The confusion of role-playing and real life is most apparent in the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth and their children. The kids have been kept in the dark to protect them. But the result is that they’re growing up as little Americans, unwittingly alienated from everything their parents believe. As her 10-year-old son exults over a visit to his school by a U.S. astronaut who talked on the moon, he’s oblivious to his mother’s inexplicable wounded retort: “The moon isn’t everything. Sometimes just getting into space is an accomplishment.” And when her daughter announces she’s writing a school report on Soviet cheating on arms-limitations treaties, Elizabeth looks as if she’s been kicked in the stomach.
The kids are played with winning panache by TV newcomers Keidrich Sellati and Holly Taylor. And Rhys and Russell, both known mostly for cloying roles in dippy soaps (Rhys was the theatrically tortured homosexual son on Brothers & Sisters, Russell the idiotically self-dramatizing title character of the teeny-bopper Felicity), are shockingly good as the multifaceted Philip and Elizabeth, who shed identities like snakes shed skins.
Six decades ago, TV’s first excursion into the world of spies was a drama about an FBI informant in the Communist Party called I Led Three Lives (which, knowingly or not, The Americans often echoes in tone and style). The performances of Russell and Rhys might be titled We Led 300 Lives. They play not only their two primary roles — loving suburban parents, ruthless KGB spies — but countless others as they pretend to be wide-eyed Beltway secretaries and oversexed congressional investigators to steal Washington’s secrets. If the Russians had agents this convincing, the Cold War might have turned out differently.