May 22, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “The Americans”


In its second season, THE AMERICANS continued to be a expertly crafted saga of betrayals, both political and personal.  Tonight’s chilling season finale, written by series creator Joe Weisberg and his co-showrunner Joel Fields, and directed by Daniel Sackheim, brought all its themes together brilliantly, and set the stage for what should be an even more powerful Season 3.

Until tonight, frankly, Season 2 was, while beautifully performed and designed, somewhat emotionally muted compared to the show’s first season.  (The ratings have been downbeat as well, disappointing FX, which had hoped for the kind of off-season bump that high-quality dramas sometimes get when they’re discovered on video or online.)  Season 1 pivoted on the tensions between Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), Washington DC travel agents and deep-cover Russian spies circa the first Reagan administration.  The problems in their marriage mirrored their philosophical differences, as Philip was fairly comfortable living as an American, while Elizabeth was a far more committed Soviet believer.  The two dimensions of the drama constantly interacted, and it was all very emotionally immediate.  By Season 2, most of those conflicts had been ironed out, and the Jennings marriage was on basically firm ground, barring the occasional jealousy brought on because Philip also has a secret marriage to FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright), which is purely for espionage purposes as far as Philip is concerned, but is nonetheless a functional marriage that includes regular sexual intimacy.  (The scene this season where Elizabeth demanded that Philip have sex with her using the persona he takes on with Martha was, by turns, funny, disturbing, revealing and emotionally wrenching.)

Instead, the Jennings’ story in Season 2 was concerned with the tensions of parenthood, particularly in Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship with their 14-year old daughter Paige (Holly Taylor).  Paige’s adolescent paranoia and rebelliousness was closer to the mark than her parents could ever let on, and her decision to search for some greater meaning in her life by exploring Christianity was a particular problem for Communist hard-liner Elizabeth.  It was all interesting from a structural standpoint, but Paige was never fully-fleshed out enough as a character to be as strong an antagonist for Philip and Elizabeth as the two of them had been for each other in Season 1, and often came across as just another whiny 14-year old.  It wasn’t until tonight’s finale that all of the issues with Paige were, so to speak, brought home, as the major mystery storyline of the season–who murdered the Jennings’ friends and fellow deep-cover spies Emmett and Leanne and their teenaged daughter?–was shockingly resolved with the reveal that it was their seemingly bereaved son Jared, and that his motive had been fury that his parents wouldn’t let him become a spy as well.  That was topped by the even bigger revelation that since Jared and his family were all dead, Moscow Centre now wanted Paige to take his place as a second-generation (and thus even more deeply-covered) Soviet spy, an idea Philip utterly rejected but Elizabeth was willing to consider, which will certainly become a huge issue in Season 3.

The emotional gap caused by the less-involving Jennings story this season was filled by the B storyline, about FBI agent (and Jennings neighbor) Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich).  The show more or less dropped the gimmicky “he’s an FBI agent, and he doesn’t even know his neighbors are Soviet spies!” thread of Season 1, and instead, Stan spent the season being slowly and convincingly drawn into potentially spying against his own government, despite all his knowledge about the way spies were recruited, because of his feelings for triple agent Nina (Annet Mahendru), feelings intensified by the collapse of his own marriage to Sandra (Susan Misner).  It was a superbly drawn, wonderfully played arc, and it ended rather heartbreakingly as Stan, seemingly still unaware that he’d been played, decided that he couldn’t betray his country, and let Nina be sent back to the USSR for the espionage he’d originally recruited her for, which could conceivably lead to her execution.

Even the small touches in The Americans are superbly worked out.  This season, the fact that the real-life McGuffin that drove the stories was the Soviet desire for the technology of the US Stealth plane, something that exists to fly in secret, hiding from radar, was a lovely metaphor.  The red-herring villainy of Larrick (Lee Tergesen), a US officer blackmailed into spying because of his homosexuality, was played tautly to the last possible instant, creating the believable impression that he had been the one who’d killed the Jennings’ friends.  The delicate relationships within the Russian consulate (played in subtitles) were as intelligently detailed as those among the American characters.  Weisberg and Fields even found the opportunity to explain and provide some meta-jokes about the endless wigs that Philip and Elizabeth wear in their various undercover roles on the show.  The show’s subtle yet telling use of 1980s costumes and production design is unerring; this season featured particular use of then-current computer technology.  (It’s too bad The Americans doesn’t share a network with AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, about computer development in the same era.)

As they had last year, Russell and Rhys gave amazing performances all season, with special credit to Rhys, whose relative “good cop” persona to Elizabeth’s bad-ass cracked this season after Philip had seen too much death and lost his veneer of civility.  Unfortunately, her duties on The Millers prevented Margo Martindale from being around very often, but all of her appearances (including in the season finale) were choice.

The Americans has become a much deeper and more textured spy story than Homeland, perhaps too much so for commercial television (even the basic cable kind).  It bucks the current TV drama trend for a non-stop rush of plot, demanding attention and patience with its willingness to allow its themes to play out over the course of an entire season.  Barring Emmy love, which it didn’t get last season, its ratings are likely to stay where they are, so one hopes FX can be happy with the viewership it has.  (The fact that it’s a strongly DVR’d show doesn’t necessarily help the network, but does provide value to its affiliated production company.)  It continues to be one of the strongest hours in this era of great TV drama.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."