over having to have one of the few times he managed to get Elizabeth show mercy go wrong when a driver he didn't kill die of hypothermia.  Now it was Paige's donation of $600 that was the trigger to let him unleash his rage.  Like many parents, you know he took out his anger about something else on his daughter, but seeing Rhys so explode is intense and frightening.  Really, Matthew Rhys kept giving such a complex and layered performance that it is simply fascinating to see him work.

Keri Russell similarly creates in Elizabeth someone who is adept at her job but struggling as a mother.  It isn't as if she doesn't love Paige and Henry, but she does not know how to fully connect with them.   She manages to slip so easily into the various disguises she is required to use, but we also see that she too is a bit wounded that her husband cannot be as emotionally open to her as he appears to be with his other wife, Martha.  When she sees that side of 'Clark', she seems more emotionally hurt than anything else, and that makes her tears all the more sad.  Expecting a wild sex romp, she instead receives pain physical and emotional.

We also have to complement other people's work.  Annet Mahendru really is the unsung Americans cast member as Nina, one who is doing all she can to stay alive.  Does she really love FBI Agent Stan Beeman?  Does she really love her KGB coworker Oleg?  Is she sleeping with both as a way to protect herself?  We feel so much for Nina, and I think ARPANET was her finest hour as an actress.  Mahendru communicates so much when she confronts Beeman while on the polygraph test and answers that 'Yes' to if she knows who killed her friend Vlad. 

A guest star that should be mentioned is Lee Tergensen as Andrew Larrick, the closeted Navy captain the Connors' were blackmailing to get information.  There was always a suspicion that Larrick killed them, and he proved himself a chilling and frightening adversary.   Tergensen made Larrick into someone dangerous not just because he was efficient in killing, but because he was also slow, methodical, and determined.  He could be a reflection of the Jennings, and while he is American and we should perhaps be cheering for him to win, we too become frightened for the Jennings and their children because he is also ruthless. 

We like Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.  Thus, we don't want them hurt.  Odd given they want to hurt us.

If there is something I would be concerned about is that The Americans took a wild turn when they had Jared be his family's killer.  I still never quite bought that.  I understand why it was done, but that doesn't mean I believed it.  I also hope they don't end next season with a 'the kids are in danger let's get them out of the way' business.  Still, that remains to be seen, and I hope that The Americans continue to keep up the high standards they have set as a series. 

One shudders what Elizabeth and Philip Jennings would do if they ever had a Take Our Children to Work Day...     

There are Legacies...

...and then there are legacies.

Next Episode: EST Men

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