The reds under the bed

16:00, Mar 19 2014
the americans
RUSSIAN ROULETTE: Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Russian spies in suburban 80s America. In The Americans' second season they continue to juggle the mundanity of family life with espionage.

It's hard to say what's the most appealing aspect of The Americans, SoHo, Tuesday – the ingenious sleeper espionage plot, the 80s period setting, or the way the innocent mundanity of family life carries on under a bubble of the most grotesque false pretences. It's worth watching for the wigs alone.

For anyone yet to be beguiled by this, it's a dark, nuanced drama about two Russian spies who since their 20s have been living in the United States, posing as a nice suburban couple, raising two unsuspecting children – while extracting intelligence for the Soviet Union through sex, blackmail, torture and murder.

As we reconnect with Elizabeth and Philip (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), they have a covert pow-wow with another sleeper couple, and what do they talk about, besides the next homicidal sting and how to thwart the FBI, but school bake sales and what the kids are studying.

This was a dag-rattling first episode of the new season, opening with Philip's impulse massacre of some Afghans seeking US weapons to drive the "Russian blasphemers" out of their country. It wasn't the plan, but he suddenly couldn't stomach their anti-Russian cant. This is telling, since a watershed moment last series was his realisation that, actually, America was a really nice, fair, decent place to live. His consequent doubts about the cause nearly wrecked the marriage, Elizabeth being true-red, to the point of regarding even her own children as necessary evils whose irritating distractions should be kept to a minimum.

Philip has now reconnected with the imperatives of Mother Russia, while Elizabeth, who nearly died last season, has realised she does, deep down, love the children and Philip – an inconvenience to the mission and a dangerous vulnerability.

The shocking slaughter of the aforementioned fellow sleeper couple and their daughter throws this into bold relief. Suddenly it matters, perhaps more than anything, that the children are safe. Who will triumph: Mother Russia, or American Soccer Mom?

Piquing the tension is teenage daughter Paige, now highly curious about her parents' often ill-explained comings and goings. She's spying on the spies. She's both a risk, and at-risk.

Meanwhile the FBI agent next door (who, despite brushes with suspicion, still thinks Liz and Phil are normal folk) is having ever-darker nights of the soul while stalking what he knows but can't prove are not just phantom reds-under-the-bed. His boss is sceptical, his wife is dissatisfied, and his mistress, a Russian double-double agent, is quoting Anna Karenina at him. How much more can he take? Hopefully at least another series' worth.


The Art of the Architect (TV One, 7.30pm). Peter Elliott presents a series exploring a variety of building design projects, and the creative and practical issues surrounding them.


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