"‘The Americans’ Showrunners On Season 2, Scientific Espionage, And How To Follow Up ‘Tusk’"
This post discusses some plot points of the second season of The Americans.
When The Americans, FX’s Cold War drama about KGB spies who are living in deep cover–so deep that they have two children and a travel agency–in the suburbs of Washington, DC, premiered last year, it arrived, fully-formed, as one of the best shows on television. It didn’t seem possible, but the show, which returns to FX at 10 PM tonight for a second season, is even better.
Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (the superb Keri Russell) are rebuilding their relationship as she recovers from the shooting she suffered in last season’s finale. Their older daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), has begun the process of recognizing that her parents aren’t exactly perfect, a fraught prospect for any teenager, but a particularly risky one for the child of two Soviet spies. Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent next door, is finding his affair with Nina (Annet Mahendru, in a starring role this season) increasingly intoxicating, even as his wife, Sandra (Susan Misner) is pulled into the culture of self-help and self-actualization. In the Rezidentura, Nina is working even more closely with Arkady (Lev Gorn), and finds herself pursued by Oleg (Costa Ronin), a new science and technology attache who loves American culture, but is also keenly on the lookout for any opportunity to advance himself. And in his disguise as Clark, Phillip is finding marriage with FBI employee Martha (Alison Wright) as complicated and demanding as life with Elizabeth.
That’s a lot of plot to handle, but the always-strong cast has grown into even greater comfort–and sexual heat–this season. And showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have given remarkable emotional depth to each storyline. The Americans was a revelation on its debut for its careful consideration of marriage, the emotional lives of men, and the prospect that women could be even flintier than their male counterparts. And the show keeps going to places that are surprising by television standards, but that feel remarkably emotionally grounded, whether it’s what Paige finds when she walks in to her parents’ bedroom without knocking, or what happens to Martha when she’s left alone for an evening with a bottle of wine and far too much time on her hands. It’s also exceptionally serious in its estimation of the cost of Phillip, Elizabeth, Stan, and Nina’s work. As violence has escalated on cable and network television, Weisberg and Fields stand out for their interest in assessing its toll rather than simply racking up a body count. And while being far from prudish, The Americans is remarkably serious about sex.
I’ll be recapping The Americans here, and after I move to the Washington Post, over there as well. And in January, I spoke to Fields and Weisberg in Los Angeles about the second season. We discussed the challenges of finding a song as awesome as Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” to kick off the second season, Paige’s emerging sexuality, and the role of technology and innovation in the Cold War competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
It seems like this season there’s much less iconic 80’s music and much more characters consuming iconic 80’s pop culture. And I was wondering if that was sort of a deliberate shift.
Joel Fields: You’ll see some more iconic 80’s music coming up, and it’s funny, we actually talked about finding iconic 80’s cues in those first episodes, and it just doesn’t work.There was so much happening intensely and emotionally when we laid that stuff in, it felt like it was too cluttered, and we just decided to do what we did dramatically rather than to try to impose that. We actually sat in the editing room, laid out a bunch of songs, and said, “later.”
It seems like a small theme of the first couple of episodes is the characters trying to talk to each other about popular culture.
Joel Fields: For sure, both of us think we’re really moved by Leo Buscaglia [Dr. Love, whose PBS appearances inspire Stan's wife in the early episodes of the season] back in the day, and it just seemed to slide right into the show and where they’re both at. And it was such an important part of that time—that that genuine movement of connection was happening—a post-60’s, post-70’s attempt to connect.
Joe Weisberg: It was interesting—we always were walking this line to a certain degree. One good place to talk about it is with the costumes. We’re doing a period show—it would be easy to go overboard—and have the costumes jump out, have everyone in shoulder pads. And what we really wanted to do is try to have the costumes look like what we feel like everybody actually looked like back then. Not exaggerate it and just have it be very real. And I think it’s the same with the pop culture references—every time we put something on a TV, every time we have a prop or something like that, we look at it over and over and over again and ask ourselves “are we hitting it too hard?” And if we’re hitting it too hard, we take it out or pull it back because we always want it to feel real, and it’s just always that balance. We never want to stick out like a sore thumb. We want to show the real world, and that’s always our sense about it too.
