'The Americans' focuses on espionage, marriage

Picture a pair of spies who love their country. A man and a woman, patriotic enough to travel to a dangerous land, a place where the police operate with impunity and a madman has come to power. There they wait, posing as husband and wife, operating in secret. Their children and neighbors none the wiser, working to bring down the evil culture surrounding them. The spies are Soviet deep-cover agents. The land is America. And the show, newly premiering on FX, is called “The Americans.”

Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) avert the typical spy couple characterizations almost immediately. Elizabeth’s character is the one driven by an intense loyalty to the cause and is far colder and harder then her husband. Phillip is wavering, tempted by the comfort around them, distressed at the emotional chasm between he and the woman who is officially his wife.

“I would lose everything before I betray my country,” said Elizabeth, and “The Americans” spends a lot of time examining the consequences of that perspective. Espionage work is dirty, dangerous and cruel, and we see just how badly it wears down the souls of the people who practice it, Soviet and American alike. When the Jennings manipulate a cleaning lady by poisoning her son and withholding the antidote, their eyes convey an eerie sense of desperation and fear. How much are they truly willing to give up for their country? Their lives? Their souls? Their children?

As much as it’s an exploration of espionage, “The Americans” is also a show about marriage and parenthood. Seen from the outside, Phillip and Elizabeth have a conventional, loving marriage. But whether the marriage is one of convenience or genuine partnership remains unclear. In addition, the Jennings’ children remain unaware that their parents are Soviet agents. Phillip and Elizabeth must watch their children grow up in a culture antithetical to their own beliefs, trying their best to instill some of their own values in them before the wider culture swallows them up. In both cases, the espionage plots mirror and amplify the domestic concerns. There’s a lot of tension roiling under the surface of the Jennings’ home, and only some of it has to do with spying.

Juggling these two plot threads gives “The Americans” neat, thematic complexity and emotional weight, but it does lead to some odd tonal and pacing issues. The spy-centric events feel disconnected from the domestic narrative. While this is probably a conscious decision by the creators, it does leave the show reeling disjointedly between two different speeds. At about an hour an episode, there’s plenty of time to tie the two plot threads together, and at the moment, it’s not coming together as well as it could.

Despite its issues, “The Americans” is smart and thought-provoking. The spy game may be brutal and soul-draining, but it also makes for excellent television. And by the end, you may be rooting for the communists to win.

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