A day late but here it goes.
Three episodes into The Americans’ second season and the series already plays like a completely different creature from the first season. Different is not bad, though personally I enjoyed the start of the first season more. My fiancée, on the other hand, would say that she has enjoyed the start of this season more than the previous one. At least it has maintained a level of derisiveness, but has the series really changed that much over two seasons?
Arguably, on the face of it, very little has changed at all. The same dark humour and tension that drove the first season is still apparent. The series still presents everything from the Russian’s perspective, although Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell’s characters are no longer quite as dedicated to the cause as they once were. It is actually quite an interesting shift in the dynamic between the two leads. While Rhys’ Philip Jennings was once more sympathetic to the American ways, he seems to have become the colder, harder one in this season while Russell’s Elizabeth has softened substantially. I guess nearly dying will do that to you. That said, Philip isn’t above questioning their orders when it starts to involve their children. Whereas previously, they might have believed in their cause, to both characters this it has become a job they must do and they both are questioning what their job means for their children in the long term.
The children themselves are becoming more and more prominent both in terms of the espionage and the show. The first season ended with Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter Paige, played by Holly Taylor, poking her head through the house and this second season has upped the ante by showing her skipping school to visit her ‘aunt Helen’. Given that both Philip and Elizabeth are having doubts about the validity of their missions it seems unlikely they will be keen to include Paige were she to find out but the central agency in Russia may want them to. She would no doubt be considered the perfect spy; born and raised in America, indistinguishable from the average American in every way but completely loyal to the Soviet Union.
Whether Paige would really be loyal to the Soviet Union though is another matter. In the first season, she seemed unconvinced when Elizabeth attempted to justify some of the Eastern European actions. Furthermore, she may not appreciate the lies which may cause her t have an identity crisis when she does finally find out. Paige is in the strange position of not really being American or Russian. While she may have no strong desire to sell America out to the Soviets, it is equally hard to believe that she could sell out her own parents to the FBI either.
Unless she does so by mistake. During her trip to meet ‘Aunt Helen’ in the most recent episode, she met a girl on the bus and bonded over how annoying parents can be. This is one of the things that this show does well. The Americans really captures the sense of paranoia and intensity of the era. This girl could just be a friendly acquaintance, someone for Paige to vent her frustrations to or she could be someone more sinister. Given that another undercover family was murdered in their hotel room in the season two premiere, someone may be targeting suspected Soviet spies and they may be using Paige to get to Philip and Elizabeth.
Everything that has happened in this second season has really revolved around that murdered undercover family. It sparked Philip and Elizabeth’s concerns over their children and has kept them busy enough that Paige has had time to snoop around. In the previous season, the biggest threat to the Jennings’ way of life was the FBI but this event has thrown everything into question. Through Stan Beeman, played by Noah Emmerich, the viewer is privy to the workings inside the FBI; so we know that the murders weren’t the work of the American government.
That raises the much bigger question of, if not the American government then who? The next suspect would probably be the Soviet Union themselves, perhaps wrapping up loose ends if they have at some point decided or realised that the experiment of KGB agents impersonating American families has failed. Maybe that family, much like the Jennings, began to doubt the righteousness of their mission and when the central agency found out, they were terminated. That would put Philip and Elizabeth at risk not only from their enemy but also from their own government. Another option, though unlikely, is that a third party unrelated to the FBI or the KGB took out the family. For what purpose remains to be seen.
More significantly, the murders have forced Philip and Elizabeth to address what will happen to their children when they are gone. While in season one, Elizabeth probably would have wanted Paige and Henry to know about their Russian origins, now she seems not so sure. In The Walk In, she chooses to burn a letter she promised to give to the murdered family’s son. Elizabeth has probably grown the most over the series, going from cold and loyal to a more family orientated and emotional person. She recognises the hurt that the truth would cause to the murdered family’s son and chooses not to divulge that information. The true would likely be true of her own children. The truth would not bring them closer or ease the grief if anything untoward happened to Philip and Elizabeth.
The second season of The Americans has moved in a new direction but it is still just as tense and potent as ever. So why then does it feel like the show has missed a step in its return? Perhaps my expectations were just too high after the fantastic first season or maybe although there are new issues driving the story the execution itself lacks freshness. That being said, I remember people said the second season of Breaking Bad was too slow and not enough happened and look how big that became. So I won’t be giving up on The Americans just yet.