The Americans – “Pilot” Review
In FX’s new, anticipated series The Americans, Keri Russell (Felicity, Mission Impossible 3) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, two D.C. suburbanites who just so happen to be KGB spies. Given the success of Homeland and Breaking Bad, it makes sense that there would eventually be a show that kind of combines them in a way, which is what The Americans really is. I’m not saying that as a negative, either. It very well could’ve been but it seems that creator Joseph Weisberg (Falling Skies) and executive producer Graham Yost (Justified, Band of Brothers) were able to provide a mix of the two that didn’t come across trite or unnecessary.
The episode starts with a blond-wigged Elizabeth Jennings speaking to a guy who has a pretty important job close to the new President and of course, he blabs on and on about it in an attempt to impress the pretty blond talking to him. Despite the cliché, the scene works but only because it sheds some light on the kind of person Elizabeth Jennings is later on in the episode. Had it not helped shed some light later on in the episode, the scene wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.
After that we fast forward three days to two men (one is Phillip, the other is another KGB spy that isn’t given a very convincing introduction) talking in an alley way, seemingly waiting for something or someone. We also find Elizabeth paying some guy a few hundred bucks to look out his window for a couple of minutes. What follows is one of two tremendously tense scenes in the episode (more on the second later) and one that’s also shot really well. Elizabeth uses the curtains to let her counterparts know she’s in position while they wait for their target to get close. However, when the target is just about where they need him, he figures it out and makes a break for it. A chase ensues that eventually leads to the capture of the target but not after he fatally wounds the barely-introduced, third KGB agent. Because they tried to get the fatally wounded to a hospital, they unfortunately miss the drop to send the target to wherever they need to send him so ultimately, they’re forced to bring him back to their house and keep him in the trunk of their until they’re told what to do next.
There’s a big problem with this, though. After a flashback to when Elizabeth was just a recruit, we learn that the target is a former KGB captain and one who also happened to rape Elizabeth way back when. Of course, she’s chomping at the bit to kill the bastard but doesn’t give the real reason to her husband/spy partner so it just come across as overzealous to him. I will say that at the time of the flashback, the rape scene seems entirely out of place. Sure, it was providing some explanation as to why Elizabeth is fairly cold but I thought there would’ve been an easier way to do it. It pays off a bit later on in the episode though.
After the Jennings are introduced to their new neighbor Stan (played by Noah Emmerich [The Truman Show, Super 8]), who just happens to be an FBI Counter Intelligence Officer, what was apparent from the beginning becomes explicably said by Phillip: he doesn’t hate America and would even consider defecting if it meant that their children would live normal lives. This is an interesting dynamic because it’s a twist on what you would normally find on a show like this. Normally, it would be Elizabeth who wants to get out of the game in order to protect her children but in this case, it’s Phillip and when he brings up the idea of defecting, she can barely believe that he’s being serious. After all, they were sent there to do a job, something she’s still clearly dedicated to but something that Phillip has apparently been second-guessing for awhile now. She hates the fact that her children are going to be American and is hoping that she’ll be able to teach them some of her Soviet ways so that she’s not entirely disgusted by them.
After a scene that’s a bit too on the nose (singing the National Anthem and talking about the U.S.’s space exploration), Phillip makes the decision to defect by untying the former KGB captain so that he can turn him into his new FBI neighbor. Unfortunately, Elizabeth catches him in the act and can’t believe that not only is he making the decision for both of them, but that it would be to defect. A fight ensues and it becomes quite clear that Elizabeth is a badass, pretty much destroying the former KGB captain. When she has the guy on the ground, about to put him out of his misery, he begins apologizing for her hurting her. At that point, Elizabeth seems to be over it, deciding against killing him. However, after learning that the bastard that lay in front of them had harmed his wife, Phillip goes ballistic and ends up choking him to death. She doesn’t explicably say what the captain did but it’s enough for Phillip to go into a rage. And at this point, the crux of the series becomes clear: Phillip really does love Elizabeth and the preceding scene seems to indicate that she really does love him as well. I just want to mention the fact that the preceding scene is, yes, a sex scene. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the weird fascination FX shows have with characters having sex almost immediately after they’re involved in murdering someone.
This leads to one of the best scenes of the entire pilot and definitely sets the tone for the rest of the series. After Stan notices a band aid covering a a gash on Phillip’s neck from the fight between him, Elizabeth and the KGB captain (that Phillip lies is from shaving) and the fact that the Jennings have the same car that was identified in the kidnapping of the KGB captain, Stan becomes a bit suspicious of his new neighbors (even after his wife tries to make him realize that suburbanites are just super boring). He breaks into the Jennings garage and begins to check out the car, looking for anything that might indicate that they were the ones that kidnapped the KGB captain. Of course he doesn’t end up finding anything but as he’s leaving, the camera shows that Phillip has been lying in wait the whole time, just waiting for Stan to find something so that he can use his gun. It sounds simple but it’s a truly remarkable scene that demonstrates how well the show can be at creating tension in a scene, something that is extremely important for a show set in the 80s when the audience already knows what ends up happening.
Some side notes I couldn’t really fit into the above review:
- I had to specifically look up who the Music Supervisor for the show (Anastasia Brown) was because they did a tremendous job picking songs to set the mood in the episode. I think everybody will have a profound new love for the song “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac. And while “In the Air Tonight” might’ve been a bit too obvious, it still worked incredibly well. I do want to point out that Music Supervisors are quite often the unsung heroes of great TV series. If they do a great job, then the scenes that accompany the songs they choose usually come across even better.
- It was great for them to cast Noah Emmerich as the FBI agent because he plays a good bad guy and it’s fairly easy to root against him, which is incredibly important when you try and establish KGB spies as the protagonists in a series.
- The fact that series will be set in the 80s is interesting, if only because it seems like it would’ve been a lot easier to be a spy then than it is now with all of the technology available.
- I barely mentioned the kids but that’s because they’re not that involved in the plot. There is a scene where Phillip goes crazy, beating a pedophile who was hitting on his daughter half to death(later on obviously, as he can’t let his true identity slip) but that’s pretty much the main thing involving the kids. I’m sure more will be made of them in future episodes but there just wasn’t enough in the Pilot to mention them.
Final Verdict: It’s the best new drama of the entire 2012-13 TV season (though Arrow is fairly close) and while that’s not saying too much, it’s still a really good show. I would definitely suggest seeing it sooner rather than later.