The Americans "The Clock" Review: Time to Care

By Ryan Sandoval

Feb 07, 2013

The Americans S01E02: “The Clock”

This week it was Elizabeth Jennings' turn to experience parental misgivings—spy-style—as she and Phillip took on a risky, last-minute assignment that had the usual go-getter sobered by the reality of potentially orphaning her children. As Tim mentioned in his review of the series premiere, The Americans came programmed with a killer number of story options, and "The Clock" managed to touch on most of them (no flashbacks this time around, though). With all the initial moving parts established, we got a thematic companion piece to the first episode, with the Jennings essentially swapping roles: Phillip matter-of-factly rolled up his sleeves in preparation for cold-hearted civilian death, while Elizabeth experienced a newfound pity for the mark and then transformed it into a doting mother’s love.

Ironically, from what little we’ve seen of Phillip and Elizabeth so far, the two representatives of an allegedly oppressed nation are more romantically progressive than their suburban American counterparts. They both engage in extramarital sexual activity as part of the gig, and it seems to be working out just fine for them. It’s an arrangement that, if ever questioned, puts them in opposition to Mother Russia. So it’s accepted—or at least ignored. Of course, that all may be changing: Tonight we witnessed Elizabeth's light grilling of Phillip about his steamy, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense contact. Totally wife-like. Add to that Mr. Jennings’ trachea-collapsing fury over Elizabeth’s past assault, and it's likely these two lovebirds will give way to traditional possession the more they open up to one another during each mission.

Speaking of which, I appreciated the clear objective here: A conversation about national defense was imminently going to take place and the Jennings needed to rig a clock in order to hear the juicy details. If Phillip’s reluctance to pull off said mission on such short notice is the "weakness" Elizabeth mentioned last week, then this episode saw her understanding the source of his cautiousness. As soon as Phillip slammed Viola up against that wall, it wasn't just the housekeeper's framed paintings that shook; Elizabeth saw her values knocked off balance as well. What if it was her family being poisoned with a "Bulgarian umbrella"?

Which brings up the essential conflict of the Jennings' relationship. How does compartmentalizing the murdery part of one’s life sync up with an otherwise wholesome facade? Granted, no one was killed this episode, but Viola’s son came pretty darn close to dying, and Phillip not only distanced himself from the responsibility ("Will you let me help you and your family get through this?") but actively criticized this lady’s belief in God ("People who believe in God always make the worst targets."). That’s a heck of a lot different than just using quiet brute force to get the job done. He seemed genuinely bothered by Viola’s religious devotion. Whether the housekeeper’s spirituality rankled him on a personal level or stood as minor frustrating obstacle, we at least know a little more about the Jennings (atheists! Travel agents!).

But still, as spies, can they be any kind of good parents when behind the scenes they’re threatening the lives of innocents? Or is the murdery part the real facade, and deep down The Americans are true suburbanites looking to shake off the shackles of espionage? It’s the genius of the show that keeps these two aspects in active balance, and that conflict will need to be presented in increasing discussion so as not to favor one side over another and settle on an answer. For the time being, though, it’s looking like Elizabeth doesn’t want to deal with such questions. Believing that "Henry would adjust to anything," in her absence, but Paige was "...delicate somehow," Elizabeth’s resolve to go down in a hail of bullets rather than deal with the torture of having her kids taken away smacks of a person who’s had their value system cracked. Lucky for us, that meant she stayed behind, and we were treated to another jaw-dropping fight sequence that gave new meaning to the phrase “broken home.” (See, because a bunch of crap got broken in a hom— oh nevermind).

One element that continues to be surprisingly entertaining is how plain and alluring suburban life appears in and of itself, rife with father/son night hockey, neighbor beers, streets named "Golden Meadow Lane." Positioned against the high-stakes world of spy games, though, this planned neighborhood functions as a different thing to different characters. To Phillip and Elizabeth it’s a cover, but to deep cover veteran FBI agent Stan Beeman it's a foreign nuisance, one that makes him restless. It's a place he sees as a continued battlefield in the war on American life, and these mixed-up associations are resulting in some of the most dramatically ironic, tense conversations since Breaking Bad’s Hank and Walter: On the surface, Stan and Phillip share a chummy interaction, but deep down there’s a psychological chess match happening, which neither wants to acknowledge.

Last episode ended with Elizabeth and Phillip bonding over details of their former lives, and it's fitting that this one wrapped up with a similarly sweet moment: husband surprising wife with some expensive caviar (like "Russian embassy" expensive) after a job well done. The tender gesture was soiled, however, with Elizabeth's admission of shell-shock, sending her right back into concerned family member territory. While both the FBI and KGB celebrated advancements against each other, she was happiest to see one more restful suburban night, even though it came at the expense of another family’s peace. Such is the dark underbelly of the American Dream: Sometimes you have to step on others to achieve it.



