It’s the best of times and the worst of times for FX’s “The Americans.” The critically acclaimed drama launched Season 5 (its penultimate run in a now six-season plan) Tuesday night and returns to the air riding high on finally breaking through at the Emmys.
And yet a funny thing happened between seasons. The election of Donald Trump ushered in a seemingly endless string of headlines about Russia and revived a certain “us vs. them” mindset most Americans put aside after the Cold War ended. What exactly does that mean for a show set at the ’80s height of the U.S./Soviet conflict?
As showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields tell Variety, nothing has changed when it comes to how they make the show. But it’s very possible that everything — or at least something — has changed in the way viewers will receive it. We’ll find out as the season plays out over the next 12 weeks.
Variety spoke with Weisberg and Fields by phone as they were simultaneously in production on the season finale and the final day of the season’s penultimate episode. Once they wrap those, there will only be 10 episodes left to shoot before “The Americans” signs off for good.
Heard any good stories about Russia lately?
Joe Weisberg: We’ve been reading all of them but the main thing we focus on are the actual jokes. We like the jokes, like Philip and Elizabeth are at Mar-A-Lago.
Joel Fields: Just to be clear it’s not that we like jokes about Russia, we like jokes about Russia and our show.
JF: There are some very, very witty people on Twitter.
Other than journalists constantly asking you about the nonstop Russia headlines, do current events have any impact at all on your own work on the show?
JF: Not consciously. Consciously we work very hard for them not to have any impact on the work we’re doing. They have an impact though, no doubt, on how the audience experiences the show. In that sense they have impact on how the work is experienced by the viewers. Even though we’re trying very hard not to change anything on the work based on what’s happening, because we’re deep into a long ongoing story about these characters and it’s set in a time long before any of this happened. To the extent it reflects on what’s happening, we hope it’s doing so allegorically, metaphorically, and not literally. That said, the audience can’t help but bring to the show what they’re experiencing every day either.
Philip and Elizabeth are roughly the same generation as Vladimir Putin. Is that something you’ve thought about at all?
JW: We thought about that in an upside down way. We were asked, “Would you ever put Putin in the show?” I mean, he was in the KGB. It did occur to us. We thought, “Is there an interesting intersection there?” But at the end of the day we’re trying very hard to make sure that nobody is bumped out of the show by feeling, “Oh, look, people who know what’s going to happen in the future are writing the show.” That would be the unavoidable feeling of having Putin appear in the show. There’d be no other reason you would make Vladimir Putin a character in the show. We had to steer away from it. But it did open us up to the fact it’s a similar generation.
You’ve been doing a deep dive into the ’80s Cold War for awhile now. Has any new information come to light with this new interest in Russia?
JW: We write in this bubble. We keep the two things separate. What’s more interesting for us is tracking how [the news] changes perceptions of the show to a certain degree. A lot of people talk about the show being more relevant now, but they have different thoughts on why it’s more relevant. You always want to be relevant, but we don’t want to necessarily be relevant with the idea being that, “Hey, we’ve been showing all along that the Russians do this devious stuff and now look: they’re doing devious stuff again!” That’s never been the intention of the show. That’s almost the opposite. The intention of the show was always to say, “the Soviets were like us. We’re human in similar ways.” If they did devious stuff, we did devious stuff, it’s all just part of being human. One of the risks of what’s happening currently is it’s easy because of current events to see the show in a different context. That was not really how we hoped to have it viewed.
That’s part of what makes Paige such an interesting character to me. As she finds out more about what her parents do, she sees it from a unique perspective. She’s sympathetic to some of what they’re fighting for, but not necessarily for the same reasons.
JF: Last season as we were navigating that storyline, a few people were asking, “Are they recruiting their daughter or not?” We finally started giving the answer, “They’re recruiting her to be their daughter.” That can mean a variety of different things to all the different characters, which is just fine by us. That’s also a universal experience of parenting. We want our children to be their own people and we also want them to be reflections of us. And how we navigate that, that’s part of the universal story.
But there’s also an ideological war going on. It’s interesting to see Paige, as a natural born American, sympathizing with Soviet causes.
JF: It’s easy to forget in the early ‘80s many of those causes were very American causes. There was the war in Central America, Apartheid — all kinds of things that a suburban girl going to a good liberal church would’ve been very involved in. Those were real socialist causes that the Soviets were on the right side of back then. They were on the right side of South Africa back then. That’s one part of it. And then the other interesting part of the show is you have, in Philip and Elizabeth, parents who have different points of view on that. They have different points of view on what they wanted for their daughter, what they want her believe, how they want her to express those beliefs and experience life. This season, even though Philip and Elizabeth are so much in sync, they still have those differences.
JW: I think one of the really fun things about this season was writing that, and breaking those stories — the intersection between the current (‘80s) politics and the way back ideology of Marx and Lenin and how that factored in, and then tying that together with bringing Paige into the family and how that would intersect with her parents trying to affect the way she thought. All of this could just be termed “raising your daughter.” When you’re the Jennings, raising your daughter in this situation, it has a lot of things in common with raising any other kid, and then some things are so wildly different you can make a TV show out of it.
