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The Americans: Season 2

What She said:

She

Oh my goodness, where do I even begin with Season 2 of FX’s spy-drama, The Americans?  Season 1 ended with our Russian spy super-couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, experiencing some pretty rough marital troubles.  They were all but officially separated, but had to continue working together because much of their undercover infiltration of U.S. intelligence is team-based.  They were particularly emotionally taxed because Elizabeth had suffered a near-fatal gunshot wound.

The Americans: Season 2

Season 2 opens with Elizabeth returning home after recovering from her injury.  The cover for the children is that she’s been off taking care of an ailing relative.  And this begins a story arch of suspicion between daughter Paige and her parents that will continue through the entire season.  Basically, Paige is a very smart teenager, who begins to question what’s really going on with her parents.  They disappear, often at night, and feed her some pretty phony excuses.  She can’t imagine that travel agents would have such crazy schedules and so this leads to a certain degree of snooping, and inevitably challenging of her parents.  Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship is tested at various points throughout the season, but it’s really the animosity between Paige and her parents that takes over this go-around.

Another main story line for season two involves the death of another deep-cover spy family, who were actually fairly close with the Jennings’.  They are brutally assassinated in a hotel room, along with their teenaged daughter.  Only their son, Jared, survives.  Elizabeth is particularly shaken by the deaths, as she realizes that her family may also be no longer safe.  The killings also make clear that someone is trying to infiltrate the KGB, and has become aware of the identities of at least some of their spies.  Elizabeth and Philip are sent on a quest to track down the assassin, and protect the integrity of the KGB. 

On the true-American side of things, FBI agent Stan is having a rough go of it.  His wife is becoming more and more distant, and Nina, his Russian love, is secretly using him for information.  Stan is essentially watching his life fall apart, but on the upside, work has been going fairly well.  The story arch with Nina is front and center in Season 2.  The KGB has discovered her relationship with Stan and is exploiting that to receive insider information from her.  Of course, Stan is totally clueless that this is all happening right under his nose.  Instead, he’s trying to protect Nina’s safety from both the KGB and the FBI.  Eventually, Nina is put under heavy scrutiny by both sides, and it seems there’s no such thing as a happy ending for her.

Spoiler Alert (big revelation coming up).  As the season concludes, we learn that it was actually Jared who killed his parents, and that he’s part of a pilot program for second generation KGB agents.  Basically, the KGB wants the children of its spies to grow up to also become spies, mainly because they are blue-blooded American citizens who will not raise suspicions with the U.S. government.  And guess what, Paige is on their list of future hopefuls.  As we wind up Season 2, Philip and Elizabeth have made it clear that they do not want Paige involved in what they do, but the KGB is insistent, and it’s indicated that the entire family may be in danger if they do not cooperate.

The Americans: Season 2

So these are just some highlights from Season 2.  Believe me, there is soooo much more going on—from multi-episode story archs to one-off missions that Elizabeth and Philip must complete.  And yes, it does become a little difficult to keep straight.  It’s all very intelligent, though, and with the help of a little Wikipedia or IMDB back-up, you should be able to get through the season and make sense of it all.

With so much of the plot from Season 2 of The Americans sailing right over my head, I found myself clinging to the characters and their transformations.  Paige becomes very interesting this season, as she’s truly hit those difficult teenage years.  She begins to act out against her parents and grows suspicious of them.  She goes back and forth between hating them both equally, and turning on just her mother or father.  She seems to hit Elizabeth particularly hard by embracing religion for the first time.  As can be assumed, the cold and stoic Elizabeth does not believe in organized religion, or God at all for that matter.  She seems to embrace the notion of creating your own destiny in this life, which makes perfect sense considering her background.  Philip is a little bit more forgiving of Paige’s ambitions, as he’s just relieved that she’s not acting out against them, but he becomes extremely bothered by her lying and snooping around.  I’m interested in seeing what they do with Paige’s character next season.  With the next generation spy program in place, it’s clearly evident that Paige will soon find out the truth about her parents, and I’d like to see how she reacts.

So much of Season 2 revolved around Elizabeth, Philip, and Paige, and their characters grew and transformed in profound ways.  But there was also a large focus on Nina.  I know Stan is part of the equation as well, but I think that the story was more about Nina, her true allegiances (which were never clear), and how she would navigate being a target of scrutiny.  Stan just slowly fell apart over the course of Season 2’s 13 episodes, before proving himself stronger than we would have imagined by the end. 

