The Americans: Matthew Rhys-licious

I don’t even know where to begin a discussion on FX’s new show about two KGB spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) in deep cover, posing as a married couple living in Northern Virginia. When you think about it, one of the most compelling aspects of the show is the centrality of the Soviet spies themselves. Spending virtually all of our time following “Elizabeth Jennings” and “Philip Jennings” (and their kids), means we are supposed to root for them…right? Obviously if they get caught, the premise ends, but it’s more confusing than just that: unlike most of television’s anti-heroes (the Don Drapers, Walter Whites, Tony Sopranos of this world), the Jennings are actively conspiring against the West. It makes for some complex emotions, surely.

If, like me, you are infatuated with Matthew Rhys, then this show is pure GOLD. It’s all you could ever hope for and more. How could you not love him? How could you not see him as your prearranged husband and think “jackpot!!!” Let me count the ways. Sure, he’s a Soviet spy, but he is accustomed to the American way of life: food, air conditioners, the new mall with cowboy boots on sale. He’s in an arranged marriage but in love with his wife nonetheless, a fact made painfully clear when he listens to surveillance of Elizabeth sleeping with a mark to get information. It’s made even more clear when he kills FOR her. What else? He loves his kids. Yet another reason to simply defect and disappear into obscurity. While Elizabeth also loves the kids, she cannot fathom telling them the truth when simply raising them “American” is painful enough.

At the mall, a creep (already with a young companion) makes a pass at Philip’s thirteen year old daughter. He keeps it cool in the moment but dons a disguise and goes after him later, if you didn’t think Matthew Rhys was in full on badassery mode yet. Later, when a certain counterintelligence FBI agent decides to check out the Jennings’ garage for their hostage (long since killed and disposed of), Philip is in silhouette, ready to eliminate the threat if any evidence is found. A gorgeous moment in cinematography. I would like to note that being this crazy about Matthew Rhys is not a fluke. This article from Maureen Ryan does a great job of pointing out some of the flaws of the pilot, but also serves as an example of how smitten one can be with Mr. Rhys: “I mean, this guy is played by Matthew Rhys — maybe it’s me, but I can’t help but think well of him from the first frame.” Preach!!

I don’t want to ignore Keri Russell: I am one of the legion who grew up debating the issue of Ben Covington vs. Noel Crane on Felicity. (I’m a Noel girl, but this might change if/when I revisit the series as an adult…maybe). She’s great, and ageless. One of the greatest testaments to her abilities is how much I dislike her character for the majority of the pilot. I want to like her, but I can’t. She’s a cold fish. And this is also where conflicting feelings about our “protagonists” also come into play: whereas Philip is ready to defect and disappear into Western consumerism, Elizabeth remains committed to her job over her children and whatever she might feel toward Philip. Through an important twist, I couldn’t help but give her some license for her actions. You know, the KGB defector they kidnap at the beginning of the pilot? He raped Elizabeth back when she was just a young teenage cadet because, that was one of the many perks. So while she may be more zealous than Philip, she also has a very real reason to want their hostage dead.

Having this little tidbit of information float to the surface (at a very convenient time, granted) stops Philip from wanting to defect and instead engage his fierce protector mode. Cue the need to dispose of the body cut to “In the Air Tonight.” Elizabeth finally gets intimate with Philip in two ways: physically and emotionally. While sleeping with him might have resulted from the adrenaline rush of disfiguring and dumping a body (I assume?), it may have also been an “atta boy” for killing off her rapist. Later, the reveal of her real name and birthplace (a big no-no) seemed a much more important step, one sure to muddle their quasi-marriage even further from here on out. Executive Producer Joel Fields commented that the marriage is an allegory for international relations. I think I am going to table that notion because it seems a little ridiculous to me that writers would follow this template for a show taking place during the Cold War.

Where does The Americans go from season one? I can see one of two things happening. Either, we get the Dexter/How I Met Your Mother reliance on stall tactics, dragging out any real narrative upheavals to one per season. This seems untenable for The Americans, especially since the show is built on suspense. However, the other way I see it playing out involves the writers taking a few pages from Homeland’s playbook, turning the tables on the characters and viewer expectations for next season (if there is a next season). Having the writers take chances will push them to keep the story fresh and engaging. But until then, I’m invested and ready for more conflicted espionage.

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About Staciellyn Chapman

Grad student at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. This blog is an attempt to condense the craziness that is my TV viewing habits (with the occasional aside into film, music, and general life).

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