Like all good spy shows, The Americans has been supremely sneaky.
Set during the Cold War 1980s, the FX drama follows KGB spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) deep undercover as an American married-with-kids couple in Washington, D.C. They also happen to live next door to an FBI counterintelligence agent (Noah Emmerich).
It's the perfect set-up for a typical spy series, except the thing about The Americans, which enters its second season Wednesday, is that it's stealthily become about so much more.
In many ways, it's like Showtime's Homeland, another show about undercover shenanigans. But unlike that series, which had an explosive first season and is now slowly sinking into mediocrity, The Americans has always been playing a longer game.
Its first season was full of pins-and-needles action sequences, but, more importantly, it took time to establish who its characters are. Flashbacks to Elizabeth and Philip's past in Russia, or Stan's (Emmerich) internal struggles with his KGB mole-turned-lover were given just as much weight as the car chase scenes.
That depth is what allows the show to play with themes bigger than its premise would suggest. Throughout its first season, The Americans, created by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, was a tense, action-packed thriller — it was also a moody melodrama, a horror film, a sexy romp, a dark comedy.
This is an adult show, one that doesn't feel the need to explain every plot point or emotional beat to its audience, and it's achieved a level of sophistication that few things on TV right now can match.
From the looks of the first four episodes of season 2 made available for critics, everything that made season 1 one of the strongest debut seasons of the past decade is still there.
Wednesday's premiere is a doozy. Picking up some time after May's finale, the episode's centerpiece is a seemingly routine mission for Elizabeth and Philip that goes horribly wrong. It culminates with a punch-to-the-gut set piece that drives home, to us and to them, just how dangerous what they do is. That sense of fear pervades the first part of this season.
Elizabeth, who was shot in the finale, is fully recovered physically, if not emotionally, and happy to be home and back with Philip after a brief separation. After her struggles with American domesticity in the first season, it's a relief to see Russell get to play a more content character.
That relationship between Elizabeth and Philip is still the strongest part of the show, thanks to the outstanding chemistry between Russell and Rhys, who manage to mine new depths in their complex characters. Plus, they both look great in wigs.
In particular, what Russell is doing on this show demands attention, a career-best performance for sure. It's a testament to the role she's playing, which, as written, is one of TV's most fully realized female characters. Elizabeth is an extraordinary creation: cold, calculating, fiercely loyal to the job; unflattering traits that women don't often get to possess on shows where the male antiheroes suck up all the depravity.
(The show treats all of its major female characters similarly, from the tough, smart double agent Nina to Philip's FBI mole/new fake wife Martha.)
From the beginning, one of The Americans' most remarkable traits has been its willingness to upend traditional gender roles. Philip, who fell harder for Elizabeth after their arranged marriage than she did for him, has always been the more nurturing of the two. Elizabeth is the tough, emotionally closed-off partner. That exploration of male-female dynamics hasn't gone anywhere: In episode three of this season, Elizabeth makes a guy cower in fear just from the way she holds a crowbar.
Plus, I haven't even touched on Noah Emmerich's remarkable portrayal of Stan, a deeply conflicted man who has so much going on at the FBI and in his personal life that he's no closer to suspecting the Jennings of being KGB spies; or the hilarious disguises (yes, the wigs are still fantastic); or what the suspicious Jennings kids are up to; or the surprise return of a character in episode 4 that gave me chills.
Somehow, The Americans continues to weave all of these elements into a compelling show that's deceptively deep. Watch out for those spies, they'll get you where you least expect it.
Michelle Stark can be reached at [email protected]