FX’s mission for The Americans — its very new, very adult, very ambitious Cold War spy drama — is to have audiences empathize with the KGB instead of our own people, for once. And while I’m not exactly trading in my rock, flag and eagle for a Budenovka, I am happily intrigued by the Jennings family, and their impossible-to-maintain lifestyle set up in the show’s nearly perfect premiere. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is a long-tortured soul, devoted to the motherland but struggling in her lonely position as hesitant wife and mother. Phillip (Matthew Rhys) is her affable arranged husband, who — after almost two decades — is realizing that this America place might not be so bad, after all.
We meet the Jennings family during a moment of great change. After a long stasis, living relatively boring lives as the KGB sleeper agents next door, they ignite fury in the 1981 Reagan administration when they manage to kidnap and murder a Russian defector in their own backyard. And the Jennings’ own backyard has also been violated, as FBI Agent extraordinaire Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has moved in across the street; already suspicious (rightfully, but more on that later) of his new neighbors. All of this danger — and the existence of their two happy, unwitting children, Henry and Paige — makes Phillip want to collect some cash and defect, but Elizabeth’s fortitude and painful backstory (slowly revealed throughout the episode) puts a dent in all that.
It’s also this painful backstory, and the clear and present danger, that finally ignites some fire in their ice cold relationship. From what we see of Elizabeth’s lifestyle in the pilot, it’s easy to see why she’s so distant from her husband: he chases bad guys, manipulates unintelligent FBI employees, and takes the kids shopping, while her job description includes prostituting herself for Mother Russia, then going home to bake brownies and edit homework assignments with a smile. It’s awful. Within the first five minutes we see her giving a blow job to a sleazy Justice Department blowhard, to gather information on the aforementioned traitorous defector. They find him, of course, but a series of unfortunate events — mainly their comrade getting stabbed — leads to a blown mission.
“The mission comes first,” Elizabeth says, as their friend bleeds out in the backseat of their Oldsmobile. Right away, we know she’s the dangerous-slash-damaged one. But Phillip is a bit softer, and wants to take the poor guy to an area hospital to give him a fighting chance. Either way, their bickering leads to a literal missed boat — the vessel going to Mother Russia is headed out to sea by the time they arrive at the docks, leaving them with a hogtied millionaire defector in the trunk of their car. In the garage. Where the children play.
Why would this bring them closer? Because, as we see in a flashback, this particular defector raped Elizabeth back in the ’60s, when she was a mere cadet going through training. Perks of the job, he explains to her, in a half-assed “please don’t kill me” apology. Phillip had wanted to turn him in for cash and run away, but when he realizes what the man had done (“How did he hurt you?” he cries. “How did he hurt you?” Swoon.) he snaps his neck. Nothing brings a couple together quite like rightful-revenge-based-murder, so they indulge in a steamy lovemaking session after getting rid of the body. But the real bonding moment comes in the scene where they reveal their true backstories — another flashback reveals that the couple were told not to tell the other of their real, Russian identities. Only the fake American ones, to further preserve their covers. By finally, after nearly two decades together, they seem to be toying with the idea of actually loving and trusting each other: something that clearly wasn’t happening before, as we also learn that Elizabeth had told her handler that Phillip couldn’t be trusted due to his mall-loving, cowboy boot-wearing tendencies. She changes her mind after their late-night bonding, so Phillip is off the hook with the KGB.
However, he is not off the hook with Stan. Phillip learns through his unwitting FBI source (he poses as someone who monitors agency activity, and this woman stupidly obliges) that the agency is looking for a gold ’77 Oldsmobile, after the disappearance of the defector. Stan sees the very same ’77 Oldsmobile in the Jennings’ garage, and does some late-night snooping. He doesn’t find anything — the body has already been removed — but something in him knows that something was amiss with this family.
So, all in all, it was a great night for family bonding, but a terrible night for KGB agent safety. Stan’s first priority now is to find out who killed this defector, and with Phillip newly committed to his wife (and, by proxy, Russia) their clean escape is now completely off the table. If that’s not good drama, I don’t know what is — and the phenomenal premiere performances by all three leads earned The Americans a spot on my (very full) DVR.
Yes, Elizabeth is cold and miserable, but her backstory and newfound appreciation for her husband makes her a very solid lead. And she’s actually pretty comical when she has to endure her children’s homework assignments, which largely s*** all over her beloved country. When they talk about how great it is that Americans landed on the moon first, Elizabeth suggests that just getting to space was the true accomplishment (ha!). It’s sad, because she can’t truly bond with her Americanized children (she wants to turn them into socialists, but Phillip accurately points out that that doesn’t really happen in the American school system), but also really funny to watch her not-so-casually suggest that Russia ain’t so bad. In the same vein, watching Phillip joyfully adapt to our American ways — toe-stepping to country music in a department store and considering cowboy boots, to the mortification of his teen daughter — makes him very likable, which balances out some of Elizabeth’s iciness.
By all means — give this one a shot. Do it for Mother Russia, and for the sake of good drama.
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[PHOTO CREDIT: FX]