Episode Title: "Pilot"
Writer: Joe Weisberg
Director: Gavin O'Connor
The funny thing about period dramas is that every era tends to get one. Just think, in twenty to thirty years, someone will make a TV drama set in the 2010s and we’ll all look back and laugh at the ridiculous style and the outdated technology that we used to have.
In “The Americans,” FX takes us back to 1981 at the height of the Cold War for some KGB sleeper thrills and occasional action. Judging from the pilot alone, “The Americans” could become one FX’s next breakout hits and it could possibly compete Showtime’s “Homeland” for intrigue.
From this point on, there are full spoilers for the first episode of “The Americans,” so be a good sleeper agent and don’t read this review if you haven’t already seen the pilot.
Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is almost the perfect American everyman hero. He clearly loves his wife and children as well the culture of his adopted country. Plus, when some sleazy dude hits on his 13 year old daughter, Phillip tracks the man down and beats the s*** out of him before stealing one of his hot dogs.
What could be more American than that?
Unfortunately, Phillip is working for the KGB as one of their top operatives in Washington D.C. alongside his wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell); who is a staunch believer in Mother Russia to the point that she can’t even let her children praise the U.S. moon landing without arguing that just getting into space was a major accomplishment. Left unsaid is that the Russians got there first.
The two most striking things throughout this episode were the way that Philip has been seduced by the American lifestyle and the fact that Elizabeth didn’t love her husband... at all. For Elizabeth, it was just an arranged marriage to maintain their cover within the United States. Everything else was just an afterthought.
Except that’s not completely true. Elizabeth cares enough about her children that the thought of losing their love when the truth comes out seems to terrify her more than death or prison. It’s kind of hilarious that the best that Elizabeth can hope for is that her kids turn out to be socialists. They’re too young to share their parents’ politics and they wouldn’t be inclined to even if they knew the truth.
The “Homeland” comparisons are inevitably going to come for this show, but “The Americans” manages to make Phillip and Elizabeth sympathetic right off the bat. It was impossible to root for Nicholas Brody when he and his terrorist masters were planning to kill hundreds of people. Philip and Elizabeth commit at least one murder in the pilot episode, but their overall agenda is espionage. They aren’t out to simply kill everyone that they can.
It’s amusing that Elizabeth’s handler voices his belief that America has elected a mad man (Ronald Reagan) who wants to destroy them. It’s a belief born out of fear, however it makes the Russian agenda more palatable if they truly think that they have no choice but to fight back. Another interesting thing to come out of that meeting is that Elizabeth reported her husband’s lack of resolve to her superiors before eventually backtracking on her comments and vouching for Phillip.
Through flashback, we learn why Elizabeth has so many intimacy issues, as her superior, Timochev, brutally raped her when she was still in training. Elizabeth’s actually trainer seems upset by the turn of events, but he doesn’t move to help her and he simply leaves her to her fate. Somehow Elizabeth remains loyal to the government that didn’t punish her attacker. And twenty years later, Timochev ends up in the trunk of the family car after a botched mission to retrieve him gets one of the other KGB agents fatally stabbed.
Over at the FBI, it seems that the U.S. government is aware of most of the details about Timochev’s kidnapping, even if they don’t quite believe his story about Russian sleeper agents living there in deep cover. Thus Timochev betrayed the Jennings family even before he saw them.
I expected Phillip to blow off Timochev’s offer of $3 million for his safety, but instead, Phillip really considered it! With the feds potentially closing in on them, Philip found the money very enticing and he even pitched the idea to his wife that they could finally become real Americans if they made a deal quickly. Except Elizabeth just wasn’t having it.
The only thing that pushes Phillip off of his defection plans is the revelation that Timochev hurt his wife. And it’s Phillip’s quick murder of Timochev that finally convinces Elizabeth that he loves her. Subsequently, she’s more affectionate with him and Elizabeth even divulges her real name for the first time. But that was also their best chance to defect and that option seems to be off of the table.
Complicating matters further is the Jennings’ new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent fresh from an undercover assignment inside a white supremacist group. Stan is so wired to recognize people hiding something that he quickly becomes suspicious of Philip and breaks into their garage to examine their car for evidence that Timochev was there... with Phillip hiding in the shadows nearby with a gun in hand. Stan eventually laughs off his suspicions, but this clearly isn’t over.
The action of “The Americans” was well staged and the performances were solid throughout. Aside from the music and the wardrobe, the ‘80s period wasn’t entirely convincing. But this is a TV series with a television sized budget. It would probably take a movie budget to really recreate the ‘80s on a large scale. This works for what it is.
The flashbacks were interesting, but neither Rhys nor Russell were convincing as their much younger selves. Plus, if Elizabeth’s father died in Russia during World War II when she was two then that makes her around 40 to 42 years old in 1981; which is a few years older than Russell’s actual age! She’s almost too young to play the character at her current age and she’s too old to pass as a teenager. But it doesn’t really matter that much because she and Rhys are engaging together.
I had high expectations for “The Americans” and the pilot delivered on most of them. This could be a really fun show if every episode can maintain this level of quality.