For giggles, we should summon Joe McCarthy by seance and tell him about:
1. The Sochi Olympics. (And, while we’re at it, Pussy Riot.)
2. The anti-hero status enjoyed by an NSA contractor who ran off with all the top-secret documents and now lives in Moscow and grants interviews in which he basically tells the U.S. government neener-neener.
3. How, when it’s time to relax and enjoy an excellent hour of television, we kick back with fond Cold War nostalgia and root for a handsome couple named Philip and Elizabeth Jennings of Falls Church, two violently crafty Soviet spies disguised as devoted, everyday suburban parents. (And the kicker, Joe? You’re the one universally regarded as a kook.)
Against the backdrop of so much current context (Snowden, Putin, Ukraine) that is nevertheless irrelevant, “The Americans,” FX’s highly regarded espionage drama set in the early 1980s, returns for a second season Wednesday night. It doesn’t waste a moment getting down to its unsavory but gripping tale of pre-glasnost subterfuge.
Everything I praised about the series when it debuted a year ago holds true: It’s like a brutal Jane Fonda workout tape for us sofa Siberians who love to have our pulses quickened by a series of close calls and panicked, “Breaking Bad”-style encounters that threaten to unravel the ruse and expose the Jenningses for what they really are — highly trained, deep undercover agents tasked with sending military and technology secrets back to the KGB, one encrypted, paper-bag drop-off at a time.
Shouldn’t we want Elizabeth and Philip to be discovered and caught?
Heck, no — we already know about our satisfactory historical ending in this affair. (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” etc.). For now we are emotionally invested in their futile quest for their own happy ending, the love story behind all those dead adversaries and unlucky witnesses taking bullets to the brain.
To blend in, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) obeyed orders and became parents; their oblivious children are getting old enough to ask too many questions , especially teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), who skips school in order to seek out rumored relatives or — nyet! — join a church youth group to avail herself of a little opiate of the masses.
Having caught Paige reading the Bible, Elizabeth seethes to her husband: “This is how they get you.” I think I love “The Americans” most in those moments when, through the bleeps and blurts of 1982 American culture (“How about we go see ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark?’” Elizabeth suggests, while her son keeps pining for a new home video-game system), Philip and especially Elizabeth seek solace in their fading memories of Marxist idealism.
But the Jenningses have much bigger threats ahead than the insidious nature of “Kumbaya” and Ms. Pac-Man. If you’ll recall from the end of Season 1 (and if you haven’t seen Season 1 yet, then correct yourself, comrade), Philip, in one of his many disguises (“Clark”), has married Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), the executive assistant to the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division. The goal is to get her to spy for him.
Managing his fake-fake marriage to Martha with his real-fake marriage to Elizabeth, poor Philip is stretched too thin, and to some extent, “The Americans’s” believability factor gets stretched a little too far as well. Rhys plays his part in magnificent, tightly wired bursts. Last season, I kept feeling as though Russell was only half as entertaining as Rhys, but she has, episode-by-episode, risen to his challenge and helped viewers see Elizabeth and Philip as worthy partners in deceit. Other standouts include Noah Emmerich as FBI agent Stan Beeman, the Jenningses’ neighbor who is closer than he thinks to the elusive spies he’s pursuing; and Annet Mahendru as Nina, a Soviet embassy employee spying for both sides.
After a terrifying encounter during a family outing, Elizabeth and Philip realize they are losing control of the facade they’ve constructed, while Moscow keeps making new and more dangerous demands. Such is their paranoia and devotion to the mission that Philip begins to view his daughter’s curiosity as a threat, yet the couple are fiercely determined to keep their children out of harm’s way.
The first five episodes of Season 2 are as good or better as what we saw in Season 1. I try not to grouse when a show that I like this much doesn’t get enough viewer buzz or awards; I’m still at a loss to explain why “The Americans” or its cast wasn’t up for an Emmy last year. It might have something to do with the fact that its intensity is offset by an almost clinical lack of emotion. Or there might yet be some residue of the Cold War in our pop-culture subconscious, which lends the show a difficult ambivalence. Though time and circumstances are working against Elizabeth and Philip, I hope that “The Americans’” time has arrived.
(one hour) returns Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on FX.