ADDITIONAL INTEL


– Phillip's blonde contact is ultimately a liability, but for one fleeting moment she described his domestic fantasy, which must be frustrating to no end.

– Discord among the superiors in the KGB, but what about the FBI?

– Damn, no rad '80s jams, unless you count the one playing in "MODERN HIFI." What song was that?

– It was touching, and tragic, the way Elizabeth rattled Paige out of bed for an impromptu ear-piercing session. Paige might be tougher than her mom thinks.

– Action choreography is a hard art to pull off and so far the physical quarrels in The Americans have been brutal and organic.

– Agent Beeman’s small aside about Agent Amador’s minority status—could race be the wedge that drives these FBI partners apart?

– As a family man, Phillip knows the quickest motivator is a threatened loved one. Let's hope this doesn't backfire.

– The man in the stereo shop was sporting a damn good look.


What'd you think of this episode?

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  • 3Jane Mar 07, 2013

    This is my favourite episode of the first six, and not because of anything to do with the clock assignment.

    I like how Phil is sharing the caviar with Beeman and pretending not to love it. "Oh WOW. [pause] It's so salty." Then they hold each other's eye.

    I also like Keri Russell's delivery when Phil is developing a photo of the blonde bombshell and Elizabeth says "You didn't tell me she looked like that." Phil claims that he did tell her. "Not like THAT," says Keri, slightly jealously.

    In the opening scene, Phil is having sex with the blonde bombshell, but there are flashes of Elizabeth, showing that Phil is really thinking about her. There is a lot of fondness between Elizabeth and Phil in this episode, and I hope he gets his girl.

  • mohawk937 Feb 14, 2013

    Folks you might think this is cheesy, but it is set in the early 1980’s during the Reagan era. High tech at the time was a comador64 (that’s a 64 megabit) computer. Cassette tape players were around for about 5 years and sex was free because aids and STD risks were low, the use of the “honey trap” was a common ploy. In the military intelligence world of the 1970’s and 1980’s it was a lot like what you see on this show. I remember all the Intel and Counter Intel guys running around in Germany doing a lot of what you see in this show. We had 250,000 (and 2 million reserve and active total worldwide) soldiers stationed in Europe and the threat was the USSR, not just Russia we always watched for the SMLM (Soviet Military Liaison Mission from the Russian Embassy) guys because they were always trying to recruit GI’s.
    My point is “high tech” in the 1980’s was nothing compared to today; a spy had to rely on cunning, intelligence and the ability to lie and remember the lie. Also for those of you who say the FBI agent is a racist, well back then there was no race card. People were up front about how they felt and in your face, PC was BS. And the god cop bad cop was a common tactic because you couldn’t do anything about the cops or feds slapping folks around.
    The music was a great fit because they were the top bands at the time. Overall this was a lot like I remembered.

  • Laurpr2 Feb 13, 2013

    For me, the religious aspect of this episode was interesting but most of the comments seem to be misinterpreting it.
    The woman wasn't hesitant to do what Phillip asked because she thought God would miraculously save her. Instead, as a person of faith she holds to a moral code which is very, very important, to the point where she would rather die than betray that moral code. If it had been her who was poisoned, I have no doubt she would have died, especially considering her relationship with the people she was betraying. Having to give her son's life, however, would have been too much, and even though she knew what she was doing wasn't right....well, it just goes to show that a mother will do anything for her child.
    Phillip was rattled because he knew how strict her morals would be and not because her faith bothered him on a personal level.

  • bleumystique Feb 10, 2013

    "On the surface, Stan and Phillip share a chummy interaction, but deep down there's a psychological chess match happening, which neither wants to acknowledge."

    Yes. You nailed it! That sums it up perfectly! Great review btw! :)

