‘The Americans’ Showrunners Dissect the Secrets of Season 2
Which parts of the show are real, and how’d they snag Meryl Streep? Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields dissect the second-season premiere of the best spy show on TV.
The first season of FX's hourlong spy drama The Americans was excellent: a gripping story about a pair of married Russian sleeper agents masquerading as U.S. citizens in 1980s suburbia that had as much to say about matrimony as espionage. But the show's second season, which started Wednesday night, could prove to be even better. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead.)
In the Season 2 premiere, Elizabeth Jennings (a lethal, fiercely maternal Keri Russell) returns home after recovering from a gunshot wound. She and her husband Philip (the intelligent Matthew Rhys) spent Season 1 falling in and out of love; now they're back together. But when they team up with another pair of married KGB "illegals," something goes wrong—and their counterparts (and their counterparts' daughter) wind up dead in a hotel room. Suddenly, a threat that had always seemed abstract—that the Jennings are endangering their children as well as themselves—becomes very, very real. "All these years, I never worried about Paige and Henry being safe," Elizabeth says. "How are we going to live like this?"
To break down the new threat to the Jennings—and to discuss the latest developments in the double-crossed CIA-KGB romance between Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Nina (Annet Mahendru)—we gave showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields a ring. They told us which parts of the show are real and which parts are fake; how they snagged Meryl Streep for Wednesday's episode; and what to expect from Philip's hideous wigs—among other things—in Season 2. Excerpts from our conversation:
Let's go back to the beginning. I've heard you were inspired by the Russian spy ring that was busted in NJ in 2010. Tell me about the moment you realized this was a show.
Weisberg: I was sitting in my hotel in Los Angeles and I was working on a show called Falling Skies on TNT. It was a great moment of inspiration because the phone rang and somebody else suggested it. [Laughs] It was the president of DreamWorks Television and they were watching this unfold in the news. I'd worked at the CIA. I'd did a previous pilot with them about a CIA station in Bulgaria. So this was sort of in my wheelhouse, and they said, "Do you want to develop a show based on what's going on here with these Russian spies." And I said, "Sure, that's a great idea."
Instantly you knew?
Weisberg: Well, actually, I didn't think it was a great idea at first. But you don't say that when somebody calls and asks if you want to make a TV show. You say it's a great idea. But I thought to myself, "I don't know. Who really cares about Russian spies? We're not really enemies with Russia. But anything could be a great idea." So I started wandering around, thinking about it. And I always sort of laugh at myself, because it took me two weeks to figure it out—that it should be set during the Cold War. I feel that if I had a speedier brain, I might have thought of that in, like, five minutes. But it took me two weeks. And then I was like, "Oh! If we do that, then we are enemies with Russia."
Why the 1980s as opposed to the 1960s or 1970s?
Weisberg: It was really Ronald Reagan. It was really wanting to put it at a time when Reagan had ratcheted up the Cold War, so you could create the most tension and the most drama and have the most animosity between the two sides. And also because Reagan himself was such a compelling character.
Did you ever consider changing the enemy as opposed to the period—i.e, making it a show about Al Qaeda sleeper agents blending in as Americans?
Weisberg: Somebody had already done that. There had been a show called Sleeper Cell, which I thought was a really good, interesting show. But it had kind of been done. And the whole world of Russia, the Soviet Union, and the KGB was a world that I had been immersed in my whole life. I studied Soviet history and politics in college. I worked in a division of the CIA that focused on the Soviet Union and the KGB. It was a world I had a real background in. I also felt that if I did a show that made the enemies the heroes of the show, it didn't seem to me that America was really ready for that with Al Qaeda. Whereas the Cold War has been over long enough that people could embrace KGB officers as heroes.
Were you ever concerned about that, though—about asking the audience to root for Russians who are working to undermine America? Or have we gotten to the point where there are so many antiheroes on TV that it just doesn't matter.
Weisberg: I don't think the network ever worried about it. I think they have enough complex heroes on FX. But I had some concerns. Once Keri and Matthew came on board, though, I found myself so in sympathy with them immediately that I never really thought about it again.
I also want to say that there's a degree to which we never really thought of this as an antihero show. We always thought of these guys as heroes on the other side. That may sound like a fine point, but it was really significant to us.