With such fascinating characters, stellar acting is a necessity to make The Americans work, and once again we were fortunate to have that in spades.  In fact, I cannot think of a single actor or actress who was subpar.  Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys were both very good as Elizabeth and Philip, and Holly Taylor put in a strong performance as Paige.  Annet Mahendru was also quite good as the sulky Nina, constantly stretched to her limits.  And Noah Emmerich was solid as Stan.  I was even pleased by the supporting cast—from the KGB side of things on down to Alison Wright as the extremely used, but also oblivious Martha Hanson. 

Never boring, The Americans twists and turns with intrigue and high-stakes action.  There are plenty of high-quality fight scenes, and the subject matter and portrayal of the era seem authentic.  I could not anticipate where they would go with Season 2 of the show, and that makes me even more eager to dive into Season 3 next winter.  The Americans remains another strong cable-TV drama program.

Thumbs up.

The Americans: Season 2

What he said:

He
The Americans: Season 2

Man, if you think you’ve got it rough, try being one of the characters on FX’s hit TV show, The Americans. These people have complicated lives.

Season 1 ended with a car chase in which Elizabeth (Keri Russell) was shot while she and Philip (Matthew Rhys) were fleeing from the FBI; which I remember correctly was a mission their neighbor, Stan, was involved in. During the mission, Elizabeth was shot and needed care. Philip sets her up in a safe house while she is recuperating. Since they are posing as American citizens, and have American children who are completely unaware of their identity, this means a cover story is necessary. Philip tells the kids that she is taking care of an elderly relative who has fallen ill.

Paige, the Jennings’ oldest daughter, is a teenager and a bright kid in general, so she’s not buying it. She has noticed for a while now that her parents often disappear, and particularly at odd hours, so this latest instance is the final straw. She (Holly Taylor) has decided to investigate the issue. So what does she do? She decides she needs to pay that long lost relative Elizabeth is supposedly taking care of a visit.

Paige also gets involved with a local church’s youth group, which upsets her parents greatly. Their country and their jobs (as spies) are their religion. Well Elizabeth at least, there are times where it seems like Philip would turn given the right circumstances. They view her interest in religion as a threat. They were already afraid that their kids are growing up without realizing who they really are – the kids are already very American – but they fear that will lose Paige forever if they let develop her own interests and beliefs. Philip’s initial reaction is much more harsh than Elizabeth’s, but overall he takes the news better than she does once he settles down. He blows up at first, but figures if they prohibit Paige from doing this, she’ll rebel and they will lose her forever. Elizabeth is completely against her involvement in the religious group and forbids it. She even says she’d prefer Paige to hate them and rebel rather than join the church group (she really doesn’t like religion).

The Americans: Season 2

There’s also a sides story with their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati). It’s not important to the plot, but I wanted to mention it just to note how much is going on in their personal lives.

That’s not the only thing the Jennings’ have on their plate this season. That’s just their family life. They are also dealing with the fallout from the murder of another Soviet family posing as American citizens (the parents at least). Long story short, there’s another couple they know who are also Russian spies posing as an average American family. They are murdered – being a spy is dangerous stuff after all – and the Jennings have to  take over their mission.

That mission is a man named Andrew Larrick (Lee Tergesen). Larrick is an officer in the U.S. Navy. He is highly trained, very versatile, resourceful, and appears to some black ops type of skills. He’s the kind of guy that you can drop into the middle of nowhere with very little in terms of supplies, but he still gets the job done. He was being blackmailed by Philip and Elizabeth’s friends into doing dirty for the KGB. Despite the fact that he’s being forced to work for the enemy, I find myself having no sympathy for this guy. I realize he’s being black mailed, but if it gets to the point where you either have something about your personal life get exposed or betray your country to keep those little dirty secrets hidden, you man up. Your personal reputation is not worth the lives of those you are betraying. Plus, the guy just goes back-and-forth between doing things both for and against his own country that he seems like a pretty disgusting human being. At one point, he even justifies his treason because he says he’s done more good for the U.S. than bad. He’s also kind of self-involved. At a certain point, he wants revenge against Philip and Elizabeth for some U.S. soldiers they killed. He wants revenge against them because those soldiers were his friends, not because he cares about the fact they are KGB agents and he’s a member of the U.S. military. With this guy, it always comes back to him. His personal gain, pleasure, friends, are all that he cares about preserving.  This is a great performance by Lee Tergesen by the way. The character is a total sociopath. He’s scary as hell and only cares about things that affect or benefit him.

Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) isn't faring much better. Sure, he receives accolades at work for a job well done, but his personal life is an absolute mess and that is due in part because of the overlap with his career.

First of all, he and his wife Sanda (Susan Misner) have a completely loveless marriage. Stan is always working and Sandra resents him for it. Well, she used to at least. They are past the point where they fight about it anymore. They pass each other in the kitchen once and a while, but aside from that they don't even see one another, and when they do, it's little more than, "See you tomorrow." If I remember correctly, when the show first started it indicated they had marital problems and it's only gotten worse since then.

