The second season of Joe Weisberg's Reagan-era spy drama, The Americans, resets the pieces of its chess game to a precarious status quo: deep-cover KGB agents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) have overcome the marital strife that defined most of their interactions last season, only to find that their family might be torn apart by the slightly more direct means of targeted assassination. Meanwhile, the threat of all-out war between FBI Counterintelligence and their KGB counterparts has settled back down to a wary circling; at the FBI, Stan (Noah Emmerich) tries to follow leads that have gone cold while remaining unaware that his Russian informant/mistress, Nina (Annet Mahendru), has been turned and is serving him up to her KGB bosses.
These two plot threads are oddly firewalled from each other this time around. While last season Philip and Elizabeth had to deal with Stan's suspicions and snooping along with the menacing scrutiny of their own handlers, those conflicts are pretty much tabled here; there's a quasi-procedural bent as the agents run missions while remaining largely disconnected from the battle that's going on above their pay grade. Yet this strategic separation highlights one of the shows strengths: In depicting its central couple as cogs within a lethal machine, it unpacks the long-term psychological toll that a life of secrecy and paranoia takes. This is beautifully demonstrated in a plotline involving the "forced repatriation" of a Soviet Jewish émigré, in which much of the action consists of Philip listening to monologues hurled at him by his captives, men who talk because it's their only tool for survival, while Philip must remain silent, because to respond, to dignify their words, would be to give up ground. "No feeling? No humanity? You may as well be dead," he's told.
Of course, this is a common theme in spy fiction, and the series also participates in the vogue of gravely flawed antiheroes (they execute innocent bystanders, but they really love their kids!), but Rhys and Russell handle the material with aplomb: Their characters' fragmented personae—the suburban drone, the blunt instrument, the myriad of false identities that go along with their slightly implausible collection of identity-obliterating wigs—all have an element of truth to them. That is, all these personalities cohere into some semblance of a real person, but our access to that truth about who these people are always remains tantalizingly out of reach. If season one was primarily about Philip and Elizabeth working through and undoing the lies they've told each other, this season is about questioning the lies they've told themselves—and that's certainly a more interesting puzzle to be solved.
The pleasure of the puzzle also comes through in the way the series has dialed back on the crutch of basic cable-friendly sex and fistfighting that previously hampered it; it's certainly more confident that the suspense of tradecraft and stealth, of the innate difficulty of simply passing information from one person to another, can carry a series—and it does. Philip and Elizabeth treat their missions as systems to be worked and problems to be solved; every person can be manipulated and every secret can be stolen, and it's riveting to watch them at work as they do exactly that. Of course, that systematic, mechanistic way of seeing the world bleeds over into the rest of their lives, and the series mines that psychological insight as part of its character study.
The show continues, however, to struggle to support its strong central cast with interesting secondary characters. Philip and Elizabeth's kids, for example, remain pleasant nonentities that seem to exist mostly as reminders that their parents are human beings, and to provoke goofy moments that play out like Yakov Smirnoff jokes. The scenes that center on the children flit between charmingly awkward and just plain clunky, as when Elizabeth discovers that her daughter's version of teenage rebellion is hanging out with Christian kids and reading the Bible, and she basically calls on Karl Marx for guidance. Similarly, Stan's ennui toward his long-suffering wife and infatuation with his double-agent mistress follows rather predictable beats, though the latter storyline is enlivened by an increased focus on Nina's role within the KGB. Her development from hapless victim to savvy and calculating (though still victimized) operative provides an intriguing parallel with Philip and Elizabeth's story. The tensions in her workplace are ratcheted further by the introduction of Oleg (Costa Ronin), a cocksure official's son angling to skip a few rungs up the KGB ladder; his combination of sliminess and arrogance signals that he'll probably prove to be this season's wildcard.
Regardless of some of its structural weaknesses, The Americans's second season brims with subtle psychological insight into the grinding machinations of Cold War espionage. In its world, deception, betrayal, and murder aren't shocking turns of events, but the inevitable consequences of a game in which the pieces can only be pushed so far, and where one's life and one's identity are tools for someone else's stratagem. "We know who we are," Elizabeth declares at one point with an utterly believable fervor—if only saying it made it so.