Fields: I don't think that's a fine point at all. We talked about this from the beginning. These characters are not antiheroes. They're certainly not sociopaths. You think of The Sopranos, which was just really the shining city of shows from a character standpoint. Everyone aims for that. And the genius of that show was that it was about a sociopath who driven by his panic attack was struggling with whether or not he was going to be a sociopath or not—struggling with the morality inside himself.
But Philip and Elizabeth are not characters like that. They are feeling people who are deeply committed to a cause—one that we don't understand from today's perspective but that maybe we can understand through history somewhat.
An exercise we went through very, very consciously with every episode last season was that we would always re-conceive every story and say if this were set in a CIA station in Moscow with deep cover operatives in the early 1980s with the cause of American freedom at stake, would these people make these same choices?
That's fascinating. What's an example of a scene or a moment that triggered that kind of thought experiment?
Fields: If you think about the episode last season when Reagan was shot and Elizabeth kills that security guard, we talked a lot about it. She really tries everything she can to get that guy to leave. Everything she can. She has no desire to kill him. But when push comes to shove, on that day, with the threat of nuclear war hanging over them, in her view, and the entire operation and their entire cover at stake, she's got to do what she's got to do. And she does.
Let's talk about Season 2. As the end of Season 1 approached, you guys starting offing a lot of major characters. Did you ever worry that you wouldn't have enough to work with in Season 2—that you were spending your bullets too soon?
Weisberg: In general, in the world of espionage, officers like Philip and Elizabeth run agents for a really long time. Most of them live, but sometimes they die. You want to establish a stable of characters who are going to have a long life but with the threat of death, which only feels like a real threat if some of them die. And I hope we're accomplishing that.
Did you always know who was going to survive Season 1 and who wasn't? I think of this in regard to Nina especially. Was she always going to be so central?
Fields: We plot out a lot of it, but sometimes the story surprises us.
Weisberg: Nina is a funny one, because Joel and I got excited about Twitter last year—we were new to Twitter. We weren't really tweeting so much, but we were watching tweets during the shows. And what we found is that there's always a percentage of people on Twitter—and sometimes it's a high percentage—who are ahead of you. But the one thing where people really did not get ahead of us was Nina. We knew fairly early on that Nina was going to live. And most of the people on Twitter really thought she was going to die.
Fields: And they certainly didn't expect her to walk into Arkady's office and turn herself in.
Weisberg: We were watching the Twitter feed and we were like, "At least we're ahead of them on this one." [Laughs]
Nina seems to me to be the most inscrutable character—the most opaque character—and fascinating because of it.
Fields: She's got the real spy skill to fool people. It's her genius as a spy. Which is maybe why everybody on the show thinks she's up to something else—even everybody working on the show. [Laughs]
Really? The staff doesn't even know what she's going to do next?
Fields: Let's put it this way. If Annet [Mahendru, the actress who plays Nina] told us she was working for the CIA, we might believe her. [Laughs]
What was the biggest challenge you faced or decision you had to make when sitting down to write Season 2?
Weisberg: It's funny, because any other year you asked that—the first year or I'm guessing the third year—we would have a list of things. But this year wasn't like that. We were in a creative zone from the beginning. The stories and the character arcs just flowed out of our talks with our team. I don't mean it wasn't hard. I don't mean there weren't decisions. But the main experience was one of wonderful creative flow.
What about thematically? In Season 1 there was such a strong focus on the complexities of marriage—tradecraft as a metaphor for this relationship. I sensed from watching the premiere that Season 2 will have a different focus.
Fields: I think the question is now how does the marriage work in the complex of family, and how does the family survive given the choices this couple has made. And now that they're choosing to be truly married, how is that going to work for them? Will the center hold?
The Jennings children are in jeopardy from the start of the season. When the daughter of a fellow spy couple is killed in the premiere, Philip and Elizabeth realize that Paige and Henry could be next.
Fields: The threat is no longer quite hypothetical, is it?
In later episodes, Elizabeth watches the utility truck across the street and wonders if someone coming for her kids. It seems like the threat is hitting a lot closer to home in Season 2. Can we expect that to carry through as the theme of the season?
Weisberg: Very much so. In the first season, the Jenningses thought their cover was so secure, they didn't really feel a physical threat to their children. It was always the threat of being arrested or killed and orphaning their kids.
