The Americans’ Season Two premiere, “Comrades,” works well not only for its action sequences and wig-filled espionage — the FX drama was a tad slow to get going, actually — but for the theme it firmly established within its opening scenes. Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) may be on the mend as partners, both in marriage and in their work as KGB operatives living undercover outside Washington, but their lives aren’t the only ones on the line.
Elizabeth is reminded of this in a not-so-subtle early scene: As she drives away from the secluded safe house where she had convalesced from her gunshot wounds earned in a shootout with FBI agents, she almost hits a doe and her two fawns making their way across the road and into the woods. The mothers stare at each other for a few seconds before the doe leads her young away to safety, albeit a safety that isn’t guaranteed to last. The key drama of “Comrades” likewise centers on Phillip and Elizabeth worrying about their own children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and whether they can keep them from becoming collateral damage in their game of terrorism. Other agents — comrades — with children aren’t so lucky.
The line from one of the Afghan men an undercover Phillip met with early on in the episode stands out when looking at the issue of the couple protecting their family: “We’ll kill every heathen come to humiliate us on our own land.” Of course, the man was talking about Soviets invading Afghanistan, but the sense of revenge can be applied to the Jennings as they rally to maintain the life they’ve built. No, America isn’t their original land, but it’s where they are now, and they’ll be damned if they let “heathens” hunt them down. They’re a united front, and to quote the other Afghan: “It’s good to have the same enemy.”
Phillip and Elizabeth’s demeanor transitions from mild worry to paranoia throughout the episode, first as Paige shows her increasingly inquisitive side by rummaging through Elizabeth’s suitcase and entering her parents’ bedroom at night without knocking, having suspected they had not returned home. Nope! They were home all right, and in such an indelicate position Paige will surely want bleached from her brain. It was their interaction with another KGB couple, Emmett and Leann Connors, that sent their world spinning, however. After working together to con a defense/technology employee into revealing security protocols, the four take time to discuss their children — She’s how old now? And he’s about to go to college? Time flies for all parents, even those who tell their kids they have a “date night” and spend the evening having sex with/duping strangers in the name of intelligence gathering.
At separate family outings at a fair — where each couple looks admiringly (from afar) at the others’ kids and how much they’d grown — Phillip is enlisted by Emmett to assist with a package pass from an agent being closely tailed by a surveillance team. He pulls it off, and he and Elizabeth head to the couple’s hotel room to deliver the package. They’re met with a grisly scene: Emmett and Leann, along with their teenage daughter, murdered. The teenage son, off swimming on his own, was spared from death but not from finding his family members riddled with bullets.
Who would do such a thing, Elizabeth wonders, and it’s a twist like this that makes viewers hope the FBI or any law enforcement agency wasn’t involved. The predicament of wanting the Jennings to succeed, at least for now, in their schemes is a strange one. These are killers, but like in the other hit FX drama Justified, the characters are given such nuance that it’s hard to cast judgment one way or the other.
If the FBI was involved in the family’s deaths, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) doesn’t know about it. He’s convinced the trail he was following in Season One is not cold — that his “scumbag traitor” informant was telling the truth but was outsmarted — and he’s right, of course. But his lover, Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Russian informant turned double agent (for her own country), is misleading him. Not much has changed for these two, and their interactions in “Comrades” felt too much like a retread of last season, save for the addition of a bootleg VHS copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. (Now that’s a date night.) Sandra Beeman’s (Susan Misner) blandness, not to mention her longing for a connection with Stan, hasn’t progressed, either, and something desperately needs to shake up this trio. Additionally, it was nice to at least have Margo Martindale’s character Claudia mentioned, but she deserves as much screen time as possible.
The Jennings plot, at least, appears to be on the right track. It’s not enough to show us impressive wigs and slick cons; this is a dangerous world, and the consequences need to be real. Phillip and Elizabeth should be afraid for their children. They brought them into their manufactured life. Now they’d better come up with a way to save them from it.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.