I imagine if you want to depict culture as being actually meaningful to people, it can’t be a character, it has to be sort of modulated.
Joel Fields: That’s exactly right, and I think Dan Sackheim, who directed the second episode caught that just right. There’s that scene in the diner where Phillip is surveilling this agent…who’s reading a Time magazine. And we talked a lot, and I think he did a beautiful job of, it’s just there. It’s not super-featured in the frame—it’s just part of the fabric of life at that time.
Joe Weisberg: And which Time Magazine to have. If you pick the one with the big thing on the cover, then it feels like you’re sort of going too far. But if you pick just an ordinary Time magazine, it feels more real with just an average cover. Ronald Reagan is always on the cover.
I wanted to ask a little bit about the role technology plays in the season. Because last year you have the missile defense at the center of the show. This time, you’ve got a sort of smaller sense of technology, but clearly you’ve got this new propeller, you’ve got the private contractors. Tell me a little bit about that world, because I obviously think it’s an important part of Washington and the defense industry, but not one that we see pop culture a lot, even in the spy shows.
Joe Weisberg: One thing that’s the reason we’re going there and I wouldn’t be surprised if we continued to go there is that it’s just central to the KGB’s mission. The KGB really felt that one of the areas that it could primarily succeed and did succeed was stealing Western technology. And it really propped up the Soviet defense establishment. The Soviet defense establishment did not do its own [research and development]—it stole it from the West. And the reason that their military-industrial complex was able to a very profound degree to keep up with ours was because of all the stuff the KGB stole. They were just remarkably successful and remarkably good at it, and it’s one of the reasons the Soviet Union lasted as long as it did. And the main place they stole it from was us, and so if you’re going to tell the story of the KGB and what they were doing in America, that’s the story. So that’s one of the reasons to go there. It’s just a great story.
Joel Fields: And the stakes of that technology were huge because to be able to crack stealth submarines and stealth airplanes meant that you could strike first and win a nuclear war in everyone’s opinion. And that meant that the whole principle of mutually assured destruction was off the table.
I also wanted to ask about Paige this season. I was curious about her arc, since we’ve seen from the first episode of this season the importance of this concept of keeping your children from being involved with your spy work. And she seems on the brink of getting involved herself without her parents wanting her to.
Joel Fields: Well it’s definitely an arc we’re going to explore. There’s the plot part of it, but really, it’s all about the character stuff and the triangle of where she fits as a child with these parents, and it’s one of the fundamental conflicts and struggles that’s going to percolate throughout this season.
I think you guys have done a really nice job looking at her emerging sexuality. The hitchhiking episode last season seemed like straight out of Joyce Carol Oates to me, and now you’re having her walk in on her parents, which they’re concerned about more as a security issue than as a concern of her sexuality.
Joe Weisberg: At the end of the day, I don’t think that incident then would be much different from it now, but if you think of the difference between with what a kid her age would have to be exposed to in terms of image and sexuality and talk among the peers then and now, it does seem way different.
I was also wondering if you could talk a little bit in part about what’s going to happen with Clark and Martha. If she leaves the division, is it this horrible sacrifice Phillip’s made?
Joe Weisberg: If you think about Phillip and his capabilities and how good he is at manipulating people, hopefully he would have a lot of capabilities to prevent that from happening. Or there’s the fact that human nature—people are never totally predictable or manipulatible, so maybe he wouldn’t. So that’s going to be one of the interesting things to see play out and what he does, and also the question of will he do anything or won’t he? Because he’s in another fake marriage, only a much faker one. Will feelings develop, and will there be lines that he will or won’t cross? I think another marriage—just find a really dramatically rich thing, and it’s based on history. The KGB did this—they would just marry people. I’ll never get over how rich I think that is to explore, so we’re excited to explore that this season.
It’s damaging on both sides. It’s a terrible thing to do to Martha, but as Phillip’s first fake marriage become more real…
Joel Fields: He wants to have a second fake marriage! Although I have to say there are certain [moments] this season, where I said, “God, that makes me want to have a second fake marriage.” Or I guess for me it would be a first fake marriage, since my first marriage is not a fake marriage.
Or so you think!