The stakes have never been higher for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings than in The Americans’ fourth season premiere, which aired Wednesday night on FX.
In the final moments of the third season, the Jennings’ teen daughter Paige discovered that her parents are undercover KGB agents and spilled their secret to her confidant Pastor Tim. On top of that, the threat of biological weapons has entered the picture as the couple is forced to obtain and store a dangerous sample in their suburban home.
The two men behind the escalating anxiety, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, spoke to The Daily Beast about tonight’s tension-filled episode and what viewers can expect in the coming weeks, including an eerily well-timed David Bowie tribute.
This season opens with Philip’s memory of the first time he took a life at just 10 years old. Why did you want to begin with that revelation about his violent beginnings?
Weisberg: There has been such an arc running through the whole show—it really heated up last season and it’s very important starting out this season—about Philip’s increasing trouble with violence and the terrible things he has to do, in particular killing people. It really dovetailed last season with the strongly connected arc of him going to EST and starting to become, for the first time, a somewhat self-reflective person. And so it seemed that a very logical place for these two things to come together, in his development as a human being, and therefore as a character on the show, would be for him to revisit this singular moment in his past where this very formative experience took place, where he became a killer at this remarkably young age. It seemed like a very interesting, dramatic and, as usual for us, sad and painful place to start the season.
Fields: And of course it tells you where he is now, because the fact that he is experiencing this now and struggling with it now says a lot about where he is. And all of those things that he hasn’t thought about that he can no longer turn away from.
We’ve seen both Philip and Elizabeth kill a lot of people over the years. Do you worry that the audience will turn on them after a certain point?
Fields: You know we don’t really think about it that way. We’ve never spent time thinking about how the audience is going to react to them as much as we’ve just thought about them as characters and how they’re going to react to what they do. And what’s important to us is that they experience on some level, consciously or repressed, the consequences of their actions. For us, if those actions impact them on some level, they’re going to be human. And if they’re human, the audience should connect with them on some level.
Time and again, we see that Elizabeth is the more ruthless and single-minded of the two while Philip has more misgivings about the violent acts he’s forced to commit. Does the Jennings family need those two opposing sides to survive?
Fields: You say ruthless, we say loyal. [Laughs.]
Weisberg: He’s kidding and he’s not kidding because I think that’s a fundamental question about Elizabeth. We always think about the fact that if they were CIA officers in the Soviet Union or any kind of people working for America, she would be seen as more steadfast and committed to the cause. And as such, she is more willing to rationalize certain things, which leads to her perhaps being less conflicted about what she does. But is that ruthlessness or is that just somebody who’s willing to do the job? When the chips are down, it might be that you’d rather have her on your side if you really needed her.
The big cliffhanger of Season Three was Paige’s phone call to Pastor Tim. Holly Taylor, who plays Paige, said she didn’t know how much of the phone call you were going to include in last year’s season finale. Is there anything from that call that you did leave unused?
Fields: Yeah, there are two words that we did not include in that phone call scene that we had her film, and they were the words “They’re spies.” It was because we felt “They’re Russians” said it all. We just weren’t sure how all of that was going to play in the editing room. But we always intended that to be the scene in which she told him everything.
Elizabeth in particular has never liked Pastor Tim or Paige’s Christianity. Do you think she’s looking for an excuse to get rid of him?
Weisberg: You’re right that she’s always hated him. I think she hates him for what he’s doing to her daughter. But she also has an orthodox Communist view about Christianity and about religion so she has a kind of scorn for him at the same time. And I think one of the interesting things this season is to watch how that’s challenged. Whether or not she’d actually like to have an excuse to kill him, I think that’s an interesting question to ponder, but I don’t want to answer that for the audience.
I want to move on to Martha, because I think one of the most powerful scenes in the premiere is when Philip, as Clark, tells her that he had to kill Gene to protect her. She has really stayed loyal to her husband despite learning along the way that he’s not exactly who he says he is. Do you view this as a breaking point for her?
Fields: It’s certainly another transition point along the way. Whether it’s a breaking point, that remains to be seen, you’ll see how it all unfolds.
Alison Wright, who plays Martha, has definitely become a fan favorite. Has that helped keep her character alive this long?
Fields: It was always the intention to keep her around. Over the course of the first season, Joe and I would look bemusedly when we saw all of the blog postings and Twitter messages about how Martha and/or Nina was about to die in the next episode. But these are stories that we have been planning to play out for quite some time.
You mentioned Nina as well. She has been exiled back in the Soviet Union for a while and her storyline feels a bit separate from the rest of the characters now. How have you dealt with integrating her part of the story into the rest of the series?
Weisberg: It’s hard to say too much about that without giving away spoilers, but I will say that we never saw it really as that separated. This is an American and a Soviet story at the same time. Just as Nina was in a cordoned-off area, whether it’s a prison cell or a secret scientific facility, she was always in the hearts and minds of people back in the United States and therefore always has the power to affect them and what they do.
The scene at the end of this week’s premiere between Stan and Philip was brutal to watch, knowing that the bioweapon sample is in his pocket. How did you decide to up the stakes with the introduction of this new threat?
Fields: First of all, we’re really glad you reacted that way to this scene. [Director] Tommy Schlamme did just a beautiful job capturing the tension of that moment. And few people noticed, but we actually used an actual biological weapon. [Laughs.]
Weisberg: We were looking at a lot of the history that came out after the collapse of the Soviet Union and some very, very interesting memoirs came out about their biological weapons program. So we just started looking into that and finding out some fascinating stuff.
Fields: It seemed to be a great way to tell a secret story that our spies could be involved with that was something both unbelievably believable and that our guys could be participating in, in a behind-the-scenes way but within the boundaries of real history that the show takes place against.
Dylan Baker makes a great addition to an already deep bench. Can you talk about casting him and what he brings to the table?
Fields: Joe and I have independently been huge fans of Dylan’s for many, many years, not surprisingly. And we wrote this part and I think we had the first couple of scripts and the whole storyline worked out and then started to think about who we might be able to cast. I think it was Rori Bergman, our casting director, who brought his name up. And we just couldn’t have been more excited and more thrilled that he said yes. It has just been a great experience working with him and seeing him bring this character to life. He brings not only a depth and reality to the performance, but he brings a kind of dark, Russian wit to the character, which is a flavor we hadn’t had on this show before.
There have been so many great ’80s music moments over the course of the series. What’s the process like of finding the perfect song for any given scene?
Fields: First of all the process, we have an incredible music supervisor P.J. Bloom and his team who lead that effort. Also it’s kind of a group effort with our writers, our directors, our incredible editing team. Sometimes a singular song is pitched in a script, such as the Yaz song “Only You,” and it just stays the same throughout. And sometimes, we don’t even know there’s going to be a song and then over the course of an episode, a sequence emerges as something that’s going to carry a song and we’ll spend a lot of time listening to many, many different options. But it’s fun. Joe and I were around back in the early ‘80s and we get to listen to a lot of songs from our youth.
Weisberg: That’s a nice way to put it, we were “around.”
Is there one that sticks out that you really love or just felt like the perfect fit?
Weisberg: We love a lot of them, and they become sort of special to us. But there’s a big David Bowie one this season that is obviously going to have some special and sad resonance.
Was that chosen before he passed?
Weisberg: Literally moments before.
Fields: Yeah, we actually saw it in the cut, fell in love with it and knowing that he was a fan of the show, reached out to his representatives to get the song I think the week prior to his passing.
Wow. Can you share anything about the context in which the song is used?
Fields: We can share what the song is but we’ll let the context wait until the episode airs. It’s “Under Pressure.”