On January 30, 2013 John Kerry was confirmed as Secretary of State, replacing the outgoing Hillary Clinton, and The Americans debuted on FX. For the first time, audiences were introduced to Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, Russian spies posing as Americans in the greater Washington D.C. area during the early 1980’s. In the years and seasons since, the Jennings’ marriage has become legitimate, their kids have grown up, with one electing to get into the family business (not the travel agency,) they’ve narrowly escaped death, killed more people than anyone can count and similarly, donned more wigs and disguises than anyone can count. Philip has also developed a love of country music, although that’s not all that significant. More enjoyable than anything else.
When the series wraps up Wednesday night, the missions and adventures of the Jennings and Stan Beeman, the FBI agent who is also their neighbor, will reach some sort of conclusion. Heading into it, the Jennings have finally been forced to hit the road and Beeman is getting closer and closer to learning the truth about his friends and neighbors. The outlook looks ominous for everyone involved.
But going back to the series’ premiere, the outlook, especially that of the Jennings’, never looked all that optimistic. One of the constants that threaded throughout the show’s run was the overarching sense of doom and despair that hung over Philip and Elizabeth, a sense that unfortunately for them, came with the job. They were spies after all. And Russian spies no less, something that attributed to the complicated relationship that the audience had with the show’s main characters. You could never 100% root for them to succeed because for them to succeed, was for America to lose. They were essentially bad guys, but bad guys with the occasional good guy tendencies, more so Philip, than Elizabeth. In an era of complicated anti-heroes, there are possibly none that left the audience as conflicted as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.
To their credit, The Americans laid all of this out for the audience in the first ten minutes of the series’ premiere. That first ten minutes features a honeypot, a foot chase, an act of compassion and the unfortunate results of that act. In ten minutes, things that would become hallmarks and themes throughout the show’s run would all be there. More often than not, shows take a while to get going, to lure you in. The Americans didn’t waste any time, and similar to how Game of Thrones told you what the show would ultimately be about in it’s first ten minutes, The Americans told you every thing you’d need to know about the show as soon as it started.
The pilot opens with Elizabeth in a bar, seducing a federal agent, a move that we would see her do again and again in the episodes that would follow. Elizabeth is in some ways a social chameleon, able to be who and what she needs whenever it’s needed. You know, like a spy. Yet what has always been interesting is how charming and likeable Elizabeth can be when she wants, especially compared to the overall frosty nature of her usual demeanor. At home with her family, she can be cold and harsh. But when the situation calls for it, she can be an ideal desire of affection, a wonderful gal pal, a compassionate nurse or a valued muse.
In this case, she’s an ideal desire of affection, and while we don’t yet know what she’s after, we can already tell she’ll get it. Elizabeth never lets the audience forget that all of this is part of the job though, as evidenced by the nonchalant way she wipes her mouth and then rips off her wig, running her hands through her hair after doing so. She’s clocking out. All in a day’s work.
We then jump ahead to three days later. The thumping drums of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” kick in.
A man walks down a set of stairs and we then set Philip for the first time, presumably waiting for the man and also coaching the guy with him, Robert, to “take deep breaths.” Robert is nervous, having heard stories about the numerous people this man has killed. Philip works to calm Robert down by knocking this mysterious target down a peg or two.
“You know how guys like him kill people? They plan it for weeks, and they always come up from behind. Fighting face-to-face, that’s a different story.”
Robert isn’t sold though and recalls a story he heard about this guy was once in a bar fight with “the entire Japanese Olympic Judo Team.”
“Which year,” Philip asks. “Because ’64 to ’72 were pussies. They didn’t even medal.”
At the same time, Elizabeth knocks on a door and offers the person who answers money to look out their window for a minutes. Now I don’t know if this is something that happens a lot in D.C., where someone offers you money to look out your window or they knew that this particular person would be susceptible to such an offer, but the man who answers silently obliges. Elizabeth is the look-out, Philip follows the NHL, Robert prefers football. The mysterious stranger approaches. Elizabeth signals his position with a brief tussle of the curtains as Philip looks on intensely. Both Philip and Robert look to be bracing for a fight. Maybe the stories are true about this mysterious man?
