✭✭✭✭✩ | Nov. 9th, 2016
“Don’t say that you love me!
Just tell me that you want me!”
~Fleetwood Mac, “Tusk”
I don’t love this show. But damn, do I want more.
I don’t think drama TV pilots come much better than this.
The Americans has built a mean reputation the past few years or so in the eyes of critics and the general public. It’s been likened to AMC’s Mad Men – swapping the Draper family’s 1960s New York for the Jennings family’s 1980s Washington D.C., keeping the subtlety, attention to detail, and the cinematic sheen. Creator Joe Weisberg (formally of the CIA) even takes a note from Mad Men‘s songbook – pulling 1980s era tracks into the fray in meaningful (if enjoyably obvious) ways. I can’t wait to see where this series goes.
We open with a pretty overwrought hook(er). Elizabeth Jennings, sporting a Mia Wallace-esque black bob, seduces a Department of Justice lackey for information — the scene feels a little too gimmicky, a little too much like FX saying “hey HBO, we can do sex appeal, too!” Mostly, though, I think its playing up Elizabeth’s sexuality throughout this episode that irks me so much. In just this 65-minute pilot, she has sex for the mission, gets raped by her captain in a flashback, and relieves episode-long (but assumedly years-long) sexual tension with her husband, Philip. All of these make sense – no, actually they don’t make sense (more on the rape scene later). But they are redeemed, somewhat, by the subtleties afforded to Elizabeth’s character.
Elizabeth teases the name of a Russkie turncoat and a time of his arrival in D.C. out of her DOJ BJ (I’m still ugh-ing that intro), and we’re off to a pretty exhilarating opening sequence. To the thumping bass-line of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and through the darkened alleys of a D.C. borough, we chase Elizabeth and Philip, chasing Timoshev, a reneged Russian officer. The scene works – though not as well as it should. It’s shot sleekly (we get the first of a few clever, if cliché mirror shots of Elizabeth), but there’s little emotional weight past: “hey this song is great” and “wait who am I supposed to be rooting for here?”
Meanwhile, the FBI is establishing a task force specifically for domestic spies like the Jennings — sleeper agents right under American noses, who speak, dress, act, and appear like your everyday Joe Schmo. It’s a nice touch to have one of the in-house agents completely doubt the theory for its absurdity (before The Americans was pitched, the creators thought it too farfetched before research proved it a reality), but mostly these FBI scenes are overwrought and too exposition heavy. One scene where a higher-up informs of Reagan’s approval of “all necessary force” might be necessary, but that doesn’t mean it has to be delivered with such bombast.
Its funny that the over-the-top drama of the FBI scenes feels so off when the same treatment works so well with the Jennings’ storyline this episode. The opening chase to “Tusk” and Elizabeth and Philip’s primal sex scene to “In the Air Tonight” bookend this pilot; both are bombastic while being absolute blast. It’s bold to deliver these scenes like this – think of how easily the latter scene could have been the “Hallelujah” sex scene in Watchmen. So: points for making Phil Collins work, against all odds.
While scenes like these are certainly overblown in The Americans’ pilot, they’re also rife with subtlety – something this episode has a lot of.
Take the “Star Spangled Banner” scene, for instance, in which Philip accompanies his son to a school presentation of the Apollo-Soyuz test mission. Does The Americans have a full minute of a Russian spy singing the national anthem? Sure. But look into Matthew Rhys’ eyes, Philip Jennings’ glances at his son, director Gavin O’Conner’s close-ups and you’ll see a man who isn’t just faking patriotism — he’s considering it. It’s more than just ‘let’s have him sing the American anthem!” but an expressive representation of his inner turmoils – how’s THAT for ‘too-obvious’ TV?
And that brings us to what makes this pilot truly great — the relationship and tension between Philip, a loving father and husband who would consider treason, and Elizabeth, a more callous, logical, and devout follower of “the Motherland”. The duo have spy-dom down to a science — their kids haven’t a clue of their parents’ real occupations for a reason. But they perform, and have had to perform for so long that its unclear how well they know each other. I have a feeling the best moments of this series will be ones similar to Philip’s discovery of Elizabeth’s rape at the hands of Timoshev, and his decision to then kill the former Soviet officer. Learning about these characters, and watching them learn about themselves, is something to get excited about.
Mostly, though, I want more of the domestic scenes — where Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ performances shine. One particular scene starts in the home — and moves into flashback. After missing the boat they were supposed to put Timoshev on, the Jennings are forced to keep him in the trunk of their Oldsmobile, in their garage. FBI agent and undercover expert Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moving in next-door exacerbates things. Alfred Hitchcock once called suspense not only a bomb under a table, but characters conversing normally while the bomb is set to explode. Timoshev is the human bomb, the Oldsmobile is the table, and the Jennings’ conversations are a delight to watch.
