“The Americans” picks up pretty deftly from where last season’s cliffhanger left off, while advancing that storyline at a relatively slow pace. Mixing the micro and the macro, the FX series grapples with questions surrounding the central couple’s daughter, while finding the Soviets in near-panic mode over the Vietnam-like quagmire that Afghanistan threatens to become for them. Throw in the arrival of Frank Langella in a supporting role, and it’s a solid start to a show that, despite its flaws, has quickly grasped the mantle of being perhaps the network’s most-heralded series.
At the close of season two (and SPOILER ALERT if you’re not caught up), the two Soviet spies operating in the U.S. as a married couple, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), were presented an unsettling proposition, or really ultimatum, from their handlers: Begin training their 14-year-old daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), to join what amounts to the family business.
Yet while Philip is resistant to the idea, Elizabeth, more of a true believer in supporting the motherland, is accepting. Moreover, as she tells Langella’s character — an old friend who arrives to serve as their go-between to Moscow — given Paige’s embrace of liberal causes, “Ideologically, she’s open to the right ideas.”
Of course, that’s just a small part of the show, with the usual skullduggery, defectors and politics within the Soviet mission here, where the local chief (Lev Gorn, who has grown into one of the most fascinating characters) employs an “X-Files”-like mantra to trust no one. The Feds, meanwhile, continue to sniff around the edges, with the plot surrounding Philip and Elizabeth’s FBI agent neighbor (Noah Emmerich) weakened by the recall of his Soviet lover Nina (Annet Mahendru).
The producers certainly don’t pull punches in painting this Cold War standoff as ruthless business, including — in the early going — a sequence that takes the show’s too-frequent juxtaposition of sex and violence to unfortunate extremes. In that regard, one needn’t be a prude to feel “The Americans,” allowing for its desire to create moral ambiguity, periodically runs afoul of the fact that just because you can doesn’t always mean you should.
That said, the series has maintained a delicate high-wire act that appeared extraordinarily difficult when it started, managing to keep its answer to Boris and Natasha one step ahead of U.S. authorities and even semi-sympathetic in their plight, even as they exploit innocents and commit despicable acts in the name of their cause.
Give “The Americans” credit, too, for building a compelling cast outside the central duo, which includes finding a way to incorporate the children beyond just asking, “Hey, why are mom and dad getting home so late?” The show’s history, moreover — including the Soviet Union’s prequel to the American experience in Afghanistan — has become richer as the ’80s progress. (FX has stated a hope the franchise will run at least five seasons, offering the tantalizing prospect of what happens when the Berlin Wall comes down.)
With “Sons of Anarchy” gone and “Justified” wrapping up, “The Americans” will carry a bit more weight on its shoulders for the network, at least until reinforcements arrive. And if imitation is truly the sincerest form of television, the series must feel awfully flattered by NBC’s upcoming drama “Allegiance,” which also deals with Russian moles in the U.S., albeit in a contemporary setting.
Welcome to the world of capitalism, comrades.