Fields: Which is pretty bad.
Weisberg: Which is pretty bad. But now you're getting into a whole new realm of fear and anxiety that's going to run throughout the season—and it's going to take some twists.
Joe, you worked for the CIA. If you hadn't created The Americans and I came to you as an expert source and said, "How realistic is this show?," how would you respond?
Weisberg: It's a mix. There are a lot of things about it that are very realistic, and some of them are not the things you would expect. For example, the Martha story, where Philip marries Martha? It seems made-up, but in fact it's real. KGB illegals married unsuspecting women who didn't know they were marrying KGB operatives and stayed married to them for a really long time, using these women to collect intelligence in their workplace. And it happened a lot. That's based on history.
Weisberg: It's great. It's insane. And that was the inspiration for that story. Sometimes these sham marriages went on for a decade and when the police finally broke them up, the women refused to believe that they had been married to KGB operatives.
I can imagine. I was thinking about how Martha would take it. The cognitive dissonance would be overwhelming.
Weisberg: It's such a fascinating, stunning, painful, weird, human thing that just wouldn't exist in any other world except espionage, so it's fun for us to explore.
What else is real?
Weisberg: A lot of the tradecraft is very accurate. Not all of it. Sometimes we have to cut certain corners. But I think that we have some counter-surveillance this season that's among the most accurate every done. And some of the dead drops are extremely accurate.
How about the corners you have to cut?
Weisberg: Sometimes because of production, because of how much time you have to shoot something, some of the tradecraft isn't perfect. But a couple of the main things are that illegals did not speak accentless English. That's a liberty we've taken. And of course there's much more... the amount of operations plopped into a timeframe is greatly increased for the purposes of television. Rather than what actually went on with illegals or any type of spy.
Spying, in other words, is a lot more boring than it is on The Americans.
Weisberg: Yes. And the less boring things are more spaced out.
Speaking of those less boring moments, I was excited to see Philip's wig ripped off in the second scene of Season 2. Was that in response to all the viewer interest in your incredible "cast" of wigs?
Fields: We definitely took those responses to heart. We ourselves had definitely been talking a lot about the wigs. And the wigs will play a role over the course of the season. Philip's wig in particular—there will be a nice beginning, middle, and end to the wig story.
Fields: We like to say we've created a "wig arc."
Weisberg: Yeah, we're not done with that one scene. [Laughs]
So you were, like, following the wig comments on Twitter?
Weisberg: Well, we thought that there was a good point made, which was: Wouldn't Martha run her fingers through Philip's hair and pull it off, given that when they were kidnapped, the wig came off so easily? So we thought we hadn't handled it quite right. When good points are made, we like to listen.
When you were talking about setting the show in the 1980s earlier, I couldn't help but think part of the reason you did it was for the cultural references. The first sequence of the show was set to "Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac.
Weisberg: That was a stroke of genius by [director] Gavin O'Connor. He'd say to me, "I see this whole first sequence playing out to 'Tusk,'" and he would explain to me in loving detail how every beat was going to sync up. I did not even know what he was talking about. I could not visualize it until it was actually on film. And then it was so great.
In the first few episodes of Season 2, we've got WKRP in Cincinnati, Rod Stewart's "Passion," Leo Buscaglia... How careful are you about picking these references? Do they all have hidden meanings or are you just having fun?
Weisberg: I think all of them probably mean something to somebody connected to the show.
Fields: But the guiding principle is that they feel fully integrated into the moment. We try to never have one that will jump out, like we're attempting to do a period reference.
What about The French Lieutenant's Woman with Meryl Streep? That was a big plot point in the Season 2 premiere. Surely you were trying to tell us something.
Weisberg: It just sort of came out of the story. It's not even like a chicken or the egg. It's not like anybody said, "Let's find a way to work in a movie for them to watch. What should it be?" It just unfolded emotionally in the story we were trying to tell with Stan and Nina, and then the parallel we wanted to capture for Stan and Sandra. It really unfolded that way.
Fields: We're very pleased to have Meryl Streep in our first episode.
Fields: We're very glad we got her. Isn't she good?
She's the best.
Fields: Tommy Schlamme—who directed the first episode this season, same as last—went up to the TV right before that scene and gave Meryl a little direction.
Fields: Now he gets to say he directed Meryl Streep.