The camerawork is surprisingly good at illustrating their dynamic. As Elizabeth dialogues with her children, asking Paige about homework and Henry about Archie, the camera focuses on her, separately from the duo. When Philip gets home from ‘work’, one close-up of Elizabeth lingers for a second after she leaves the frame. Then, its filled by Philip, stepping into the frame. Elizabeth struggles with the kids, Philip clearly connects more with them, and when he comes home, assumes kid-duty, as well as the camera’s focus. This same dynamic is underscored in the “Ice Cream Olympics” scene, which elicits a good laugh or two. It’s all in the details, all in the characterization. Both are on point throughout this episode.
One particular scene plays with the episode’s visual motif of Elizabeth and mirrors: first used in the opening sex scene, second in the chase, third as a segue into the Russian training flashback, and in this case gazing into a knife. All associate Elizabeth performance of her identity, but one is particularly sharp, as symbolism goes.
Elizabeth, while preparing a batch of brownies for her new neighbors, catches a glimpse of herself in her knife. We, like her, in this moment, because of the previous reflections, don’t see it as just a brownie-cutter – a docile symbol of American domesticity – but a potentially an organ-slicer; the knife is a weapon in her hands. No words are needed to spell this out to the audience – the recurring reflection image and a steely stare from Keri Russell are convincing enough.
This is effective directing: teasing out written themes from the text, illustrating them visually, and taking the watcher along without pandering. Unfortunately, other parts of the episode hand-hold too much. Overall — The Americans starts with a bang, but its best moments are its quiet ones.
While Mad Men used individual characters to illustrate political themes and ideologies, The Americans uses ideology and institution (the KGB, the FBI, marriage, family, nationalism) to illustrate characters. It’s a top-down approach that has no business being more than overbearing, pulpy, and even contrived. But this pilot is a winner because it makes that pulp work . It sells the idea of an FBI agent moving in next door to a KGB spy family, an “In the Air Tonight” sex scene, and even a Russian recitation of the “Star Spangled Banner”. The Americans is focused in its subtleties, unabashed in its pulpy audacity, and with it, FX has added another worthy series to its TV empire. Home of the brave, indeed.
- Honestly? Its worth watching for the marketing alone: the hammer-and-sickled “C” is logo gold.
- Nice scene at the end of the ep b/t the Beeman couple: more on the institution of marriage, domestic life etc.
- I didn’t cover it earlier: the pedophile mall scene is a powerful one, a great illustration of Paige’s maturity and Philip’s devotion and protection of her, but him beating the perp up over an American grill, and taking an American hot dog is little much — if only because its now the second woman he’s felt overly protective over this episode and answered with violence. I might like it a little more if he hadn’t killed Timoshev for Elizabeth a scene or two earlier. Also: horrible wig.
- On that note: I don’t love rape as a plot devise like…ever. Why does it have to happen to every ‘strong female character’; so she can prove her fortitude? So she can overcome the trauma? It’s usually so poorly depicted//dealt with narratively that it doesn’t help, but – but, I really enjoyed seeing Elizabeth kicking Timoshev’s ass and then choosing to spare his life. That being said, I don’t like how Philip gets the killing blow, to ‘prove’ his devotion to her. I’d much rather have her beat the shit out of him, then be ‘saved’ by the man of the house.
- The 80’s typewriter Paige does her homework on would make Tom Hanks proud, and reminds me of the whole business on cutting edge typing machines in Fargo Season Two’s early 1980s
- Maybe it’s because I’m such a 1960s and 1970s music nerd, but I have a hard time believing the Americans can keep up the song-a-week thing to this effect – and if they do, they’ll need to ditch Phil Collins and Fleetwood Mac in favor of some deep cuts
- I love love LOVE how much suspense they’re able to squeeze out of the body-in-a-trunk-in-a-garage scenes. Fantastic stuff.
- Fun to see what Elizabeth thinks suburban American is like: “We’ve come to drop off brownies and…welcome you to the neighborhood!”; “Henry is available all day tomorrow if you need help!”
- Cute little exchange between Paige and the Beeman’s son — cute, but definitely sowing seeds that might sprout into danger for the Jennings.
- “You know getting to the moon isn’t everything. Just getting to space is sometimes enough.” ~ Elizabeth, when Paige raves about the moon landing. More of this, please.