Then he stops. He can sense something is wrong, whether it’s a possible attack or just the potential of one given the surroundings. He waits for a minute and then bolts. Philip and Robert immediately run after him and “Tusk,” which had hung back for a second or two, comes pounding back in. Philip warns Robert not to get too close to the man as they chase after him, something Robert carelessly ignores rounding a corner, resulting him getting stabbed in the side. Philip hurdles over his slumping body, continuing his pursuit. As Philip runs, it’s hard not to notice that his form hasn’t changed and that he runs almost exactly the same way in the series’ penultimate episode, when he runs from the FBI after meeting with the Russian priest.
In an alley, both men stop and the mysterious stranger once again pulls his knife. A fight ensues, but Philip comes off as younger, fresher, stronger and quicker. His moves are effortless and he soon has the man in a submission pose.
“I know you’re not supposed to kill me,” the man says.
“I don’t think you understand how unpopular you are,” Philip replies with a smirk. “I could deliver you in a hundred pieces. They’d give me a separate medal for each one.”
“Tusk” once again resumes as Elizabeth pulls up, a bleeding Robert in the back seat. After throwing the man in the backseat, they speed off, pulling into another dark alley. Without saying a word, Philip and Elizabeth act. Philip hops out and switches license plates, Elizabeth tends to Robert. Now onto the drop site, Elizabeth tells Philip that Robert has maybe 10 to 15 minutes before he dies. Philip immediately lists options, hospitals they can drop him off at that are on their way. Elizabeth disagrees, saying that they “blew our window on the chase.” Philip offers up another solution, noting that it’s 50/50 he lives or dies and that given the time wasted on the chase, there’s a good chance they missed the drop.
“The mission comes first!” Elizabeth counters.
Philip gets his way and lets Robert off down the block from a hospital, telling him “he’s been trained to surmount any obstacle,” before leaving him. They are now seven minutes behind schedule and despite speeding to the drop point, they get their too late and as they pull up, see a ship leaving the dock, a ship they were presumably supposed to meet and toss the dude in their car onto. Elizabeth is furious; her eyes raging as you can see the anger coursing through her body.
“Why is everyone so punctual in this business?” Philip asks.
Elizabeth doesn’t answer. It’s as if she didn’t even hear what Philip said. She turns back to the car, kicking the door closed as it cuts to black.
The mission came first then for Elizabeth and has ever since, right up until her recent change of heart. Robert, despite being an associate of theirs, was dispensable. The mission was more important than he was. It was more important than any of them and that strongly held belief of Elizabeth’s has been, in her mind, the one thing that has always differentiated herself from Philip. Philip is a loyal soldier and a believer in the cause, but he has always had a tendency to let his humanity to get in the way. He couldn’t just let Robert die and by looking at their situation realistically, knew that there was good chance that the foot chance torpedoed the mission. It would then be worth it to at least try and save Robert so the mission wasn’t a complete failure.
Philip was, and has throughout the show’s run, been able to look at their various situations in gray terms, whereas Elizabeth sees everything in black and white. Philip’s acknowledgement of that area in between the bullet points of a mission are both his strength and his weakness. Unfortunately for him, Elizabeth sees it only as a weakness and despite her reliance on him, was never able to truly accept him as a loyal partner and fellow soldier. When she suggests he step back for a while at the end of season five, it felt compassionate, but also like a mercy killing. The seeds of that move were planted in the show’s opening ten minutes, especially if you look at Elizabeth’s eyes as they watch the boat pull away. The chase didn’t doom the mission. Philip’s decision to save Robert did. If she were keeping track of the number of times she felt Philip let her down (and you know she probably is,) that instance merited it’s own entry.
The Americans could have slow-walked their way into their story. They could have opened the series with the Jennings at home, acting like a normal family, whether it was starting their day and everyone going their separate ways for the day, or sitting down for a dinner after a long day of school, travel agenting and spy craft. They could have introduced Stan before we even knew what Philip and Elizabeth were up to. But they didn’t. Instead they jumped right into it, setting that stage for a show that remained as tight as drum from it’s start all the way to it’s finale on Wednesday. Instead they laid a foundation for a show unlike we’ve really ever seen before; a show where we kind of root for Russian spies and root against the FBI. Where we’re happy when a mission meant to give America an L during the eleventh hour of the Cold War succeeds and our “heroes” get out alive.
In a topsy turvy world, perhaps there was no better show for us than The Americans. The line between good and evil has become increasingly blurred in the real world. Yet in The Americans, that line was blurred from the jump.
“Pilot,” the series premiere of ‘The Americans’ is available on Amazon.
Brilliant discussion of how high the bar is to create a superb pilot and show. Kudos.
Thank you and thanks for reading!