“The Americans,” which begins its second season tonight on FX, includes the ingredients of so many other well-made cable dramas: secret identities, ambiguous morality, salacious sex. But the series, about two Soviet spies sent to America to start a family and undermine the government, has been hiding a secret identity of its own. Beneath the thriller veneer is a slow-burning romance: After spending 15 years in a sham marriage, the two Soviet spies, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), fall in love. Last season presented an intimate and deeply affecting portrait of a marriage in flux; it was also sexy and smart, brightened by goofy wigs and a Peter Gabriel soundtrack. (You can, and should, catch up with the entire first season on Amazon Prime.)
Judging from the first five episodes, this new season is even better: tighter, better paced, more thematically consistent. Tonight’s premiere features cowboy costumes, a threesome, and a pile of bloody corpses, but its best moments are small-scale: Elizabeth slips her hand into Philip’s as they drive home from a successful mission; a kiss starts out as a performance for their children then turns suddenly genuine. In these scenes, the show resembles “Friday Night Lights” or “Once and Again,” warm and openhearted family dramas.
Coming so soon after the release of the new “House of Cards”’ season, this feels like a necessary corrective to that show’s hollow cynicism. This lying, scheming Washington couple are no less amoral than Frank and Claire Underwood—they’ve certainly killed more people, and their goals are far more destructive to the United States. But while “The Americans” doesn’t downplay the Jennings’ misdeeds (or the Soviet Union’s crimes), it foregrounds their motivations: not naked self-interest but devotion—to their children, their homeland, their ideals. “I would go to jail. I would die. I would do anything before I would betray my country,” Elizabeth told her husband last year. This season, she says a similar line about her kids. This sets the show apart not just from the soulless “House of Cards,” but from so many of the ruthless, unsentimental cable dramas of the last few years: “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Breaking Bad.” “The Americans,” by constrast, is deeply humane—a distinction it shares with “Orange is the New Black” and “Masters of Sex,” two other startlingly fresh debuts from last year.
Like those shows, "The Americans" shares an interest in complex, richly drawn women. (Perhaps surprisingly, “The Americans” is written by men—former CIA officer Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields.) In fact, one of the most pleasing aspects of “The Americans” last season was its sly subversion of gender roles: Elizabeth was a reserved mother and militant ideologue, steely and unfaltering in her commitment to the Motherland, while Philip, who’s comfortably assimilated into American culture, is easygoing and wary of their mission. This season, Elizabeth begins to find her worklife conflicting with her maternal instincts. (Turns out even Soviet spy moms can’t have it all.) “How are we going to live like this?” she asks in tonight’s episode, increasingly torn between her Communist devotion and concern for her family’s safety.
While the show delves into the wider world of Cold War politics—this season we meet Afghan arms-dealers, Nicaraguan spies, Jewish refuseniks, and Mossad—it keeps coming back to the psychic toll of pretending to be someone you’re not. Philip now has a new fake wife, and the relationship is both farcical and heartbreaking. In one scene, while trying to gain the sympathy of a young navy officer whose help she needs, Elizabeth explains that she was raped many years ago. She's lying about the when and the where, but the memory was genuine (the assault occured when she was a young recruit in Russia), further complicating the barrier between what’s real and what’s a cover. In a later episode, a new employee at the Russian embassy offers his young colleague a piece of advice that might double as a motto for the show: “Those parts of the body that can love? They want to tell the truth. And when we train them to lie? Thats hard on the soul.” Season two gives the Jennings many, many good reasons to fear for their physical safety but in "The Americans," the greatest danger to being a spy may just be psychological.