Philip: Oh, so all we have to do is find a highly trained killer we know nothing about before he hits any one of fourteen American scientists.
An espionage thriller spliced with family drama and soap opera DNA, The Americans starts with a killer premise. Ronald Reagan's presidency is in its infancy, and things between the Soviets and the Americans are getting significantly more intense. Two Russian sleeper agents have been living as an American couple near Washington, D.C., since the mid-'60s. "Philip" (Matthew Rhys) and "Elizabeth" (Keri Russell) have done their best to blend in. They have two children, they run a travel agency together, and they live in a nondescript suburban neighborhood. When the Reagan administration makes the hunt for Russian spies within the U.S. a top priority, things start to get dicey for Philip and Elizabeth. When an FBI agent moves in across the street from them, they worry that they are on the verge of capture.
Though it was created by a former CIA case officer, Joe Weisberg, The Americans is not just a spy procedural full of historically plausible what-if? situations. Instead, Weisberg and his writers focus mostly on the humanity of their premise. How do spies on both sides of the Cold War balance the pull of their emotions with their duty to their missions? While Philip and Elizabeth are not really married, and their assignments frequently involve them having sex with sources to ease the information out, they have inadvertently built a life together. There are a few moments throughout this first season of the show where Philip loses control, committing rash acts of violence, when he finds out about a man who has physically hurt Elizabeth. This is not just because they're partners, but because he deeply cares for Elizabeth. A big component of these first thirteen episodes is an examination of what happens when an "arranged marriage" turns into love, and whether that love can survive the kind of work Philip and Elizabeth do. Rhys and Russell are brilliantly nuanced in their portrayal of the couple's ever-shifting dynamics.
That the show nails the emotional aspect of its stories should not suggest that The Americans skimps on genre thrills. The pilot episode immediately kicks off with a dose of sex and violence, as Elizabeth (in the first of many wigs we will see our spies sporting) seduces and then appears to go down on a potential source. Moments later, Philip is chasing a target down dark alleyways, culminating in a vicious hand-to-hand fight, scored to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" (an oddly appropriate choice, since Rhys frequently seems to have been styled to play up his resemblance to early-'80s Lindsay Buckingham). Soon, Philip and Elizabeth are storing a defector in the trunk of their car, in their sedate suburban garage, while their kids Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) obliviously eat corn flakes a few hundred feet away.
Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent who has just spent three years in deep cover with a group of white supremacists, has been assigned to D.C. and has moved his family onto the sleepy street where Philip and Elizabeth live -- right across the street, to be precise. At first, the spy couple believes they have been exposed, but once it turns out to be merely coincidence, Philip takes a "keep your enemies closer" approach and starts buddying up to Beeman. Meanwhile, Stan's wife Sandra (Susan Misner) hopes to put their family back together now that they are all living under the same roof again. Perhaps it's to be expected, but Stan's mounting work on locating the Russian "illegals" keeps him away from his family most of the time, intensifying the strain between him and Sandra. This particular storyline is probably the weakest of the season, through no fault of Emmerich's or Misner's. It just feels like the writers knew they wanted to push the relationship to certain emotional places at strategic moments later in the season, but had to keep their narrative plates spinning in the meanwhile, leading to a lot of seemingly recycled scenes that basically boil down to Sandra crying and saying, "This isn't working! You're never home!"
Information is the only currency in the spy game, and not all of it is accurate. A long stretch of this season involves an escalation between the American and Soviet sides, due to what is essentially continued misunderstanding of information and mistrust magnified to the nth degree. Both sides have their moles. Philip is getting information from an FBI secretary (Alison Wright), who has no idea she's spilling the beans to the enemy. Beeman, meanwhile, traps a woman working with the KGB (Annet Mahendru) into working for him, with the dubious promise of exfiltration someday in the future. While the show obviously can't rewrite history, the writers frequently throw the ecosystem of their characters into seemingly irrevocable turmoil. Yet somehow, by the end of season one, it's still not World War III.
The Americans is an incredibly well-cast show, a quality which carries through to the entire ensemble. Margo Martindale, who previously worked with co-producer Graham Yost on Justified, plays the couple's prickly, semi-trustworthy contact with the KGB. Elizabeth grimly nicknames her "Granny." Richard Thomas has what is probably his most memorable role since John Boy on The Waltons, as Beeman's FBI supervisor. The Avengers' Maximiliano Hernández adds a bit of levity as Beeman's skirt-chasing partner Chris Amador, and Derek Luke makes an indelible impression in a few episodes as a former lover of Elizabeth's, a civil rights activist turned against the U.S. to provide information for the KGB.
While not without its faults -- including the runner about the Beemans' troubled marriage and a puzzlingly isolated B story in episode 6 where Paige and Henry hitchhike with a guy who turns out to be a threat -- The Americans is a totally engrossing, sharply written, and deftly acted drama. Time will tell if the series will develop into an anti-heroic instant-classic on par with Breaking Bad, but so far it looks like the show has a shot.