It's been about a year since I wrote about The Wire. And I'm still stuck in between seasons two and three... Let's see how we do with The Americans! After years of it being on my 'to watch eventually' list and the new season coming around, I finally got on the Philip/Elizabeth Bandwagon. And as always, I wish I had gotten there sooner. Let's take a look at season one, because why the hell not.
First, a few weeks ago, I posted about The Sopranos and mentioned how nice it was to have a podcast to go along with each episode. Well, for The Americans, Slate has a good podcast that reviews each episode and chats with someone behind the scenes, but it doesn't start until season three. There is another podcast I'm listening to now that starts with season one. It's nice to have a review of what happened on the show. But I'm not listing here because it's probably the worst podcast I've ever listened to. Seriously, just wait until season three and jump on the Slate podcast.
On to the show. I've tried to categorize my thoughts on the major themes of season one. Starting with the biggie...
Marriage. Okay, this is maybe the most interesting part. In the pilot, she tells him where she was born and her name and it's sexier and more romantic than the car sex they have a few minutes later. The spy stuff is exciting and cool. But I would also just watch a family drama on these guys. While Philip might get angry about seeing the belt marks on Elizabeth's back, there's no secret over what these people do. Philip listens to Elizabeth having sex with an FBI guy to get info and she gives him her jewelry to appease Martha. And they always have the truth: Elizabeth is disappointed in Philip. She was disappointed when she first saw him and his enjoyment of America and wishy-washy stance towards the Motherland continue to disappoint. Eventually they separate, but we know this can't last. Part of the problem with catching on late - you can't go for six seasons on a separation. But Philip and Elizabeth, their relationship, is the core of the show and hell, is it effective.
Kids. Usually, kids in a drama are more of a pain in the ass. Walter Jr. never really contributed in Breaking Bad and Holly eventually just became a plot point. But in The Americans, the kids are essential the plot in new ways. Philip and Elizabeth are continually reminded that their children will be Americans. At one point in the pilot, Philip sings the "Star-Spangled Banner" with his son and you feel his shame and disappointment. And I say this as an American. Also, in the first episode, Philip beats a guy up pretty significantly for hitting on his underage daughter. Coolest dad ever? And this was also the first time I started to get a little confused about my feelings toward these characters. I really should have watched this when it first aired, when our feelings towards Russia were clearer.
BAMFs. My impression of the first episode - Buffy with spies! Seriously, these guys are crazy-trained and badass. One episode in and our lead guy is killing someone with his bare hands (remember the days when HBO execs were worried about showing Tony Soprano kill someone? Ha!). Also, physicality aside, the lengths these guys go to! Information is hidden in peanut butter jars with multiple levels of encryption, especially impressive given the time period. Drop off spots are literally just fence posts. Damn, guys. I'm more paranoid already.
Stan. At first, I rolled my eyes at an FBI agent living next door. Maybe it's totally implausible but it heightens the drama and does a good job of connecting people who would just be totally separate plots otherwise and helps us care about Stan's personal life. It's tight, dramatically, is what I'm saying. Also, I'm glad they had him kill Vlad (RIP Vlad). Is the US that much better at this point? The Russians aren't all bad guys and the Americans aren't all good guys. A lesser network show would have been about Stan.
Spy Stuff. Maybe spurred by the science on Breaking Bad, the show gets detailed on the spy stuff. Something small like getting a bug in an office takes an entire episode and, like any good Chekhov gun, becomes integral to the plot later in the season. Again, it's a tight show, with not a plot or moment wasted. This can be frustrating as it's not true to life (where is their Russian wandering the Pine Barrens?) but also, you've only got thirteen episodes a season, so we'll take what we can get. But both the spy stuff and the FBI is just hard work to make small in roads. James Bond, this is not.
Sex. Let's just be blunt: there is a lot of sex in this show. Elizabeth's main tool is to seduce a guy with info and have sex with him, while also getting whatever information she can. Even Philip, though he makes it a few episodes before boffing Martha, relies on sexy times to get in on some information. Real talk: Elizabeth is very, very good at this, knowing exactly how to manipulate people. There is definitely a layer of sexism here, as Elizabeth and, eventually, Nina sleep around to do what they can for their country. Philip, on the other hand, marries Martha and creates a second life for himself. And the confidence of the women! One of my most 'oh wow' bits - Elizabeth gives herself twenty minutes to get a major player into the bathroom for sex. And delivers. Twenty minutes! Girl knows what she's doing.
Hard line. Russia does not fuck around. In the third episode, we discover their dearly departed friend had a secret wife and kid. What do they do? Besides some impressive work to get the woman away from the FBI, they kill her and take the baby back to Russia. It's not really surprising but disappointing. One thing I keep wondering: why are they so willing to fight for Russia? Our President wasn't even willing to sign up for the draft in Vietnam! Russia does not give a fuck about them. When Gregory (side note: KGB recruited civil rights groups?!?!) kind of agrees to go to Moscow, the center takes the opportunity, framing him to take away suspicions from superstars Philip and Elizabeth. Cold and calculating to the end.
Trust. A major theme of season one and probably the series in general. The marriage of Philip and Elizabeth requires so much trust on so many different levels. The spy stuff adds this whole new layer to marital strife, besides the arranged marriage bit. Like wondering what your spouse has said about you to the Center when your views don't totally align with your orders. Also, Nina says she is honest to Stan because she cannot lie to everyone, it is too dangerous. You have to have at least one person to be yourself with. But secrets are everywhere in this show. At one point, Martha is sad about a murder when talking to Philip and Nina is sad about a different murder to Stan, neither aware that they are speaking to the murderer (though Nina figures it out pretty quickly). We see what we want in people. We lie to them and to ourselves.
Real life. Okay, as an out of touch millennial, the only major news bit that I'm really aware of is the Reagan getting shot. And they get to that in the fourth episode! Ambitious. This episode demonstrates how quickly Russia-US relations can escalate, with not much attention from the general public. Did this shit really happen? A war could have started based on bad intelligence! Similarly, later in that episode, our favorite Russian spies fake memories about the Kennedy assassination to fit in with their fellow Americans. A nice, very realistic touch.
And now for some really random thoughts;
- How do they get money? They seem to go through fancy wigs and cars and hotel rooms. Does Russia give them money? Or are they just really good travel agents? And given their schedules, what do their employees think? I envision a lot of 'those assholes are never around' water cooler chatter.
- There is a social studies teacher (I think it's Paige's) who is distinctly anti-Russian and I enjoyed the occasional pro-Russia quips Elizabeth would make. I think this is the closest we get to comedy on the show (for example, getting into space in general is even more impressive than making it to the moon!).
- Claudia is just a boss. To be honest, the torture of Philip and Elizabeth seemed a little ham-fisted, maybe the only imperfect note for the first season, but it made for an interesting dynamic between the couple and their contact so I'll take it.
Overall, a tight and well-done first season. I found myself crying over Russian spies and American traitors, so thanks for the confusion, if nothing else. The finale episode was somewhat predictable but still well done.
As for going forward, I'm not super excited about a focus on the imaginings of a teenager but at least the kid factor has more weight and heft than usual. We'll take it.