Season 2 of FX's The Americans lived up to the potential of its first season and then some, as the spy series continued to explore the personal lives of the various Cold War-era double agents as they went about their business and attempted to live something of what looks like a normal life to the world around them. The show feels different than other shows on TV, particularly other spy thrillers, and I'm sure that's because this one is run by an actual former CIA agent, Joe Weisberg, who knows that non-stop action really isn't the way that spies lived on a day to day basis, and because of that, the spy work being done on that show really is actual spy work- a lot of surveillance, wire taps, undercover disguises, and most importantly, a lot of affairs.
The show likes to tread in this area the most- exploring the effects of long term affairs and undercover relationships that are formed with the people you must get on the inside with. There's Stan's ongoing relationship with Nina, the Russian KGB operative who turned on him last season and this year is fully back on the side of the Russians, spying for them with our hero, FBI agent Stan Beeman, completely unaware, a circumstance which is never uncovered (at least not yet), and something that would not be tolerated or kept going for this long on a typical spy show like Homeland or 24. In a similar vein, there's Philip's phony marriage to Martha, a situation which began last year and is still seemingly going strong, with most of the dramatic turns actually being played out in the ups and downs of their "relationship." That storyline surprised me most in that it kept going the entire season, but I suppose Weisberg wants to convey how long some of these arrangements really do go on- in this case what looks to be years.
Although it is difficult for me to buy in some ways that Philip could really be living this complete other life as "Clark," and still have none of his family notice how often he's gone (it's got to be at least three days a week, right?) Which brings me to the main arc of the season, Philip and Elizabeth's family dynamic with Paige and Henry, and just how carefully plotted out this story was revealed to be in the season finale. The smart, 14-year-old Paige played a much bigger role this season, as she knows for certain there's something strange about her parents but can never quite manage to catch them in whatever it is they must be hiding from her. It makes sense that she would figure it out, with all their mysterious phone calls, late night disappearances, and her mother's sudden return at the beginning of the year (after recovering from her gunshot wound), supposedly having spent over a month with a sick "aunt" she's never met. After her attempts to to figure out the mystery fails, Paige gets involved in the church, a rebellious move which alarms and infuriates Elizabeth, who's so anti-religion that Paige's activities appear to be a worse hobby than drugs.
Paige's search to be a part of something bigger than herself parallels with the season long story arc of who killed Phil and Elizabeth's longtime colleagues Emmet and Lianne and their daughter, leaving just their teenage son Jared to fend for himself in a foster home. After spending an entire season going after a dangerous Navy captain, Andrew Larrick, supposedly the culprit Claudia sent them after, it's revealed in the finale to have been Jared all along, who murdered his own family because he'd been covertly seduced by the Jennings' own contact Kate, as part of the KGB's new "second generation illegals" program. And they want Paige to be next. This sets up a whole slew of dramatic possibilities for next season, while paying off the conflict all year between Paige and her parents. It also positions Holly Taylor to play an even bigger role on the show in the near future. Elizabeth, as always, is the true believer and thus into the idea of recruiting their daughter, while Philip is absolutely horrified at her potential enthusiasm over the possibility. I can already see what this may lead to, which is a function of good writing and character development, rather than predictability.
The show has written its two leads incredibly well from the beginning. Elizabeth this season has remained fervently anti-American and a true devotee to the Soviet cause that she was in Season 1, while Philip is the professional who is in part seduced by the attractive qualities America has to offer. He can't help but buy a new car because he can afford it and weakens pretty quickly in the face of what Paige wants to do with her free time. He's also kind of a self-loathing mess, who agonizes over all the senseless murders he must commit and wonders about the point of it all in times where the end goal cannot be seen. We get the sense that he really might defect if not for his love for Elizabeth, and Matthew Rhys is outstanding this season as the tortured, brooding Philip. If the lead actor category wasn't so crowded he would surely deserve an Emmy nomination for this show, while Keri Russell was, I have to say, less impressive this year as the stolid Elizabeth. It may be that her character has less to play with, as the cold-hearted Russian spy is often hard to read and stonefaced, although they did give her a couple of strong episodes early on where she's dealing with some residual emotional damage from being raped as a young girl.
The other factor on this show that makes it so enjoyable is the part of the series that takes place entirely away from the Jennings home, inside the halls of the FBI and Rezidentura. As I said, Wesiberg knows his stuff, and the conflict that goes on between Stan (a continually great Noah Emmerich) and Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) feels authentic, as well as the interaction between the officials at the Rezidentura. They introduced a new member this year in Oleg (Costa Ronin), a charismatic young operative with wealthy family connections, who falls for Nina (every man on this show seems to, I'm sure if Philip ever meets her he will too) and quickly became one of my new favorite characters. One of the wonders of the show is how they manage to make the audience root for both the Americans and the Soviets, if you can believe that, by giving everyone some humanity and a strong set of principled beliefs. This side of the cast remains strongly acted by everyone as well, especially Annet Mahendru as the gorgeous, empathetic and enigmatic Nina, who they obviously couldn't bear to kill off, and though her storyline ends this year with her being shipped back to the Soviet Union for trial, I'm almost certain they'll figure out a way to get her back, as she's much too big an asset for this series to part with.
My only complaints this year were regarding the missions Philip and Elizabeth were sent on to apprehend Larrick, as he wasn't exactly the most compelling villain for the season and in the end his arc was anti-climactic. As always, the personal lives and relationships of the spies on this show are far more interesting than the actual missions they're given- that may also have something to do with the fact that we as in audience know that the Soviet Union eventually collapses and that everything they're doing really is for nothing, as Philip may ponder occasionally. This is why when the show shifts gears at some point and becomes about Philip's turning on Elizabeth and defection in order to save their children (that's just my prediction, I could be wrong, but that's where I see this headed), I think the stakes will suddenly feel much higher, as it becomes about these two people against each other. But this was a very good season of a very strong show, and I hope everybody gets a chance to catch up with it.