Has there ever been a better time for a show about Russian spies secretly trying to take down the United States of America?
This week, The Americans returns to FX for its fifth season amidst a heightened national interest in global espionage and great uncertainty about the future of U.S.-Russia relations. Coming on the heels of the show’s first Emmy nomination for Best Drama and a win at last month’s Writers Guild Awards, showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg are trying not to let all the unexpected attention go to their heads.
From the beginning, Weisberg tells The Daily Beast, television critics championed The Americans, something he says was always “flattering and wonderful” and, more importantly, “key to keeping the show on the air.” They got used to “flying under the radar,” but that is finally starting to change.
“It sure was nice when we started out, thinking this could be a nice, little allegory about what it’s like to be tribal, to have an enemy, to be an enemy, and to be able to tell that story through a prism of enemies long forgotten,” Fields says of the show, which centers on spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who, along with their two children, pose as an everyday American family in the Washington, D.C. suburbs while covertly working for the Soviet Union.
Because the Cold War “was behind us” as a nation at the start of the show’s run, Fields and Weisberg realized audiences were more open to viewing Philip and Elizabeth in a sympathetic light, even if they are actively working against American interests. “The U.S.S.R. was gone and Russia was no longer a threat,” Fields adds. Now, he worries, the audience might “experience the show differently.”
“Our experience making the show really hasn’t changed,” he continues. “Because we make the show very much in a bubble of the early ’80s. Their story is their story by now. But certainly, the audience’s experience of watching it is going to change.”
Early in the second episode of this season, the Jennings’ handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) lets them know that their next mission will be in Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln.” He says of the American people, “To think they once had a Lincoln. Now they have a Reagan.” One can only imagine what he would think of President Trump.
Fields and Weisberg don’t believe viewers watch The Americans, a show set more than 30 years in the past, with an eye toward what’s happening in the present. But since almost everything in American culture is now viewed through a political lens, that doesn’t mean the show won’t educate some people about the fraught history between the U.S. and Russia just as the Trump administration aims to bring the countries closer together. “What people absorb on an unconscious level is anybody’s guess,” Weisberg says.
At its core, The Americans has always been a show about family. Season 4 saw the Jennings start to reveal more of themselves to their teenage daughter Paige (the increasingly impressive Holly Taylor). She knows they work for the Soviet government, but does not yet understand the scope of their frequently violent and deadly operations.
The new season opens with a family, but it’s not the one we were expecting. It’s 1984 and Devo’s “That’s Good” is playing. We see a Vietnamese high-school student pick up a tray and sit down in the cafeteria with another new kid named Pasha, who’s just arrived from the Soviet Union. When the two boys go back to Tuan’s house after school, they are greeted by parents: Philip and Elizabeth in disguise.
“It just seemed fun to start in this disorienting way and to plop [viewers] in the midst of this different family dynamic,” Fields says of the deliberately perplexing opening scene. We soon discover that Tuan (newcomer Ivan Mok) is not, in fact, a regular high-school student, but a covert agent himself who fled Vietnam and is now pulling a 21 Jump Street-style mission to help the Jennings get closer to Pasha’s father, a Russian dissident who escaped his home country to help the United States.
Over the course of at least the first few episodes of the new season Philip and Elizabeth spend far more time with their pretend adopted child—family dinners, bowling night—than they ever do with their own children.
“In a way, he’s the kid they’ve always dreamed of,” Fields says of Tuan. “Because he’s in it with them 100 percent.” While Paige is still struggling to cope with her new reality, here the Jennings have found a “son” who will work alongside them without hesitation.
As for the Jennings’ real daughter, she’s in a tough place at the top of Season 5. Her parents are not happy about her budding relationship with Matthew, the son of their friendly FBI agent neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), worrying that sex could cloud her judgment and lead her to blurt out their biggest secret. Meanwhile, Paige has resorted to sleeping in her closet at night in order to feel safe after witnessing her mother murder a man with her bare hands last season.
As FX revealed to much enthusiasm from fans in the first trailer for Season 5, Elizabeth has begun to train Paige in what she is calling self-defense to help her get past her fears. In addition, as Paige starts to get close to Matthew her parents impart a subtle technique to help keep her emotions in check. The creators are coy when asked where the idea for that technique—they tell her to rub her thumb and forefinger together to remember where she came from—originated. “Whether or not the KGB came up with it, everybody should do it,” Fields jokes.
Whereas the threat of biological weapons loomed over the events of Season 5, this year focuses on something far simpler: food. The Russian man who Philip and Elizabeth are getting close to through their fake son is an agricultural expert who appears to be advising the U.S. government on ways to wipe out the Soviet Union’s wheat crops, potentially leaving millions to die of starvation.
As the showrunners began to research for the new season, they came to realize how food shaped the histories of the U.S. and Russia. In addition to covert attempts by the American government to disrupt the food supply of its enemy, we also get a window into the way Russia attempted to crack down on corruption in its own food system through the eyes of Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), who is back in Moscow but not yet fully out of the FBI’s grasp.
The aftermath of the previous season still hangs over tonight’s premiere as well, as Philip and Elizabeth are tasked with helping Dylan Baker’s scientist William, who dramatically killed himself by exposing himself to the biological weapon sample in last season’s finale, complete one last mission.
This leads to one of the longest and most deliberate sequences in the show’s history. For more than 10 minutes at the end of the premiere, barely a single word is spoken as the Jennings and their associates pull off an elaborate heist at Fort Detrick.
Asked what the show is trying to convey with the unusually lengthy scene, Weisberg says, dryly, “This is how you dig a hole.”
“Joe’s not kidding,” Fields adds. “We really wanted to convey how grueling it would be to do something like that.” In the end, it was FX head John Landgraf who actually encouraged them to make the sequence longer, a note that would be unheard of from most network executives.
Like the “disorienting” scene that opens the episode, this one cements The Americans’ refusal to ever hold viewers’ hands. After four challenging seasons, we can be confident we will be rewarded for our patience.
If there is one message the creators want to send to fans before this season begins, it is to expect the unexpected. “This is The Americans,” Weisberg says. “Assume nothing.”