The first episode of The Americans, the electric and perhaps soon-to-be-best show on television, does everything that a basic cable pilot is supposed to do. Characters are established, talents defined, backgrounds introduced but not fully explored. Phillip and Elizabeth are the spies next door – not a new conceit (see: Homeland), but the only time I can think of that they take the form of communists. The period details seem right: excitement over new malls, the space program, stereo equipment, and the new moralist-in-chief Ronald Reagan. The pilot is well-directed, recalling the best elements of the action of the Bourne movies and network shows (24, Lost) that contained a moral complexity ushered in by this new golden age of TV. The performances are uniformly good. But calling it a great basic cable pilot is a bit of a back-handed compliment: it lacks the urgency and intentional confusion of something like Deadwood or The Wire, shows that tell you to sink or swim. I watched it three times, however, and enjoyed it as much as any movie I saw last year. The use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” is my favorite song cue since, I don’t know, Drive or something. It fully justifies Lindsey Buckingham’s maniacal vision of involving the USC Marching Band in the follow-up to one of the best selling albums ever.
Yet if the first episode signals that we are going to be watching entertaining television, the second episode shows the intellectual and historical vibes that you might think an FX show would ignore. I won’t spoil it too much, but it’s a dark storyline involving our spy protagonists poisoning the son of Casper Weinberger’s maid and only offering the antidote in exchange for putting a bugging device in the study of Reagan’s Secretary of Defense. It’s an intense plot that finds us rooting fiercely against our spies even as the domestic interludes force us to identify with them. As they violently bully a blameless African-American woman living in a small apartment in Anacostia, we rely on the vantage point of the villains in the scenario. Matthew Rhys, an actor I’ve never seen before who looks uncannily like a young Lindsey Buckingham, is brilliant and terrifying in these scenes: a psychotic nationalism coarses through his veins, which is all the more troubling because the first episode saw him attempting to give up his service to the motherland. In the pilot, Keri Russell’s Elizabeth was the one who put duty over feeling; now her husband becomes the one who is willing to violate a greedy empire at its roots by attacking it on any level.
This is an unusually dark plot for basic cable, but it works within the competing logics and ideologies of capitalism and communism: the way one might attack or characterize the other. For our communist heroes, the maid represents the dehumanizing luxuries of capitalist ruling class. Yet she has also internalized its core values, which her enemies are quick to point out. Marx famously called religion the opium of the people, and in this episode Phillip gives a similar spiel, basically reducing the devout woman’s faith to her submission to dehumanizing institutions. And yet it’s clear Phillip and Elizabeth don’t totally believe this: they also have internalized American values, particularly surrounding the family. The key symbol of this episode is caviar – one of the more blatant luxuries you can find – and its relationship to both the American patriot and the communist spy. The first episode ends with the couple reaffirming their commitment to the communist cause. The second concludes with them questioning it more. In 1981, we’re at a moment where socialism is (apparently) no longer about converting the masses, but using them as part of a political game. There’s a hypocrisy here that’s embedded within ideology itself.
The Americans may ultimately aspire not to the serial pyrotechnics of procedurals like Justified, but the intense clash between subjects and states recalls something more like The Lives of Others or Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a tricky line to walk, because the more these characters rip away at the fabric of America, the more we’re encouraged to distrust them and even dislike them. They aren’t socialist Robin Hoods. They frequently refer to Ronald Reagan – who even Barack Obama likes – as a maniac. And further, the early episodes set up the shaky foundation on which their relationship is built, already threatening to crack. By pitting the narrative of these characters against Reagan’s increasingly fervent nationalist methods, we are probably going to see the worst of both forces. In the middle is Noah Emmerich’s ambivalent FBI agent neighbor (a contrivance I’m willing to accept for now) whom we’ve learned is extremely competent yet not entirely stable. After two episodes, The Americans has done a solid job of setting up the chess pieces. I worry that it may not be cut out for an extended run; the setup seems better suited for a mini-series that has a definitive end date. But so far the ambivalent relationship between the show and its characters is revelatory. I do hope its clear and intriguing premise put it in a better position than my beloved and now lost shaggy-dog detective show Terriers. Where that show mixed the dark with the delightful, so far on The Americans all we’re getting is the dark. Let’s hope the ratings keep up, if only so the show can ascend chronologically to the release of Fleetwood Mac’s Gypsy.