By Jeff Jensen
Updated March 13, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The saga of husband-and-wife ”travel agents” trying to juggle career, family, and their patriotic duty of destroying the United States in 1982, The Americans is television’s most morally complex drama. It wears more faces than a triple agent. Cold War potboiler. Sly cultural commentary. Dynamic metaphor for marriage. Painfully hilarious reminder of early-’80s fashion. In season 1, the fabricated domestic partnership of KGB operatives Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) unraveled, then repaired into something genuine. Their romantic triumph mirrored the show’s winning mission of figuring out how to balance its many aspects. Season 2 is just as brainy and twisty and kinky, and it ratchets up the suspense by making the threats to our ”heroes” even more personal.

Like their daughter. Teenager Paige (Holly Taylor) continues to investigate her parents’ goings-on, a quest for forbidden knowledge that plays on multiple levels: Peep on Mommy and Daddy, and what you see in their bedroom might turn your world upside down. The Jenningses kill to protect their secrets. Whatever will they do when Paige discovers what they’re hiding? Elizabeth in particular: Her desire to protect her kids is sincere, yet the ¡Viva la Revolución! radical will recklessly dump them at the movies so she can help an agent in distress. Which loyalty is stronger: Mother Russia or motherhood? Where is her bliss: career or family? Can’t a woman have it all?

As usual, Philip — and Rhys — gets the best disguises (a ”cowboy diplomacy” ensemble: brilliant) and most conflicted fun. His sham marriage to FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright) becomes more complicated, as Philip nurtures the ruse by being a sweet, supportive spouse, even as he pines to be home, investing in his increasingly real relationship with Elizabeth. Philip is a man literally married to his work, but at least he knows how to compartmentalize. FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) — Philip’s dark double, an avatar for our American present — is losing his identity and moral clarity as he becomes more owned by his affair with equally compromised Soviet mole Nina (Annet Mahendru).

The actors express the show’s tones and intricacies lightly and effortlessly. There’s a marvelous moment when the Jenningses and another KGB couple conspire to cross paths so they can see one another’s children. They share a look that conveys so much at once — admiration, loneliness, longing. The Americans is the story of people wanting more truth in their lives and more justice in the world, and it has found a unique way to tell it. A-

Episode Recaps

The Americans

FX’s period drama—starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys—explores the the Cold War 1980s through the professional and personal lives of the Jennings family.
  • TV Show
  • 5
  • In Season
  • FX
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