When Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) first shows up in the second season of “The Americans,” the moment is almost guffaw-worthy. He wears a fluffy blond wig, tinted aviators and leather-lined cowboy suit, and – in the show’s best “Charlie Wilson’s War” impression – is wheeling and dealing an arms deal with some Afghan agents. But then violence erupts, blood is shed and Philip’s tough-talking and gun-slinging dissolves into a near emotional breakdown once he has fled the scene. As Philip struggles to pull himself together, it’s clear “The Americans” still has control of its own mission: testing how far its characters – spies and agents playing on opposite sides of the Cold War – will go in the name of defending their countries.
Like so many dramas before it, the first season of “The Americans” laid itself a foundation for an intricate and shifting architecture. But setting its second season apart is that it doesn’t buckle under the weight of all those pieces. Rather, it continues to build and surprise, using an unlikely, pulpy spy premise ( well, not that unlikely) to get at the universal secrets people choose to keep.
If the first season of “The Americans” was about Phil and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) reassessing their relationship as husband and wife – a relationship that was simply a front for their KGB operation until they decided to make their marriage a real one – season two focuses on their role as parents. Their two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), are growing older, nosier and – most concerningly – more at risk as the walls Philip and Elizabeth erected between their compartmentalized home and work lives begin to crumble.
Stan (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent who moved next door in season one, has more or less turned his back on his hearth. Nina (Annet Mahendru) – the pretty Russian embassy employee Stan is sleeping with and thinks he’s running – is actually running him, while Stan's wife (Susan Misner) struggles to hold onto their marriage. For fooling Stan, Nina has elevated her status at the Russian Embassy, but has attracted the wrong type of attention from one of her new bosses.
In addition to bringing Nina to the forefront, “The Americans” also fleshes out Martha, the FBI secretary and wife of one of Phil’s alter-egos, who for all her naivety poses a threat of her own. A few other characters from season one turn up in surprising places, and “The Americans” adds some new players to its universe, including another KGB couple undercover in the United States who go way back with the Jennings. Even the smallest pawns of Philip and Elizabeth's games reap pity for getting caught in the crossfire.
The spy plots move fast – sometimes too fast to follow exactly who is fooling who and why. And aside from some snide Reagan-hating here or there, the ideologies motivating the Jennings' and Stan’s respective missions stay in the background, in keeping with the show’s ability to keep viewer sympathy slippery. The shock value on the sex has been amped up, with FX trying its cable censors with two separate, very graphic instances in the season two premiere. However, whether it is to advance an espionage maneuver or highlight an emotional development between two characters, it would be wrong to write off the show's use of skin as gratuitous.
“The Americans” wisely keeps its references to its time period light – using muted fashions (those campy disguises aside), including sparse cultural touchstones and incorporating news stories that only apply to the mission on the ground – so a show that could have been quite dated feels timeless. Furthermore, Paige’s measure of bratty, teenage rebellion is not some stretch to throw her into the gears of her parents’ professional machinery (think vice presidents’ sons with cars), but a flashpoint as inventive as it is believable: She has become interested in Christianity, a no-no considering Elizabeth's communist beliefs hold religion to be an "opiate of the masses."
What “The Americans” is not light on is irony. For instance, Stan confesses his marital infidelity to Philip, a man whose job description includes sex with strangers, and – still fooled by the Jennings’ cover – concludes, “You’re lucky to be a travel agent, Philip. Happy people go on vacations.”
Like those silly wigs, over-the-top tradecraft and oh-so-‘80s musical selections (the one cultural artifact “The Americans” does not handle gently), those moments would be laughable if they weren’t so effective in drawing you in. “The Americans” is the type of show that packs the biggest punch not with the words the characters say, but with what they hold back in a world where one’s emotions must be as guarded as his or her true identity.
Spy or not, the show reminds us, everyone has reasons to keep a