You know that Washington, D.C.-based drama, the one with all the murder, sex, intrigue and timely political innuendoes? No, no, not “House of Cards.” The one with all the wigs. You know, “The Americans.”
With this week's debut of season two of FX's spy thriller “The Americans” just two weeks after the second season of Netflix's buzzy, bingeable “House of Cards,” the comparisons are inevitable. Maybe it's because we're so starved for entertainment that actually offers a compelling window into international relations that we so enjoy these shows, despite the fact that their diplomatic drama is mostly window dressing. (A disgraced, corrupt Chinese mining mogul with the ear of the Communist Party working with an American energy tycoon on a mining project, “House of Cards”? Really?)
Here's the thing, though: It's not a fair comparison. “The Americans” complements “House of Cards.” In fact, “The Americans” is the antidote to “House of Cards.” While “House of Cards” is obsessed with high office and overt power, “The Americans” succeeds by intimately focusing on the personal.
“The Americans,” for the uninitiated, is a period drama set during the Reagan-era 1980s and traces the professional and personal lives of the Jennings family: Elizabeth (Keri Russell), Philip (Matthew Rhys), and their two children, mild-mannered suburbanites who run a Dupont Circle travel agency by day and by night spy for the Soviet Union. Elizabeth and Philip are deep undercover KGB operatives in an arranged marriage who were secretly smuggled into the United States a decade earlier. Much of the first season focused on a cat-and-mouse game between the Jennings and their neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counterintelligence agent.
“The Americans” and “House of Cards” may take place in the same city, but not in the same world. The Washington of “House of Cards” is driven by sheer, unrestrained greed — it's all smoke-filled rooms, executive offices, marble hallways. The Washington of “The Americans” is, in its own twisted way, driven by love — of family and of country, and the characters' conflicted loyalties to both. It takes place in suburban bedrooms and the offices of midlevel federal bureaucrats, not the corridors of power on which “House of Cards” is so fixated. People in high office are scarcely present in “The Americans.” President Ronald Reagan is seen only in news stories. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger is a disembodied voice — one tape-recorded in his bugged office. Unlike “House of Cards,” a soap opera built on its capacity to shock, the characters in “The Americans” do everything in their power to act normal — trying to manage their conflicting loyalties to the people and ideals they care about.
“The Americans” is, at its heart, a family drama, even if it requires preposterous hijinks. Much of the first season dealt with the dynamics of Elizabeth and Philip's marriage. After more than a decade of acting like a loving couple, they finally became one, despite Elizabeth's stronger commitment to the Soviet cause. The new season finds Stan Beeman, the FBI agent across the street, ambivalent about his marriage. He has been forced out of his home for having an affair with an informant, Nina, an attaché at the Soviet Embassy. Nina, meanwhile, feels betrayed after the FBI declined to bring her into the United States and give her citizenship (“exfiltrate” is a shopworn term on the show) and has begun spying for the embassy: a triple agent. Meanwhile, Philip is still trying to juggle his marriage to Elizabeth with his marriage to Martha, a source he has cultivated in the FBI's counterintelligence office and who believes he's an FBI agent named Clark probing the office for moles.
The second season opens with Elizabeth returning to what is, for the first time, a happy, loving marriage with Philip. Driving back to Washington from a safe house where she has been recuperating from a gunshot wound, she nearly hits a doe and its fawns startled in the headlights of her car. Elizabeth and Philip rendezvous with another deep-cover KGB couple for a routine operation that goes off the rails and demonstrates how fragile their family's security can be. Meanwhile, their teen-age daughter, Paige, is growing suspicious of her parents, and Elizabeth is still struggling to balance her love and loyalty for the Soviet Union with her love and loyalty for her American children.
“How are we going to live like this?” Elizabeth asks at the end of the second episode. The deer-in-headlights scene is ominous: Something is coming, and she is trapped in the middle, a mother trying to protect her children.
At its core, The Americans is about people reconciling their loyalties to the people and ideals they love — for example, the Jenningses' duty to spy for the Soviet Union and their duty to protect their children, or Beeman's feelings for the Bureau and his source clouding his feelings for his family. The show has heart, making its Washington more “West Wing” than “House of Cards.” (That might be by design: The new season's first episode is directed by Thomas Schlamme, who was an executive producer for “The West Wing's” first four seasons.)
And that's its strength. Frank Underwood, the protagonist of “House of Cards,” is an outright villain motivated only by power. The Jennings and the other characters on “The Americans” are driven by something more. Even as they kill Americans and steal secrets in a quiet war against the United States, it's clear that wanton greed isn't part of the equation. “I see all that money in your bag; you didn't spend a penny. You didn't do it for the money; you did it for something much bigger,” Philip tells a source. Elizabeth, called out to help a new Cuban spy, tells her in a rare moment of sincerity, “Your revolution is beautiful. It's a foothold for us in Central America. We're here to help you. Call anytime.” And then there are the children to think about.
You don't have to agree with their ideals, but at least they have them. And that makes for a much more human, much more watchable Washington.