It makes me think back to an experience that I think is probably common for a lot of people, which is reading Marx for the first time. The first time I read him, all I knew was he had given rise to this system that was supposed to be more or less the devil’s work. It’s disconcerting to read what he had to say and see that a lot of it was very human and very decent and didn’t seem to be the work of the devil at all. We get to play around with those ideas on the show in a way that’s a lot of fun.
Paige is not handling this well — she says she’s having nightmares — and Elizabeth responds with fight training. How are Philip and Elizabeth navigating the line between how fragile Paige might be and how far they can push her for her own protection?
JF: I remember Steven Bochco in the writers room would sometimes say, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. It seems like there’s a lot of that going on in the parenting in this family. Paige is in her own deep denial of how hard this stuff is hitting her, it only leaps out really when her parents are discipling her or giving her a hard time about her boyfriend. The rest of the time she’s making it through the day just fine, but it’s there. And her parents are very invested in thinking everything’s OK. Ironically their real concern is the pressing one of, “Is Paige going to say something to get us caught?” Nobody seems to be able to focus on the psychic cost of this in any deep way. That’s not who these characters are. That’s too bad for them but good for us in terms of the show’s drama.
We’re seeing more and more of life in the USSR. We follow Oleg, and get a completely different perspective than we ever would’ve seen in Nina’s experience there. As you approach the final seasons how broad a canvas should the show have?
JW: I think we’re hitting top breadth at this point, I don’t think we’re going any broader than that once we get inside people’s apartment buildings and offices in the Soviet Union. We’re not going to Alaska or Chile or anywhere like that. We’re as far as we’re going but we’re very happy with that. It is different from Nina, we spent a little time with Nina in the Soviet Union but she was a prisoner. This is really an attempt to look inside Soviet life and show a bunch of Soviet characters living their day to day lives. Most of them or many of them more privileged, but some of them, not ordinary Russians, but not in the privileged elite like Oleg’s partner and his boss in the KGB. This is not a planned exercise, we never thought we’d get to the Soviet Union and tell stories there. I don’t think it even occurred to us. I think what happened was Oleg’s story went there and we followed. But we followed very happily.
Obviously Oleg is there, but poor Martha might be out there somewhere too… Anything more you can say about her at this point?
JW: I was on the subway with my daughter this morning and, as daughters often do, she got a little tired of her father talking, and she zipped my lips and threw the key over my shoulder. [Muffled attempt to speak]
JF: If this is any consolation you just got the most elaborate answer to that anyone has ever gotten.
Explain this exchange from the premiere: Claudia: “Nothing scares those two.” Gabriel: “Everything scares those two.”
JF: You put your finger on something we love to explore in the show, which is things can be simultaneously true inside characters. What Claudia is saying is, “those guys are ballsy, they’ll damn the torpedoes.” What Gabriel is saying is, “They still feel it. It presses on them.” I don’t think they’re disagreeing with each other. They’re just seeing what’s in front of them in different ways in different moments.
This is the first season since the show’s Emmy breakthrough. Did that change anything for you?
JW: We were in a better mood. We weren’t two guys in bad moods, we were in a pretty good mood…
JF: Unless we don’t get nominated this year. Then it’s really gonna sting. We were used to it, and that was fine. It’s one thing to never to get asked out. And another to get asked out and not get asked out on a second date. I’m already neurotic about next year. But to say I’m already neurotic is intrinsically redundant.
Yes, we’re in a better mood. And the lighthearted banter aside, it felt really remarkable to see the show recognized this late. To see Keri and Matthew’s work recognized by the Academy, meant so much. And to see the whole show, and the work everybody’s doing, put up there with those other incredible shows. It’s such an amazing time for television and it’s really something to be there for that.
The premiere ends with a 10-12 minute sequence of digging the hole. Is that something you only do when you’re already guaranteed another season?
JW: We’ve already been reading the early reviews and talking to people who have seen it, and a lot of people have made that comment. That actually has surprised us. At least not consciously, that was not something on any level we associated doing with the end of the show. From the beginning we’ve worked with the network with such a level of creative support and freedom. We’ve felt from the beginning we could do anything we wanted. If we wanted to have a 10 minute hole-digging sequence in season one or two I don’t think we would’ve felt that anybody’s holding us back. Or there was any reason not to do it, at least consciously. Unconsciously do we feel a little more secure now in taking chances? Maybe.
JF: I think what’s more true is as the show has morphed from year to year what we’ve tried to do is make it more and more real and make it feel more and more like you’re a fly on the wall watching something that’s actually happening. The more committed we get to that, the more sequences like this become part of the show. Add that desire with the fact that FX is willing to let you do that and I think that’s what gets the sequence on the air at this time. More than knowing we can’t get cancelled.