Since the first time we heard J.J. Abrams describe the way he came up with the idea for "Alias" -- he imagined what Felicity, the titular character in that other female-centric TV series he'd created, would be like as a spy -- it's been impossible to shake the hope that that idea, specifically, would come to fruition, with "Felicity" star Keri Russell kicking some serious bad-guy booty.
And now, thanks to FX, the network with the most reliable habit of introducing the next show we'll get hooked on, it has. Because in the series premiere of "The Americans," Keri Russell, as undercover KGB agent Elizabeth Jennings, does seriously, and literally, kick a bad guy's, well, head.
But we're jumping ahead.
Elizabeth and her husband, Phillip, are Russian spies who have been posing as an American couple -- theirs was a marriage arranged by the KGB -- for 15 years. When we meet them, they have two children, a house in the 'burbs and a whole slew of deadly skills and weapons stashed around their house.
It's also the height of the Cold War, as Ronald Reagan has just been elected, and he's most definitely got his dander up about their kind: undercover Russian agents who are integrating themselves into American society.
The premiere opens with Elizabeth flirting with a bragging U.S. government official at a bar. With Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart" as the soundtrack, she entices him back to his room, where she, ahem, gets down to the business of getting him to 'fess up some information she wants.
Info procured, in the next scene she's running out to her car, where she meets up with two men who, after an impressive display of hand-to-hand and hand-to-knife combat skills, kidnap another man and throw him into Elizabeth's car.
The two guys: KGB spies. The one with the combat skills: Phillip Jennings. And the man they've stuffed into the Oldsmobile: a KGB spy who's defected, and who the Jenningses and their pal are trying to keep away from the U.S. government.
And yes, Elizabeth is a married woman, and yes, as a KGB operative, she often has to engage in the extracurricular dance with no pants (and other activities in which pants are most definitely optional). This is not the casual behavior she pretends it is; as we're going to soon learn, her heart has been hardened by a shocking event in her past, one that's about to come full circle.
Keri Russell on playing Elizabeth Jennings:
But again, we're jumping ahead.
With Captain Traitor in the car, but their KGB cohort injured in the grab and in need of hospital care, Elizabeth and Phillip miss the handoff and have to hide the cap'n in the trunk.
The next day, while their clueless children eat breakfast and prepare to head out for the day, a mom jeans-wearing Elizabeth plots with Phillip to drop a secret message to their superiors that they have the cap'n in their possession. Though he's trussed up in the Olds, Elizabeth adds that she's going to stay home for the day to make sure he remains secure.
With her family out of the house, she heads into the garage, and, hands about to open the trunk, flashes back to 1960 Russia and a combat-training session.
Elizabeth was showing herself to be quite skilled while being trained by a superior who was clearly her mentor and fond of her. Mid-session, a man walked in, a man addressed by the trainer as "Captain," and the Captain's smug look was enough to suggest that he was trouble. But the hesitation with which Elizabeth's trainer handed her over to the Captain was downright creepy. A few cheap shots later, the Captain threw Elizabeth to the ground, pinned her arm behind her back, and raped her.
Flashback over, we're back in 1981 D.C., and as Elizabeth opens the trunk of the Olds, she looks into the face of evil, and with a fury so strong that she's shaking, she asks the man in the car, "Remember me, Captain?"
She'll deal with him later.
Back to her other life, as suburban mom. Elizabeth and Phillip are in the kitchen discussing what they're going to do with their trunk package before they go off for ice cream with the kids.
Fun aside, which we need as a diversion right now because we're still really traumatized about what that guy did to Felicity: The name of their local ice cream hut is the Tastee Freez, and yes, we know that John Cougar didn't release "Jack & Diane" until 1982, and maybe the writers didn't intend to make us think of that song when they decided to use that name, but we did, and now it's stuck in our head, but we're thinking it's now "a little ditty about Elizabeth and Phillip," even though there are too many syllables in their names to make it fit.
Anyhoo, the ice cream outing does serve as more than a reminder of how lame John Cougar Mellencamp's name game was. It also gives us a look at the Jennings family dynamics, when Phillip plays a silly game with the kids while Elizabeth sits there, distracted, obviously, by the Captain in the trunk but also somewhat detached from her family unit in a way that Phillip isn't.
