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So long, Sochi, hello Cold War in Season 2 of FX's The Americans


Keri Russell as action figure in The Americans. FX photo

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The Cloak is up-sized to Xtra Large and the Dagger cuts even deeper as FX’s The Americans again goes spy-on-spy in the Cold War-centric early 1980s.

There’s also a scene, during Episode 1 of Season 2, in which the 14-year-old daughter of the two Russian principles walks in on them during their summit of “69.” So there. And yes, that’ll get you a TV-MA rating every time.

The Americans returns Wednesday, Feb. 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on the network whose latest branding slogan is “Fearless.” But although thoroughly adult in content, The Americans remains far more grown up than FX’s American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy, or the new animated series Chozen. The sex and violence are woven into its fabric rather than staining it in the interests of shock value. An overall intelligence and depth is readily apparent in what’s become, in this view, FX’s best drama series ever.

The first five of Season 2’s 13 episodes were made available for review, with the story resuming a couple of months after Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) has mended from the serious gunshot wound she sustained during a harrowing getaway at the end of Season 1. Her cover story is that she spent this time caring for a very ill “Aunt Helen” while her husband and fellow spy Philip (Matthew Rhys) tended the home fires.

But their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), has grown increasingly suspicious, as evidenced by the closing scene of Season 1. The new season finds her increasingly exerting her independence while also taking steps toward figuring out what’s really up. Paige’s 11-year-old brother, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), remains innocent and unaware.

The Season 2 opener begins and ends violently. And the second act of carnage hits very close to home for Elizabeth, who’s increasingly suspicious of any and all traffic outside their family home. She’s often left alone while a disguised Philip leads a double life as the husband of needy, gullible FBI executive assistant Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), whom he’s using as a funnel of important information.

FBI counter-intelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerick) likewise is a two-timer, but without the knowledge of his wife, Sandra (Susan Misner). While she seeks new age therapeutic comfort, he’s regularly in bed with comely KGB agent Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru). She’s a key player with the KGB Rezidentura, housed within the walls of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. He used to be playing her. But by the end of last season, and still without Stan’s knowledge, the tables were turned.

Stan also remains unaware that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are the spies he’s long been pursuing. To him they’re still accommodating, friendly next door neighbors who run a travel agency. It can be a lot to swallow but all of this tightrope-walking still has an air of believability.

The Americans remains very much about disguises, duplicity, near misses and accomplished missions. But the Jennings’ family life, highlighted by Elizabeth’s growing maternal instincts and misgivings, also comes to the forefront this season. She’ll do what needs to be done for the Homeland, whether it’s sex in pursuit of intel or silencing any and all threats to the secret life she lives. But cracks of vulnerability are becoming apparent while Philip may well be getting steelier by the day.

There’s a little fun to be had as well. Set in the early ‘80s while also occasionally flashing back to the ’60s, The Americans can freely indulge in the pop culture touchstones of those times. In Episode 1, the Jennings kids watch WKRP in Cincinnati with their babysitter. The French Lieutenant’s Women, starring Meryl Streep, resonates on a more serious level in two very different contexts.

Leo Buscaglia, the old PBS “Love Doctor,” The Beatles’ Revolver album and Raiders of the Lost Ark are among the other name-drops. And in Episode 3, look for a vintage soft drink machine prominently advertising “Sugar Free!” Tab.

The senior KGB supervisor Claudia, played so memorably by Margo Martindale, also will be making a return appearance or two. She’s first seen in this season’s Episode 4. Martindale otherwise is pretty much occupied as a series regular on the first-year CBS sitcom The Millers.

A prominent new character also comes into play. Abrasive Oleg Igorevich (Costa Ronin) clashes with both Nina and her holdover KGB boss, Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn). He also has a memorable line in Episode 2, telling Nina, “I’m a feminist. I only work for Mother Russia.”

Based on these first five episodes, The Americans shows every sign of maintaining if not exceeding the high bar it set in Season 1. What fate awaits Elizabeth and Philip? And what will become of their children, whether or not they ever learn the truth?

These have become answers well worth knowing, although there’s still no rush. The Americans is just too good to end too soon. But it’s also too good to be left on for too long. Perhaps four seasons would be not too hot, not too cold, but just about right. We’ve just seen Vladimir Putin’s “new” Russia via the Sochi-based Winter Olympics. But those old ways still had higher drama.


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