The Americans, Ep. 1.02: “The Clock” keeps tension, stakes and poignant family drama in play

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The Americans

The Americans, Season 1, Episode 2: “The Clock”
Written by Jow Weisberg
Directed by Adam Arkin
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX

With its stellar pilot having established some of the rhythms of the Jennings marriage, “The Clock,” also penned by series creator Joe Weisberg, takes the time to examine other facets of our lead couple’s remarkably complex existence. It speaks to the rich nature of the series’ premise that, even after a film’s worth of story time, it feels like we’re still only scratching the surface of what’s at work within and between these characters, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

In a direct gender switch from the pilot’s first scenes, “The Clock” opens with Philip doing the seducing this time around – only he might be too good at it. Posing as a Swedish spy named Scott Berman, he has Annalise (Gillian Alexy) more than smitten, making her an ideal asset for running errands that require a woman’s touch. Disconcertingly, however, she claims to be in love with him, which is not a problem Elizabeth faced last week. As already proven on another FX show, honeypot operations don’t always go smoothly. (On a related note, it’s a little odd that FX has two spy shows in which Russia acts as America’s primary antagonist. Nostalgia?)

While we met the kids, Paige and Henry, last week, “The Clock” examines what it means to simultaneously be covert spies and parents a little more closely, specifically through the relationship between Paige and Elizabeth. In the world of The Americans, intuition and situational awareness are equally valuable out in the field and in the homestead; when Elizabeth senses that she’s losing touch with Paige as she’s beginning the grow into adolescence – understandable, as their upbringings could not have been more different, in all likelihood – she is forced to recalibrate her approach and make the appropriate adjustments to keep things copacetic. That might sound like a coldly analytic description of parenting, but with the Elizabeth/Paige scenes sharing the hour with Philip/Scott’s seduction of Annalise, it’s a fair parallel to draw. Elizabeth and Philip’s lives amount to handling assets and juggling identities, and to some degree those priorities are shared by all parents. What father or mother doesn’t have to reconcile their identities and conceptions of life before becoming a parent with the responsibilities of raising children?

But that perceptible level of parenting-as-spycraft doesn’t mean there’s no tenderness to the Paige material. On the contrary, a late-episode scene, in which Elizabeth acquiesces to Paige’s advancing maturity by offering to pierce her ears, strikes a very poignant note of maternal love and concern when a drop of blood hits Paige’s bedspread. It’s a loaded image, evoking puberty, mortality, and  the irreducible bonds of family.

The bulk of the episode is taken up with what the Jennings react to as an “impossible” task: to plant a bug in the office of the US Secretary of Defense within a very short timeframe. As with the pilot, the assignment has Philip and Elizabeth quickly sketching out precisely what to do in the event they’re definitively thwarted, and while it’s important to keep the stakes in mind, the episode might overplay this card (as well as the difficulty of their task) slightly to its detriment. (Especially glaring is the characterization of Viola as some sort of hysterical Christian.) Sure, complications arise, but they’re likely to pale in comparison to whatever’s going to crop up in the show’s very near future, especially considering the continued presence of Noah Emmerich’s Agent Beeman, who gets some nice character shading this week as he recruits a Russian agent in order to collect intelligence on their intelligence.

While the show might be better off tempering the hysterics somewhat in favor of a slower boil, at least when it comes to our leads and their fears about their covert lives collapsing, the show doesn’t really lose a step this week, and given the very difficult nature of second episodes (both from a production and storytelling standpoint), the more impressive that fact is. There’s already ample evidence that Weisberg and company know exactly what they’re doing.

Simon Howell

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