Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 27, 2014)
A breakout series from the 2012-13 season, The Americans takes us back to the Washington, DC area circa the early 1980s. We meet Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), a seemingly ordinary suburban couple with two kids (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati).
However, it turns out the Philip and Elizabeth are actually undercover KGB agents in the US to undermine society. The Blu-ray covers all 13 of Season One’s episodes. The plot synopses come from the discs’ menus.
Pilot: “The arranged marriage of Philip and Elizabeth grows more passionate and genuine by the day, but is constantly tested by the escalation of the Cold War. Tensions heighten upon the arrival of a new neighbor, FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich).”
A pilot episode exists largely to set up a series’ characters and situations, which this one does in a deft manner. It introduces us to the main parties in a concise way and shows us probable themes well, especially the concepts of family/love vs. duty. While not the most scintillating story, “Pilot” doesn’t need to dazzle; it brings us into the series well and that’s good enough.
The Clock: “Philip and Elizabeth are given an urgent task to plant a bug in Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s office. Meanwhile, Stan closes in on a member of the Soviet Rezidentura in an effort to uncover the identities of Deep Cover Directorate’s operatives.”
Two programs into the series and it’s unclear if S1 will come with an overarching plot – ie, a mission that will cover much of the year – or if it’ll be episodic in nature, with issues related to personal relationships and the threat of Beeman as the only consistent threads. Whichever way the rest of the year goes, “Clock” presents a fair amount of intrigue. It develops those burgeoning threads well enough and delivers some good drama, so it keeps us involved.
Gregory: “Philip and Elizabeth discover that their murdered colleague Robert has a wife (Audrey Esparza) they never knew about. Stan’s investigation into Robert’s death puts him hot on their trail.”
In terms of development, “Gregory” moves things along most prominently via the love triangle formed by the episode’s title character (Derek Luke). I can’t say he’s the most fascinating personality so far, but he does add complications to the already fraught Philip/Elizabeth relationship. Throw in some additional issues in the usual spy plot and the show works pretty well.
In Control: “When an assassin attempts to kill President Reagan, Philip and Elizabeth scramble to handle the fallout with in the KGB. Meanwhile, Stan pressures his source within the Rezidentura to find out if the KGB was responsible for the attempted assassination.”
If you wonder precisely what part of 1981 The Americans covers, “Control” gives us the answer, as its depiction of the attempted assassination of President Reagan places it in late March. This is a good decision, as a) it adds real-life tension to the depicted situations, and b) it ensures that the series has years of active Cold War to exploit.
Looking solely at “In Control”, it uses the events for a satisfying show. It moves along the usual personal narratives reasonably well but works best when it deals with the implications of the Reagan shooting. The show mixes fact and fiction well.
Comint: “Professionally, Philip and Elizabeth are tasked with infiltrating the FBI’s new communications encryption system, while personally they are forced to grapple with one of the darker aspects of life as a spy.”
While it has its moments, “Comint” seems a little lackluster. Some of the personal elements just don’t feel all that involving, and other aspects can’t elevate the episode. This doesn’t make it a bad show, but it’s not as good as I’d like.
Trust Me: “A mole hunt within the KGB causes suspicion amongst allies and shatters trust within the Jennings’ marriage. Meanwhile, Stan’s plan to keep his mole safe puts her at even greater risk of discovery.”
The episode creates some potential intrigue when we wonder if the US authorities have found out about Philip and Elizabeth, but this doesn’t work as well as desired because of the nature of episodic TV. If the feds root out our leads, there’s no more series, so we know their interrogation won’t go anywhere too substantial. Still, “Trust Me” comes with other good dramatic elements as a result, so it’s a positive program.
Duty and Honor: “Philip and Elizabeth’s troubled marriage is further tested when a mission to discredit a Polish pro-democracy leader reunites Philip with his old flame.”
“Honor” focuses on personal affairs more than I’d like. Americans threatens to lose me when it goes into flashback mode to show us the leads back in the USSR; while I understand the need for this material in theory, it doesn’t tend to interest me much. “Honor” veers too far into soap opera territory at times.
Mutually Assured Destruction: “Philip and Elizabeth must stop an assassin from taking out key US scientists, while Stan and the FBI hunt the same man.”
While “Destruction” includes occasional moments of intrigue and excitement, those semi-soap opera elements tend to dominate again. At times it feels like the episode is constructed around these dull personal moments and the plot elements get grafted on top. Perhaps all of this will pay off eventually, but right now it feels like the series is spinning its wheels.
Safe House: “Philip and Elizabeth are put to the test when a routine mission goes horribly wrong. Stan and the FBI are pushed to their limit when one of their own goes missing.”
“House” features the death of a regular character, an element that gives the episode more charge. However, it winds up with too much focus on the usual relationship mopery. I get that the series wants to be about more than just spy shenanigans, but I still think it leans too far away from intrigue and too far toward dull interpersonal components.
Only You: “Stan pursues a lead that puts him on the trail to one of Gregory’s crew members, closing the gap between him and Elizabeth and reigniting some of the deepest conflicts between her and Philip.”
For once, the series manages to combine the spy drama with the relationship material in a fairly satisfying manner. It still veers too far toward the latter for my liking, but as we follow the repercussions of the prior episode’s events, the situation intensifies in a pretty good way. This gives me hope the rest of the season will continue to percolate.
Covert War: “Events in Moscow strike a personal chord for Elizabeth, leading her to take on a dangerous mission she can’t complete without Philip’s help and placing the couple on a collision course with both Grannie and the FBI.”
After an episode that intensified the action, “War” feels like it steps back a bit. It emphasizes the personal issues more and doesn’t feel like a lot of progress toward a climax, though it has its moments.
The Oath: “One of Elizabeth’s agents has key intel for sale, but she and Philip find themselves taking increasingly greater risks for what could well be a set-up. Meanwhile, Stan’s pursuit of Directorate S suddenly begins to yield unexpected results.”
With one episode left in S1, “Oath” needs to set up the finale, and it does so fairly well. It manages to integrate the personal elements with the spy drama in a reasonably satisfying manner. This becomes a stronger than usual show that makes me look forward to the season’s climax.
The Colonel: “Philip and Elizabeth are ordered to go through with a meeting that could potentially be a set-up. Stan’s investigation puts him and the FBI even closer to Philip and Elizabeth.”
A season-closing episode like this encounters a tough task, as it needs to wrap up events but not provide a concrete finish. After all, the series wants to come back for another year, so it can’t do anything too major.
Perhaps that factor makes “Colonel” anti-climactic feel somewhat inevitable, but I think the series’ producers could’ve found a better way to finish the year. We do get some excitement and intrigue, but the show doesn’t feel like it gives us the strong season-ender we’d like.
Maybe that’s appropriate, as like much of Season One, “Colonel” seems intermittently compelling but not consistently so. I like the premise of the series and think the notion of expanding a spy drama past simple action/adventure has merit, but as depicted in S1, the results favor melodrama too much of the time. It's like they tended to forget the espionage and action on a regular basis, especially as the year progressed. The Americans remains a decent to good series but I don’t think S1 lives up to its potential.