Here’s a truth about television: The second episode of a series is more important than the first.
Producers, writers and actors have lots of time to put into a premiere of a series. But everything starts to happen at a much faster pace once a show has been picked up. What you want to see is a series that keeps getting better and improving on the promise of its pilot. Thankfully, that’s exactly what’s happening with the new FX series The Americans.
In “The Clock,” Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are called up to get a recording device into Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s home office in two days. They both know that it’s a risky venture that could leave them exposed and also could lead to their arrest and separation from their children. Philip can’t believe they are being asked to do this. Elizabeth believes her superiors have weighed the risks and that they wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important.
The episode did something that 24 used to always do brilliantly—it made the viewer instantly care about someone we had not met before and probably won’t see again. In this case, it’s the Weinbergers’ maid Viola (guest star Tonye Patano). Elizabeth poisoned Viola’s son, and the only way they will give him the antidote is if she removes the clock from Weinberger’s office, gives it to Philip and then returns the clock.
There was a lot of nice subtlety in this episode. In one conversation, we understood that the Weinbergers and Viola share a bond that goes beyond employer and employee and just what betraying them would mean to her. Agent Beeman (Noah Emmerich) remains delightfully unreadable. Is he just sharing caviar with Philip to be a nice neighbor or does he want to see how the man he still believes may be a spy reacts to a Russian delicacy? Philip doesn’t know, and neither do we.
I also am fascinated by the show’s clearly staking its roots in historical fiction. Caspar Weinberger really was the Secretary of Defense, but everything else that happens in this episode is pure fiction. By including real people and events, the stakes for the Jennings seem that much higher.
The episode truly highlighted how much Philip and Elizabeth will lose if they are ever caught. The scene where Elizabeth speculates that Henry would be OK if anything happened to them but that Paige would struggle was heartbreaking. They have so much love for their children. It makes it easier to root for characters who would be the enemy on any other TV show.
It also helps that we get to see the ordinariness of their parenting. They need to hire a babysitter so they can go out and do their evil spy bidding. Elizabeth is clearly struggling with her daughter growing up and also wanting to make sure she is present for the significant moments in her daughter’s life. There was something lovely about Elizabeth waking Paige up in the middle of the night to pierce her ears.
Their devotion to their children was nicely juxtaposed against how completely awful Philip and Elizabeth can be. Philip is sleeping with the wife of the Undersecretary of Defense (the honey trapping, it appears, goes both ways). She thinks he’s a Swedish ambassador. I can’t be the only one who thought Philip might kill her when she started talking about turning him into the police. They were both going to let the Viola’s son die if she didn’t put the clock back where it belonged. But, and this is a credit to the writing and the strong performances, I was rooting for them to succeed. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Viola, but I also felt a great deal of sympathy for Philip and Elizabeth’s plight.
The show continues to drop hints about why these two would have joined the KGB to begin with. Elizabeth’s line about never having caviar before because her family couldn’t afford it was quite telling.
The best shows are the ones that don’t spoonfeed information to the viewers. We are left to draw our own conclusions and conjure up our own theories. I don’t feel as if I completely know what any of the characters are up to.
The episode also introduced Annet Mahendru as Nina, a Russian operative who has been turned by the FBI. Next week Margo Martindale (Justified) begins her arc as Claudia, the KGB agent doling out assignments to Elizabeth and Philip. The cat-and-mouse game will continue, and I can’t wait.