    -Blondie is going to be a liability in the long run. I can see it now. Sex has always been integral to any good spyin but it is fun seeing that ever since Phillip killed her rapist and they bonded over disposing of the body and talking about their former life, there is a closeness that she, at least, didn't have with him before. So I loved how she was somewhat interrogating him about his asset.
    - I thought the religion thing was interesting too. He was genuinely rattled with Viola's faith. It bothered him to his core. It's one thing to be atheist, but his response appeared to be deeper rooted and on some sort of personal level, a personal loathing, so it had me curious as to what that was all about as well. It's interesting because he's the one that is losing faith in what they're doing as it is.
    -I caught the affirmative action line Agent Beeman made too. It wasn't a witty little harmless race joke that is made in the everyday life or on shows just to get a chuckle. It did seem...interesting. You add that to his assessment of Phillip. The talk about Russian caviar, and the way he was scrutinizing him for playing hockey with his son, a dominant Russian sport at the time. He likes to box people in, snap judgments etc. If that wasn't evidenced by his sneaking into their garage in the pilot, or his wife calling him out on his suspicion of everyone. His snap judgments will most likely get him into trouble.
    -It was great seeing Elizabeth be more maternal, because I was under the impression in the pilot that she didn't seem as family oriented as Phillip. I thought her use of "delicate" to describe her daughter was an interesting word choice. I don't think her fear is that her daughter wouldn't be able to function well if they were gone. I think her fear is that her daughter is too immersed into this American life and that she wouldn't understand their lifestyle or the motherland. Their son does seem as though he can easily adapt if his interest is piqued. I think she projects her own fears on her daughter because of things that have happened to her. I loved the scene with her piercing her ear though.
    - They are both such amazing characters to watch, but I must say as much as I'm loving Elizabeth and Keri Russell's portrayal of her...I find Phillip to be the most interesting character in the series. He's soft and hard...he hates doing things, but he gets the job done. He flips from compassionate to calculating in the blink of an eye if necessary but even when he's calculated there is a warmth there. I don't know how to quite describe it, but it's so interesting to watch.

  • CarlosR628891 Feb 11, 2013

    I disagree with your interpretation of the faith thing. He was bothered because religious people are inherently irrational. His logic was straightforward - do as I say and your son will live. The mother, however, introduced an entirely illogical aspect - my god will save me. You can't deal with people like that on a rational basis, so his plan looked like going down the drain.

  • thisismetoo Feb 09, 2013

    I had to laugh when I saw that little tape recorder in the back of the car. It hadn't much tape on it, it would run out of tape in less than 10 minutes, so I guess some one was changing tapes all day?
    I also noticed two mistakes of the director: When Philip was mad about the maid not placing the clock back, he didn't close the door, but when he left it was closed. Also when Elizabeth was about to pierce her daughters ear, the needle pushed out a drop of blood just before the needle was hitting the ear.

    It's fun to watch a series so low tech. Most shows make you believe everything is possible in the world of electronics, but in this show there are no computers, cellphones and stuff like that. It's fun.

  • Alastor7800 Feb 08, 2013

    I think this episode confirmed that The Americans is not only a strong show but also one of the best new show of the season. It's like watching a "not-boring Homeland". A spy show full of energy that knows where it's going and in which actors don't feel like they have to overplay and be excessive to be good. It's smart and it's humble in the same time.

  • Whedonrules Feb 10, 2013

    The writers came up with a character that is fascinating without being saddled with mental illness as a plot and character crutch. What a novel approach.

  • tvgirl17 Feb 09, 2013

    I am really enjoying the subtle acting on this show. (Don't watch Homeland, so can't comment there, but I've seen the parodies). Matthew Rhys is doing great with the little moments that say a lot, like listening to Elizabeth have sex with that guy in the 1st episode or the look on his face after the blackmail ordeal ended. They *told* you he hated doing such a high-risk mission, but Rhys *showed* it, and that mastery of "show, don't tell" is the mark of a great TV show that can rely on talented actors and won't have to voice every little angle in the dialogue.

  • snd1 Feb 08, 2013

    Brilliant.

  • MartinCharett Feb 08, 2013

    I love this series, my favorite new series this year.

  • Whedonrules Feb 08, 2013

    Starting to have "Terriers" flashbacks. I see trouble in the water for this new F/X drama. This is a very interesting, original idea and it sucks to see the large dip the ratings took from the premier. I'm worried ratings are going to continue to slide rather than jump. Hopefully I'll be wrong but this seems like a ride you need to be on from the start so how many viewers can it pick up or bring back? Is there reason for worry this early? Most Americans are a very Nationalistic - sometimes absurdly so - group. This show requires the viewer to at times root for characters that are acting in opposition to their tin-pot god Ronald Reagan and a lot of people still have mythologically inflated ideas about Ronald Reagan they don't want spoiled.

    These "Jennings" are fascinating - glad Keri Russell didn't take a network job - they must have been lining up when she decided to return to television. She is doing a great job. Its really fascinating work playing the conflicted spy/mother and she is doing so well. Can't wait to meet Margo Martindale's character - maybe "Mags" can bring some viewers to the party. Fingers crossed .

  • 2muchbadTV Feb 08, 2013

    I imagine it has more to do with simple patriotism than any views about Ronald Reagan. I'm not surprised this show can make a significant portion of the general public uncomfortable, and I'm not old enough to remember much politics, policies, or public figures from that era.

  • emmairis Feb 08, 2013

    I'M PISSED OFF ABOUT THE LOW-RATINGS OF THIS EPISODE! I MEAN WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!? THIS IS MATTHEW RHYS AT HIS FINEST!!

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