The Americans: Season 2

One of the things contributing to his failing marriage, though these two have had trouble long before this became a factor, is Stan's secret fling with his informant Nina (Annet Mahendru). His relationship with Nina is very complicated. It starts out in season 1 with him blackmailing her into acting as a spy for him against the KGB. She works at the Russian Embassy and knows he can easily intimidate her into doing work for him.

After a little while, he starts sleeping with her, and eventually falls in love with her. He actually cares about her and even though he’s forcing her into giving him intelligence, he promises her that he will find a safe way out of this situation; one that doesn’t involve being tried for treason back in Russia.

But things take a turn when she finds out Stan killed one of her friends. She confesses to her superiors and begins feeding them information, which is easier now that she has Stan wrapped around her little finger.

There’s also a new guy at work named Oleg, who has the hots for Nina. Oleg (Costa Ronin) has some kind of political pull. I forget the details, but he has his job because his family is wealthy and respected back in Russia. This guy is used to getting what he wants and he wants Nina; and is willing to protect her from her treasonous acts as a result. So, because she doesn’t know if she can fully trust Stan, she begins a relationship with Oleg as well. I guess she figures she has someone from both sides protecting her.

This could be seen as opportunistic, but I see it as self-preservation. If you think back to how she got involved in all of this, I do feel bad for her. She was not a spy and basically an office worker when she was blackmailed by the FBI into betraying her country. She didn’t want to, but I believe they threatened her family back in Russia. I don’t’ think they threatened their lives, but I think they were going to do something to make their lives miserable, so you can completely understand why Nina started spying for the U.S. You really sympathize with her. But then this season she turns it around on Stan and turns into a double agent. The interesting thing though is you never really figure out why. Does she do it because cares about her country, cares about her own ass, or just wants some vengeance against Stan for murdering her friend Vlad. She’s a sympathetic and complicated at the same time and Annet Mahendru was absolutely fantastic in her more expanded role. I was really impressed with how she handled the increased screen time and the character’s complicated life.

Speaking of increased roles, we get to see more of Philip’s other wife, Martha. For those of you not familiar with the show, Philip marries an FBI office worker under one of his fake identities. She (Alison Wright) thinks he works in U.S. intelligence and ends up spying on her boss for him. She basically thinks that Philip works for a branch of the government that makes sure U.S. intelligence agencies are doing their job, so she’s happy to help. She thinks she’s doing a good thing. This woman is so in the dark, you can’t help but feel sorry for her. She has no idea who Philip really is and if she finds out, or if he simply disappears one day, she’s going to be devastated. This is another really good performance.

I felt like I had to highlight these two first, because the main three are obviously very good, but they get all the attention. The supporting case is also very good. But speaking of the main three,  you just never know how you feel about these complicated characters. Stan works for the FBI and I’m always going to favor the U.S. over a communist nation, so I guess I’m rooting for him the most. But he does murder Nina’s friend, who like her was nothing more than an office worker. Stan incorrectly thought he was a spy. Then you’ve got Philip and Elizabeth. She’s just downright unlikeable. She’s cold and is as pro-communist as one can get. Philip is not only more likeable, but expresses doubt about their beliefs – he actually likes the American lifestyle – all the time. But man-oh-man does he rack up the bodies this season, and there’s plenty of them that are innocent. I’ve always liked him more, but it’s hard to ignore some of what he’s done this season. But unlike Elizabeth, he’s at least bothered by it. The guy genuinely seems to want out, while she just brushes it off as a part of being in a war.

Another great performance this season is Lee Tergesen as Andrew Larrick. Larrick is blackmailed into working for Russia, but unlike Nina, he does it out of selfish reasons, and not to keep loved ones safe. Being a gay man in the military in the 80s was not a good thing. He’d undoubtedly be discharged if that was discovered. However, when a bunch of Russian spies come to you and tell you to kill a bunch of Americans or risk having your sexuality exposed, you man up and do the right thing. Tell your superiors what is happening. But this guy is a total sociopath and only thinks of himself, so he goes back-and-forth between helping and hurting the U.S. through his actions as a double agent. The thing that really gets me is he feels no guilty about it at all. He even justifies his treason because he’s done more helpful than hurtful things.

The only complaint I have is that this show has a habit or referencing characters or events that are barely in the show and expects you to remember it as if it’s common. They brought back some character this year who was in one episode last year and it was all very, “Oh that’s so-and-so. You know her.” Sorry, but I don’t. I don’t know this character who appeared on the show over a year ago and you are referencing like she’s s semi-regular. That is literally my only complaint about this show. Otherwise, it is extremely well-done.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on June 17, 2014.

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