How many times during the three seasons of “Homeland” were you annoyed when the plot veered away from spying, counterintelligence, and the war on terror to focus on Sgt. Nicholas Brody’s (Damian Lewis) family and home life? If you’re anything like me, quite a few. The domestic plotline of Dana Brody (Morgan Saylor) was never quite as compelling as CIA analyst Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) pursuit of Abu Nazir.
Thankfully, the second season of FX’s Cold War-period drama “The Americans,” created by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, succeeds where “Homeland” fails: actually managing to make the dynamics of Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings’ (Keri Russell) marriage and family the most interesting aspects of the television series.
“The Americans” centers on the arranged marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Soviet KGB spies posing as the most American couple on the block of a Washington, D.C., suburb—and their two children, who are unaware of their parents’ true identities.
The main tension of the first season lay in the arrival of new neighbor and FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who was tasked with exposing Russian spies. The season explored the dynamics of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage and showed the audience just how real, ironically, their emotional bond was—especially when contrasted with Stan Beeman’s own marriage to his wife Sandra (Susan Misner), jeopardized by Stan’s affair with an informant.
Based on “Comrades,” the show’s strong second season premiere, “The Americans” has expanded its focus to cover the entire Jennings family, raising the stakes as it explores the conflict of juggling domestic and covert life and the potential consequences of such a juggling act.
A second Russian spy couple in the “Directorate S” mission are introduced. They appear to have lived in the States longer than Philip and Elizabeth and have two older children of their own, one of whom is graduating from high school to attend an American university. From their initial interactions with this other family, the Jenningses are led to believe that they can indeed have it all. However, after a mission in the field goes wrong and puts the Jennings’ children in harm’s way, they quickly dismiss this idealistic notion and double their efforts to protect the family.
What makes “The Americans” stand out, at times exceeding “Homeland,” is the fact that the Jennings’ domestic strife is very much intertwined with the international conflict. For Philip and Elizabeth, failure does not only mean they will die and fail the motherland, but also that their children will wind up orphaned. The sight of Elizabeth anxiously locking every door and window in her home is even more moving when you realize that because of her mission, that is all that she can do to keep her children safe.
On “Homeland,” there was such a strict divide between the espionage and domestic spheres that it made it hard to care about Brody’s family. This is far from the case in “The Americans.” The Jennings’ home life is being drawn further into the Cold War as their daughter Paige’s (Holly Taylor) suspicions about her parents’ extrafamilial activities grow and she starts snooping around.
By the end of the episode, “The Americans” has set up a new threat to the Jennings’ life that is sure to make for an exciting sophomore season.
“The Americans” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.