Phillip, who also reveals during ice cream time that the family business is a travel agency, shows that he is very comfortable with his role as a dad, and through a subtle gesture in which he wipes a smidgen of ice cream from Elizabeth's nose, with his role as Elizabeth's husband. Her flinch in response to his touch and lack of humor about the family silliness tie in to that Quarterflash song and show that her commitment to being a KGB agent is her main motivator in participating in this arranged life.
Matthew Rhys on playing Phillip Jennings:
After hubby drives the fam home from the Tastee Freeze, he scoots off, bag of disguises in hand, to pose as a federal agent who's providing security for the security, in this instance the FBI. Phillip interviews the secretary of an FBI honcho, and under that pretense, he gets the scoop on what the U.S. government knows about the kidnapping of the Captain.
Once back at home, Phillip is locking up his disguise supplies when he comes across the tape that Elizabeth made while interrosexing that dude from the bar. His pained look while listening to her antics again reveals that he sees his marriage as more than a ruse, though a slight smile creeps across his face when he realizes that she's being very specifically manipulative with her sexual choices.
He shares with Elizabeth what he found out during his surveillance trip and that the result is that they're stuck with the Captain for a while longer. She suggests they just kill him, which puzzles Phillip. Aha! He doesn't know what the Captain did to Elizabeth. Yet.
Phillip also, half-jokingly, offers to Elizabeth the possibility that they could defect themselves. The Captain, while trying to persuade Phillip to free him, said the U.S. government would be willing to pay him millions if he and his wife defected. Phillip tells Elizabeth that it would solve all their problems … money, their family would be secure, they wouldn't have to live with the constant fear of being caught by the American government. Her response: She rolls over in their bed, away from him.
The next day, Phillip and the kids hop in the car to check out the new mall. Elizabeth refrains from the family outing; it's just like every other mall, she says. No, this one has fountains and skylights, Phillip answers, displaying his affinity not only for his nice suburban family but also for the more materialistic perks of life in America versus Russian life.
Important note: Russell's co-star Matthew Rhys is all kinds of endearing, what with Phillip's complete embrace of his American family lifestyle (even as he is constantly tugged into violence by his job and coldly rebuffed by his wife, partly for reasons he does not yet know). But it's the trip to the mall that seals it -- that he is, to those of us who are still fretting a little over whether Felicity should have been with Noel or Ben in the end, Felicity-worthy.
First, he dances, to the horror of teenage daughter Paige, to the strains of Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts" (Juice Newton, hello you totally tubular '80s pop star, you) while trying on a pair of boots in a shoe store. Then, while checking out at the register, he restrains himself while a perv named Errol (Phillip notes his full, distinctive name from his credit card) makes a pervy comment about 13-year-old Paige.
"You're getting older … it's no use fighting guys like that," Phillip tells her as they're leaving the store. "God, I wouldn't want you to," Paige says.
We're going to jump forward, because Errol's retribution, which he so richly deserves, is so satisfying.
Phillip, having used the credit card info to track the knuckledragger down, sneaks up on Errol while he's BBQ-ing (wieners, of course) in his backyard. Without a word, Phillip begins thrashing Errol around the yard, ending with sticking a BBQ fork in Errol's junk, then his hand. Cool hand Phillip then snags a hotdog; puts it on a bun; and, as he walks away, tells the cretin, "No more little girls. Or I'll be back, and I'll stick that in your heart."
Speaking of, Phillip and the kids return home, where Elizabeth is baking brownies to take to the new neighbors and contemplating using a knife on the Captain. She also yet again rather brutally rebuffs Phillip's efforts to show affection.
And Phillip's day is only going to get worse. Those new neighbors? The dad is FBI guy Stan Beeman. And no, as Phillip asks, hopefully, Stan does not go after bank robbers. He's in the counterintelligence game. Spies. And the worse spies, according to Stan? Russian ones. Who needs enemies when you're taking homemade brownies to your spy-hunting neighbor?
