Thursday, June 5, 2014

Summer TV Rewind: "The Americans" 1.01: "Pilot"

“Why is everyone so punctual in this business?”

One of the series we’ll be looking back on this summer is FX’s 1980’s period piece spy thriller, “The Americans.” Season 2 just wrapped up, but we’ll be looking at season 1 here. “The Americans” is a densely plotted thriller with well-drawn characters. None of the characters are really all that likeable, but they are interesting, for sure. The show tells the story of the later years of the Cold War through the “other side.” It follows Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Soviet spies who are part of the elite “Directorate S.” Directorate S agents are trained to perfectly blend in with American culture and pose as everyday families. Unluckily for Phillip and Elizabeth, FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman moves in across the street, and their lives become more complicated from there.

The early scenes in this episode are much more 1980’s atmospheric than the second half of the episode and the series overall. This episode makes more prominent use of period music to set the scene. Right from the beginning, we get a sense of how Phillip and Elizabeth do what they do. The episode opening setpiece also sets some things in motion that will carry through this first season. Phillip and Elizabeth are supposed to bring in a Russian defector named Timochev. The mission goes bad, Phillip and Elizabeth’s colleague ends up with a fatal knife wound, and Timochev ends up in the trunk of Phillip and Elizabeth’s 1977 Oldsmobile. Because of the time it takes to drop their colleague off at the hospital, Phillip and Elizabeth miss the cargo ship on which Timochev is supposed to travel back to Moscow.

Throughout the episode, we get flashbacks to the 1960’s, when Phillip and Elizabeth were still in training and the early days of their Directorate S assignment. While young and still in training, Elizabeth was raped by her instructor, who was none other than Timochev. We also see the moment when Phillip and Elizabeth first met. They were instructed not to tell each other about their past lives. They were only supposed to learn about the backstories that were created for them. We get to see Phillip and Elizabeth’s early days in the United States as well, and it’s interesting to see how fish out of water they were. They are astounded by air conditioning, for instance. Where they come from, the weather was never as hot and swampy as it is in a DC summer.

Because they missed the cargo ship, Phillip and Elizabeth have to figure out what to do with Timochev. They try to get word out to higher-up KGB folks, but the botched operation has drawn the attention of the FBI, who have surrounded the Soviet embassy. Phillip and Elizabeth are going to have to hold on to Timochev for a little while until things cool down. He stays tied up in the trunk of the car, tucked away in the Jennings family garage. Which makes this a good time to mention that Phillip and Elizabeth have two children, Paige and Henry. It’s interesting that Phillip and Elizabeth would conduct their spy business so close to their kids. I know their family life is built on a lie, but they do seem to genuinely care about their kids.

What’s interesting about Phillip and Elizabeth right from the start is that she is much more into the job than he is. Elizabeth is loyal to the Motherland, whatever it takes. Phillip has started seriously considering defecting so that their family could have a chance at a more normal life. Phillip gets even more interested in this prospect when Timochev tells him that the U.S. would likely pay him millions to defect, since Directorate S agents are very valuable. Elizabeth won’t hear any of it, though. She would never betray her country, and she never, ever wants their kids to know what their parents do. We see from the flashbacks in this episode that Elizabeth had a rough road to get to where she is now, and she still has to do quite unpleasant things for the Motherland, so Part of me thinks that her loyalty is more about not going through all that unpleasantness for nothing.

While we don’t spend as much time with him as we do with the Jenningses in this episode, we also get to know FBI Agent Stan Beeman. Stan and his family just moved to DC for Stan’s new counterintelligence assignment. Prior to this assignment, Stan spent three years working undercover trying to bring down a white supremacist group. We get the sense from early on that the experience was very trying on his family (a wife and teenage son), because he wasn’t able to be around much. Stan’s team is looking into the disappearance of Timochev, but they keep turning up nothing. In a scene that is supposed to show his ability to read people, Stan says that if he had taken Timochev, he would hide him in his house for a while until things cooled down. Stan is, of course, completely right about what happened, but he doesn’t know that.

Stan and the Jenningses kind of dance around each other throughout this episode. They first meet when Phillip and Elizabeth take a plate of brownies across the street to welcome their new neighbor. They are very nervous when they find out that Stan is an FBI agent. They wonder if the U.S. government is on to them, or if the whole thing is a coincidence. There’s also a tense scene where Stan asks Phillip to borrow jumper cables, and Phillip has to reach past Timochev (still in the trunk of the car) to grab them while Stan is in the garage. Stan notices that the Oldmobile, other than the license plate, matches the description of the car involved in Timochev’s disappearance, so he sneaks back later to investigate. By that time, Timochev has been dispatched and disposed of (more on that in a minute), so he comes up empty. Interestingly, Phillip was waiting in the shadows, ready to shoot Stan if he discovered too much in his snooping.

There are several other interesting tidbits in this episode, some of which have big implications for the rest of the series thus far. In one scene, Phillip pays a visit to a woman named Martha who works at the FBI. He says his name is Clark, and he mentions being part of an oversight committee. It almost seems like he’s the FBI version of Internal Affairs. Martha tells him all about the Timochev case. Phillip was basically talking to her to find out what the FBI knew about the incident. Also, there’s a scene where a really skeezy guy hits on Paige at the mall, and Phillip sees it go down. Near the end of the episode, Phillip pays the skeezy guy a visit and sticks a barbecue fork through his hand.

At the end of the episode, there’s a big confrontation between Phillip and Elizabeth and Timochev. Phillip had taken Henry to a very patriotic school assembly, and when he gets home, he gets Timochev out of the trunk and tells Elizabeth that he was going to make a deal. Elizabeth decides to take the matter into her own hands, and she starts beating up Timochev. Timochev says he’s sorry for hurting her. Phillip wants to know what this means, and Elizabeth admits that Timochev raped her back in the day. Phillip kills Timochev, and he and Elizabeth go burn the body. For some reason, murder makes them horny, and they have sex in the car. One thing “The Americans” will definitely never be is boring.

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