The Americans S1 Ep01 "Pilot" Directed By Gavin O'Connor Written By Joe Weisberg
The later fight scenes never evoke the same kind of tension in the opening 10 minutes of The Americans pilot. All of which is set to a deconstruction of “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac. Even if these later scenes aren’t grip your seat tense, they are still handled well and if Americans can give you half as much as the first 10 minutes on a weekly basis then this should would easily be worth the watch.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings. Two boring, ordinary American suburbanites living with their family in the shadow of D.C. at the start of the Reagan Administration. Except they aren’t ordinary Americans they are Russian spies sent to infiltrate us. The pair have been living in the U.S. for over a decade and now find themselves fully assimilated and with two American children, much to Elizabeth’s displeasure. The lines between their past lives and their false identities are beginning to blur after all this time.
Spy antics might surround The Americans but at the heart of the show is a marital drama. The marriage of Phillip and Elizabeth might of been arranged, but they have made it work...so far. The marriage is in a rough patch after a blown op and an extra guest in the Jennings residency. Phillip also doesn't mind the idea of turning over the man in the trunk and himself for 3 million apiece, taking the kids and relocating somewhere. Actually getting to be Phillip Jennings for once. Elizabeth will have none of this, she is the hardliner of the group defecting would also mean telling her children the truth: mom and dad are Russian spies. For the majority of the pilot the marriage of Phillip and Elizabeth is on track with the opening to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and then something happens. I won’t say what exactly but it leaves it very clear where Phillip stands on loyalty and gets to a truth about marriage and any sort of partnership: you might hate your wife or husband at times but damn it if anyone tries to hurt them. In the end they are all each other can trust.
The spy antics and false family life are blurring together for the Jennings. They have been someone else for nearly half their lives at this point it is as real as their past lifes. Having larger spy conflicts grounded within the context of marriage has me already invested. I don’t really care about the next mission so much as how it effects Elizabeth and Philip and what it tells me about them.
Fighting these would be Americans is a real American hero: FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). Stan comes into the Bureaus counter intelligence division after spending several years undercover in a white supremacist group. It just so happens Stan and the rest of the Beeman clan move in right across the street from the Jennings. Having the two spies living right next to each other is a very TV like trope but as Elizabeth says “FBI Agents have to live somewhere”.
The pilot doesn't paint either side to bad. They have more in common with each other then either would like to admit. This sort of commonality amongst enemies will be the way the show gets us to actively root for the bad guy. It doesn't hurt that The Americans is being produced well after the Cold War has ended. If film and television have gotten us to root for Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone it shouldn’t be too hard to root for to spies who happen to be working against us. They have a family after all.
The setting of the early 1980’s isn’t a period really used in the spy genre or others. Early on The Americans cements it’s 80’s setting from use of music, “Harden My Heart” “In The Air Tonight” and “Tusk” (OK so that was in 79 close enough), to just capturing the overall aesthetics. The 80’s is also crossroads in terms of technology. Technology is extremely low tech by todays standards, which means Elizabeth and Phillip have to use some actual tradecraft to get their job done. Nothing to fancy was used this week and something fancy will inevitably come up but like Vegas and other period procedurals, it forces the protagonists to go out in the world and actually find their boogeyman.
Matthew Rhys gives the best overall performance, he also has the most to do. From beating up creepy middle aged men to donning a variety of wigs and gathering intel. He can also square dance. The aforementioned scene about his loyalty is simultaneously freighting and heart warming. Rhys’ only odd tick is he smiles a lot. Keri Russell is mainly an ice queen for the majority of the episode but there are several small moments of her alone or with Rhys that make up for the coldness.
Director Gavin O'Connor and writer Joe Weisberg don't waste any time or speak down to the audience in the pilot. They expect you to pay attention as they slowly reveal a little bit about the lives of Elizabeth and Philip. Giving just enough information to keep you hooked until things come to a head. The Americans pilot is my new favorite pilot episode for a show this year.
A - Holy Crap I'm more interested in the married life of these spies then the actual spying. Luckily both things appear to be handled quiet well.
- Go look at how flashbacks are use in The Americans and look at how they are used in The Following. The Americans know how to use them, The Following does not.
- I didn't hate the kids, the boy, Henry might actually be OK. The girl though just SCREAMS incoming Kim Baugher antics incoming.
- Man when is Margo Martindale going to show up?
- How many different costumes Matthew Rhys puts on in this season? I'm guessing 14
Tusk was a key feature of this episode