Get a deeper look at 'The Americans':
The new nabe sparks a hasty conference in the laundry room at Casa de Jennings, where Phillip, much more seriously this time, again brings up the possibility that they consider defecting. Stan's presence in the 'hood may be a big coincidence. Or maybe it's not, he reasons. Millions in cash and the U.S. government's assistance could mean a good life for them and their kids, he says. But even the suggestion that they betray "the motherland," as Elizabeth calls it, earns him her scorn and a slap across his face.
The next morning, after his jog, Phillip runs into Stan, who wants to borrow a pair of jumper cables. Phillip has to quickly retrieve them from the trunk -- of the Olds -- a split second before Stan reaches the trunk himself.
Meanwhile, at the FBI, we learn a little more about Stan (played by a fantastic Noah Emmerich). His last assignment took him deep undercover within a white supremacist group, and he's now considered an expert on counterterrorism cases. An agent on a counterterrorism task force (played by Richard Thomas … John-Boy Walton, people!) approaches Stan and asks for his opinion on the recent kidnapping of a defecting KGB agent. Where does Stan think the kidnappers would take him? Where would they hide him if he was still in the country, John-Boy Task Forcer asks.
Probably at home, Stan replies.
Speaking of, back at the Jennings home, Phillips has taken it upon himself to sneak into the garage, get the Captain out of the trunk and take him off for a meeting with the Americans to get the defection ball rolling. Elizabeth walks in, though, and after he explains that he's made the decision for them to proceed this way, she tells him she'd rather die, rather lose everything, before she would betray her country.
"I'm finishing this," she says, before going after the Captain. Phillip tries to intervene, but can't before she kicks the Captain's head through a wall. Told ya.
As she picks up a tire iron to finish him off, the Captain speaks. "I'm sorry, I never meant to hurt you. They let us have our way with the cadets. It was part of the job. A perk."
Phillip slowly realizes just what the Captain did to Elizabeth all those years ago and what it's done to their lives all these years since. Though she looks at the Captain with anger, she drops the tire iron and tells Phillip to do with him as he pleases, even if it means taking him to the Americans.
Phillip grabs the Captain, stands him against a wall, and snaps his neck.
With Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" as their soundtrack (understandable choice, though such an overused song that it feels like one of the very few missteps of the series so far), Elizabeth and Phillip drive off to dispose of the Captain's body, which they commemorate with hot sex in the car, initiated by her -- probably, almost certainly, the first real intimacy they've shared in their relationship.
Does he still love America, his American family and the American lifestyle? Yes. Is she still hopelessly devoted to the motherland? Indeed. But we've just seen the beginning of Elizabeth and Phillip's real marriage, no matter how inevitably complicated it's going to remain.
Especially since, during a meeting with a KGB general, Elizabeth finds out that she and Phillip are in hot water for botching, as the KGB sees it, the Captain case. More is going to be expected from them, more dangerous missions, going forward, she is told.
And also because Stan, who likes Phillip, finds there's something just a little "off" about him. And the feeling's not so little; Stan breaks into the Jenningses' garage and checks out the trunk of the Olds, which Elizabeth had already cleaned.
But Phillip knows they're being watched -- by the KGB, and by Stan. That's why Phillip was hiding in the garage, watching Stan, with a gun in his hand.
Phillip and Elizabeth bond again, later, in bed, when she tells him that their jobs are about to get more dangerous, uglier. He assures her that everything will be OK, and she grabs his hand and begins to tell him about her real background, before she met him.
But another flashback reminds us that the two are dealing with a fundamental difference in the way they feel about their current homeland. When they first arrive in America, they delight in the comfort of air conditioning. Everything, Phillip says, is "brighter" in America.
Elizabeth's take: "There's a weakness in the people. I can feel it."
Her feelings about her husband, her willingness to get close to him, may have evolved. But America, the American way of life? She's still fighting a cold war.
And yes, since any "Felicity" devotee is wondering, her hair is long again. Just the way we like it.
Watch the full episode:
"The Americans" airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Family & Relationships
- Elizabeth Jennings
- Elizabeth Jennings
- Keri Russell
- Keri Russell
- Keri Russell