It may read like weak praise, but one of the best aspects of The Americans is that it knows what it is doing, and it does it well. Creator Joe Weisberg and writers fully explores the central gimmick of the series — spies living among us, trying to balance a work life filled with danger with a home life they desperately want to keep “normal” — knowing there is plenty of drama to mine there yet avoiding the trap of over-the-top hijinks that push the limits of believability. In other words, the show hasn’t gone full Homeland. The presence of a snoopy, moody teenager daughter isn’t promising, however — no one needs another Dana Brody. But so far, the second season has taken the drama of the Jennings family to interesting places, ratcheting up the tension as Phillip and Elizabeth find themselves siding together to protect themselves and their kids.
In the second episode, “Cardinal,” Elizabeth is increasingly paranoid, watching the neighborhood for any signs of trouble and fearing Paige and Henry could be targeted just as her and Phillip’s friends the Connors were in the season premiere. Phillip has to play house with Martha (Alison Wright), and then investigate Fred, an informant for the Connors, so Elizabeth is mostly at home and on guard. Several times we see her standing alone, arms crossed, looking out at strangers and wondering if they are enemies, and the isolation she feels only feeds her fears. She does her best to keep Paige and Henry clueless, but she can’t help but disappoint them. Board games come in second when mom has to run to the aid of a Central American spy and ally who finds herself in a spot of trouble when the Congressional aide she’s partying with overdoses. (Henry’s remark to Paige seems apt: “You’d rather play the game of Life than watch Raiders of the Lost Ark? Are you insane?) The disguises Phillip and Elizabeth wear are the easy part, and the venture to help out the ally proved that being on the job calms Elizabeth down. It’s the masks they have to wear at home that are wearing them down.
Phillip senses Elizabeth starting to fray a bit at the edges and puts off another meet-up with Martha to return home and offer his support. It’s a nice role reversal from Season One, during which we saw Elizabeth constantly prove to be the tough one in the relationship as Phillip questioned their very existence as operatives. Yet even with Phillip serving as the slightly more stable one, their relationship has a better balance to it. Hell, it’s actually a relationship instead of simply a charade, which hasn’t always been the case. They’ve built a life together, and now they have to work together to save it. Phillip’s encounter with Fred mixed well into the story arc, presenting long, quiet scenes of him exploring Fred’s apartment until touching a booby-trapped and electrified metal box sends him flying. His talk-down of a near-hysterical Fred, whom he determined had nothing to do with the Connors dying, was moving, not just for highlighting his smoothness in high-stress situations but for the real emotions that broke through. The Connors were his friends, and their deaths have shaken him, too. Considering the son survived and Phillip cryptically says he’ll be “taken care of,” the deaths in this situation likely aren’t over.
Another interesting role reversal is between Nina and Stan. Nina, just like the others at the Rezidentura, doesn’t know who was behind the operatives’ murders, and it appears the FBI is just as out of the loop — probably not even knowing it was operatives who died. But Nina does have the upper-hand in playing Stan, and it was great seeing a direct tie between her and the Jennings with the fake rock Elizabeth drops in a park turning up in Nina’s possession and containing a tape recording of Stan and Gaad (Richard Thomas) discussing diplomat Vladimir Kosygin’s murder (and leaving out the fact that Stan was the one who did it). Nina surely suspects as much, and she appears determined to play Stan to her advantage, even if it means continuing their affair and typing for her bosses detailed reports about their interactions. Whether she is completely on one side rather than the other, I couldn’t say. She’s looking out for herself, and who can blame her?
The biggest mystery of the night came with the walk in at the Rezidetura, a man named Bruce Dameran who works at the World Bank. Thanks to Nina’s tip, Stan’s team is able to identify Dameran, but they’re just as in the dark about what he wants as is the KGB. He’ll likely be part of the bigger plot that is slowly unfurling, and I’m glad The Americans is taking its time. I’m more concerned with what Paige is up to — who is she trying to track down by calling Information? Who is Helen Leavis, the name she finds on a postcard sent to her parents? Forget undercover operatives and opposing governments; the real threat is at home, snooping through your belongings.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.