Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"The Americans," Year Two

Minor spoilers ahead.

I found the first season of "The Americans" promising, but wasn't really all that impressed with it. The second season, however, was a significant improvement in almost every department. Storylines were tighter and more focused. The new characters and new storylines were excellent, and everything tied together well thematically. A big improvement is the shift away from Philip and Elizabeth's relationship troubles to their worries over Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Paige in particular is quickly growing up and trying to strike out on her own. Meanwhile, Nina and Stan Beeman's relationship becomes more fraught, especially as Nina has to wrangle the attentions of a new officer at the embassy, Burov (Costa Ronin), and Stan becomes estranged from his wife Sandra (Susan Misner).

Mostly gone are the flashy action sequences with lots of gunplay and running around. And the scenes of seduction and recruitment involve a lot less salaciousness, and much more drama and tension. Now that Philip has married Martha (Alison Wright), the deception has become more complicated. Whether Nina and Stan are actually in love with each other is less interesting than what else is motivating them, and how far they're willing to go to maintain the relationship. The series feels like it's stopped trying to feel like a network show, relying on easy thrills, and has gotten down to the business of really getting into the characters' heads. In the very first episode, Philip is forced to kill an innocent bystander and comes home shaken. It's a reaction that I didn't see nearly enough in the previous season, and is indicative of a more thoughtful, more confident approach to the material.

The cast continues to be excellent. Matthew Rhys has fully won me over, as Philip keeps revealing more shades of gray. His undercover assignments also allow some more interesting nuances, and I'm really becoming fond of the funky disguises. Keri Russell and Noah Emmerich remain consistently strong. Annet Mahendru as Nina is also much more compelling now that her character has been allowed a greater degree of control over her situation. She and Costa Ronin pair particularly well. It's also nice to see Paige becoming a major player, giving Holly Taylor more to do. They're setting her up for much bigger storylines to come, but still easing her into things. Time will tell if Taylor can handle more, but I'm optimistic that she's going to be fine. The ever dependable Margo Martindale and John Carroll Lynch also make memorable appearances in smaller roles.

Big kudos go to the writers, who are responsible for many of the show's improvements. The plot maintains the bifurcated structure of the first season, but has put the danger of Stan discovering the identity of the Jennings on the back burner. Philip and Elizabeth operate independently of Nina and Stan, but are both involved in the same search for classified stealth technology. Philip and Stan have a few low key conversations together, but otherwise the two groupings of characters don't intersect. However, both storylines work so well that by this point that I doubt any viewer will care. The murder case that Philip and Elizabeth spend much of the season trying to solve is kept on a fantastic slow burn through multiple episodes, resolves in a very satisfactory fashion, and sets up bigger hurdles for the future. Nina and Stan find themselves exactly where neither of them want to be, after a whole season of struggling to escape.

There are a few bits and pieces that I had reservations about. The new handler Kate (Wrenn Schmidt) was fairly wasted and the Martha storyline still feels like it's treading water - though it does deliver some of the show's best moments of humor. Also, the execution of the few big action setpieces that we did get were a little lacking. The infiltration of a training camp in one of the later episodes, for instance, was shot so murkily that I couldn't tell what was going on. But as I mentioned earlier, "The Americans" is no longer a show where the quality of the action sequences really has much impact on the quality of the show.

I'll be barreling ahead to season three.

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