27th Feb2014

The Americans 2×01 – “Comrades” [Season Premiere] Review

by Nathan Smith

Stars: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati | Created by Joseph Weisberg

The-Americans-cast

Let’s begin at the end here. It makes the most sense to do so. Or as close to the end as we can get.

We know that espionage isn’t exactly a sunshine and lollipops kind of business. It’s abhorrent behavior, and the people who usually traffic in it, are always on the other side of the law, which is to say the wrong side of the law. But, they’re people who live flesh and blood lives all the same. Which is why it’s horrifying to see the murder scene that Philip and Elizabeth stumble upon while doing that one little dead drop (a small appearance here by the great John Carroll Lynch, whom I love in “Zodiac,” and only briefly appears he doesn’t speak – though we get the sense of him being someone bigger, you don’t have security detail for nothing) for their pal. But what we find, the whole family dead, murdered with gunshots to the heads, it hammers the point home.

Look, you do the things you do, for whatever cause you believe in, may be the one truth in your life, but when this life and that one collides, as it’s done here is spoken in one bone-shattering revelation – it tells you a simple and looming truth – collateral damage always hits the ones you love. And as we see in the closing moments, it leaves you paranoid and it leaves you running away from the people who went through the awfulness together, it le unable to speak to the ones you love, it leaves you confiding in others. It leaves you wearing your masks, like Paige sneaking to her parents room to check up on them, or her doing the laundry to snoop in her mother’s suitcase, because she truly suspects something. Or Nina as we see her slide into Stan’s arms and then moments later work with her boss to get small morsels to use to lie to Stan. It’s lies within lies like some, pardon the analogy here, Russian nesting doll.

When ‘Comrades’ begins, both Philip and Elizabeth are shrouded in darkness, she returning from recuperation after the gunshot she suffered in last season’s finale, ‘The Colonel,’ and Philip dealing with a messy operation involving the Afghans.  Her return is shot in near darkness,  only interupted by deer in the road, providing a moment of innocence before the storm. He, doing business in a shady, dimly lit diner, murdering three people in the wake. But when they return to their home, to their children, they aren’t the Directorate S operatives, they’re Mom and Dad, lit in bright sunlight, cheery music in the background. It’s not the somber country song drawling away on the radio, or the blue hues of the woods. It’s the mask we wear, even the show lies to the viewer.

The premiere is full of contrasts like that, or Philip and Elizabeth switching from declaring their love for each other, to Elizabeth sleeping with a Lockheed representative in order to pry secrets from him. Even the couple who end up dead at the end of the episode seem to have their shit together versus the Jennings, hell, the other couple has got kids going to college. Everything seems pitch perfect - until they end up dead after a drop gone wrong. (Although as a sidenote, it’s worth mentioning that I watched the premiere twice, and the foreshadowing of the deaths of the family is pretty clear. All the talk of the future is pretty much the same as them saying, “I got a boat for retiring, which is in a week. The future it is so bright, I have got to wear shades.”)

There are great scenes throughout the episode, after the aforementioned shootout, the ensuing tracking shot is great, it’s all silence except for the drone of the florescent lights in the kitchen and the steely, sweaty resolve of a near death experience. Then, the moment after Philip leaves the bodies was a tense beat, it’s small but nailed so perfectly by Matthew Rhys as he slowly realizes that he’s been seen leaving the scene and that this kid is about to find his whole family dead. Actually, Rhys does stellar work throughout the premiere as the harried person forced to do things beyond his means. He sells his anguish so very well, whereas Keri Russell essays the hard-edged person driven to stark paranoia by the episode’s end.

There’s a lot to absorbe here, and so its easy to go through the beats of the rest of the episode. Morsels are dropped about Stan’s life and his work, (I love that he nabs a bootlegged copy of The French Lieutenant’s Wife to watch with his mistress, and then actually sees it in theaters with his wife. It’s a fun detail). He’s a noble guy, despite cheating on his wife, he helps out with the Jennings children and even celebrates Henry’s birthday. He’s a fascinating character because we see all his sides, the face he shows at his job, to his mistress, and the one he shows his wife and neighbors. To see him try and heal his marriage is a noble thing, because unlike the Jennings’ marriage, his isn’t false. It’s real and it can break as easily. The key word in all of this is multi-facted.

We really don’t see much movement on the FBI’s investigation except for two important beats: First, they deal with Sanford (the crazy informant from the last half of the first season), who has gone a little crazy after his informing on the Colonel goes AWOL, and ends up dead as a result of meddling in something bigger than he. The subplot moves quickly and quietly and shows that despite the harried nature of how things involving Directorate S had gone wonky, these two men have more than enough intelligence to see that something’s amiss, even after being tied up by endless lines of buracracy.

And the other plot bleeds into The Colonel’s very well. The way they handled the whole plot of the disappearance of the mysterious couples works well, because the show would be over pretty quickly if Stan just caught right up and found out who they really were.  But it wouldn’t be realistic if he just figured it out. We know that Stan is a supercop, we’ve known from episode one, but even he can only do so much. Trails go cold all the time in investigations and to show that even when you think you’ve got all the beats down pat, in a instant it falls away.

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