May 2, 2013



FX’s THE AMERICANS has been, by a substantial margin, the best new show of this season.  And if tonight’s season finale was slightly less ambitious than we might have hoped in terms of delivering the shocking twists or cliffhangers that we now expect from our top serialized series, it still delivered an expert mix of intrigue, suspense and betrayal, as well as a great deal of fertile material for Season 2.

The episode, written by series creator Joe Weisberg and fellow Executive Producer Joel Fields, and directed by Adam Arkin, resolved the immediate plotlines that been set up in the last few episodes, although it didn’t go much farther than that.  Cleverly, it turned out that the job undertaken by Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) that just about everyone thought was an FBI set-up–the meeting with an American Colonel who promised intelligence on the Pentagon’s “Star Wars” project–was legitimate, while the seemingly routine mission–picking up a tape from the bug in Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s house–was an ambush.  The way this all played out made great use of 1981-era technology or lack thereof, as the only way the Soviet embassy was able to send an alert to cancel the mission in those pre-cellphone days was by sending out a car with the appropriate symbol scrawled on its side.  Arkin staged the car chase that followed beautifully, in a deliberately low-tech way that recalled the chases in 1970s movies (before CG massively expanded the scale of such sequences).  This all moved the story of Nina (Annet Mahendru) forward as well, as she played double agent, telling the Russian embassy about the FBI’s plans, and also started her campaign to seduce agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich)–who had initially recruited her–in order to compromise or turn him.

The other major development in the episode was the reassignment of Claudia (Margo Martindale) at Philip and especially Elizabeth’s request–but that was due more to the fact that Martindale, a guest star on Americans, may be lost to a CBS sitcom next season, and thus unavailable, and one imagines it could be reversed easily enough if she’s free.  It would be a terrible shame to lose Martindale, not least because every scene between her and the endlessly disdainful Russell has been absolute gold.  Surprisingly, there was little time devoted to Philip’s new fake marriage to Martha (Alison Wright) and the bug she’d placed in the office of FBI Agent in Charge Gaad (Richard Thomas)–except for some enthusiastic basic-cable level sex that somehow never dislodged Philip’s disguise wig.  Presumably the Martha story will be more central next season, as will the hints that Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is starting to suspect that something’s not quite right with her mother’s middle-of-the-night laundry runs, and the fact that for $500K and immunity, the feds have just turned one of Elizabeth’s agents.

Of course, The Americans is about marriage as much as espionage–or, perhaps more accurately, marriage as a form of espionage.  Philip booked vacations for both his own family and the Beemans in the finale, but while the Jennings had reconciled by the end of the episode (Elizabeth, bleeding from the bullet Stan didn’t know he’d fired at her, told Philip they should still take the trip after he’d seemingly sacrificed himself by taking the “dangerous” assignment), the rejection of Stan’s plan by his wife Sandra (Susan Misner) suggested that it’s now the Beemans who are in serious trouble.  And neither of the men’s surrogate marriages, Philip to Martha and Stan to Nina, is likely to work out well.

The Americans has proceeded with remarkable assurance since its pilot, with a tone and convincing but not ostentatious period style (including great use of the era’s songs) that’s hardly needed any adjustment as the season went on.  It’s been very evenly paced–perhaps slightly too much so in this era of Homeland and Scandal, which seem to eat up a season of storyline every 3 or 4 episodes–and well-balanced in terms of juggling its genre and character stories.  The acting has been uniformly superb.  Russell has transformed her entire image with her fierce, unsparing work here, and Rhys, as the more overtly sensitive spouse, has matched her beautifully, while Emmerich has found every nuance in the way Stan’s seeming amiability masks much darker emotions.  The supporting cast, led by Martindale, Mahendru and Thomas, as well as Maximiliano Hernandez and Derek Luke in now-terminated roles, has been equally strong.

It’s not surprising that The Americans has been a more moderate success in the ratings than other, more accessible, cable dramas–its period setting, deliberate pace and traitorous protagonists set it apart from fellow dark thrillers like Breaking Bad and Justified.  Happily, it’s done well enough to earn a second season, and now that the characters are established and storylines are in place , there’s every reason to hope that the show will only get better.  It’s already lived up to its promise as the next 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."