Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen the Season 1 finale of FX's "The Americans," titled "The Colonel."
Watching "The Americans" evolve over the course of the show's first season has been a gratifying process. It not only provided Keri Russell, who gave a brilliantly calibrated performance as Soviet spy Elizabeth Jennings, with an opportunity to blow away any preconceptions that might have lingered in the minds of fans of "Felicity," it also elicited a terrifically subtle performance from Matthew Rhys, who played her husband, Philip, with quiet intensity and a broodingly romantic air. And far from being an intellectual exercise in Soviet-U.S. gamesmanship, the show also provided an array of fight scenes, car chases and undercover identities that proved, once and for all, that Soviet wig technology of the '80s was far more advanced than anyone knew.
As if that wasn't enough, Noah Emmerich, Margo Martindale, Richard Thomas and Annet Mahendru turned in sterling work as the spies rotating around the Jennings, and the show did a fine job of evoking both the hedonism of the early '80s (the discos! the hideous clothes!) but also the the tense, ideologically driven flavor of the international politics of the era.
Joe Weisberg, the show's executive producer and creator, and Joel Fields, "The Americans'" executive producer, recently sat down for an extensive discussion of Season 1, where the show's second season might go and which characters will likely return. This is an edited version of that chat. (By the way, I have more thoughts on the first season and "The Colonel" that I've shared in "The Americans" podcast at the end of this post, and don't miss these recent interviews with cast members, Rhys, Martindale and Emmerich.)
As you prepare for Season 2, what are your thoughts about where Season 1 went and what you want to do next?
Joe Weisberg: First of all, [it was] my first time running a show and, you know, with Joel being in charge of this giant story enterprise, I will say that I feel shocked and overwhelmed by how improvisatory it is. We did have so much planned out at the beginning and so many places we wanted to go. And a bunch of those places stayed, a bunch of them got modified and a bunch went away completely. And yet even the things that we set out to do that we did exactly, there's still so much improvisation to get there. There's no straight line, in any event. You're zigging and you're zagging and you're moving the pieces and you're doing it all out of breath, on the fly. It's like you're sprinting a marathon. It's just crazy. And then the thing that I most can't believe is that we started putting the blocks together for the last couple episodes and they fit. It's like a miracle. I can’t believe it.
The other thing I'd say that we knew when we started but we learned as we went, too, is that ultimately, when the characters were true and when the emotional drama was interesting to us and rich to us, that the story worked. When we think about the coming season, I think that's the biggest thing we'll think about: What's happening with these characters? What's going on with their lives? What are the dynamics going to be? What's at stake and what's the next challenge and transformation for them personally? And the spy stories are the spy stories, and they can be little or small and episodic or play out over the season. That's really less important.
So it's more about the consequences those spy stories may have for them personally.
Joel Fields: Yeah, or [it's about] what they reflect without being too precious about it, what they provoke.
So to go from the general to the specific, what was the thinking on having Paige go in the laundry room at the end of the finale? Was there ever a version of the finale where she finds something she shouldn't? Was that a big debate, or what were the various possibilities you thought about?
Weisberg: With anything like that, we consider 10 possibilities.
Fields: And with that, it was everything from, "There’s no such scene," to, "She finds their guns and wigs." And eight things in between were discussed. And we hope we found just the right thing. We found, for us, what we felt was the right thing.
Weisberg: It came down to even editing that scene different ways, to where she's looking at the panel [behind the washing machine], or she was just looking vaguely in that direction or...
Learning about how to fold properly, because mom's obviously a good folder.
Fields: Ultimately, we feel laundry's gonna be a big part of the series.
The folding and the wigs. You're definitely onto something with that.
Fields: Well, I don't want to give away a spoiler, but the premiere of next season is called "Starch or No Starch."
"The Lint Trap."
Weisberg: "The Lint Trap." It's Ludlum meets "The Americans." I like that.
That's the season finale. It's an idea.
Fields: Now we have the whole arc. All we have to do is fill out the middle.
Weisberg: That'll be easy. That writes itself.
Fields: Well, we can get several episodes out of a missing sock.
Moving away from laundry for a moment, how much do you want to go to the well of Philip and Elizabeth's relationship being in jeopardy next year? That's been such a huge driver for this season and obviously the cast plays that so well, but is there a danger of having it always be about their relationship possibly disintegrating, and then maybe the audience potentially loses interest in that happening over and over?
Fields: Yeah, I think you can't keep doing that.
Fields: I would say that one thing I feel about marriage is that there's so many places to go with marriage that can be interesting. After all, people are sometimes married for 50 years without it getting boring. But, yeah, we don't want to repeat that same series of exact conflicts.
But the relationship will always be the core of the show, you think?
Weisberg: I do think that. It's hard to imagine "The Americans" without the marriage being the center of it.
Fields: Right, but when it comes to jeopardy, I don't think we'd want to try to sustain "are they or aren’t they" [going to break up]. But as Joe said, marriage and family -- you could write that forever and there's always conflict and challenges there to explore.
In terms of discoveries, is there a ticking clock on how long their neighbor Stan Beeman can be in the dark, and how long the kids are in the dark as well? Do you feel like they're both things that you have to address sooner rather than later?
Fields: I think we'll find out as we go forward. And I think we'll let the characters tell us as we go forward, to a certain extent. For Stan, this hasn't been a season about him pursuing the people next door in any overt way, so there may be some room to explore that. We've never done him suspecting his neighbors in any real way, not since the pilot.
In terms of the kids, certainly Paige is headed into a world of adolescence, and that look at the end of the finale could suggest anything, any sort of suspicion about her parents. But I think the most important thing is that she suspects, as most adolescents do at some point, that her parents aren't what she thought they were. And that's something universal. Part of what's cool about what Joe created is all of these relationships wind up being allegories for universal experiences, just in this super-dramatized, charged prism of the Cold War.
Weisberg: I noticed this last week that one of our regular reviewers wrote that there's only so [long that Stan can't notice what the Jennings are up to]. Stan becomes stupid after a while if he's not onto them. And I sort of half agree with that but half disagree. We have control over doling out what we dole out to Stan before he becomes stupid, and we can dole it out at whatever pace we want.
And the thing that's, to me, really intriguing about Stan and Philip is their relationship. That's what's great to explore and that can go in so many different directions, all of them emotionally rich and interesting. It's a sort of a counterpoint to Stan's suspicion, and that gives it a lot of jeopardy and interest. [Stan and Philip's relationship is], I think, the other heart of the series, after the marriage. Now, we've got to not f*** it up by getting Stan super-suspicious of them too early, you know.
Or too late.
Weisberg: Or too late.
How much are these characters motivated by ideology and love of country and how much their own agendas, whether professional or personal? How much of it is "I love America" and "I love Russia"?
Weisberg: We talk about this all the time, because how much of politics and ideology is really psychology? And how much passion is really pathology? What are the lies we tell ourselves about what we want to get in life? And I think these are all things that these characters can explore. I don't think there are any simple answers to those questions for any real people.
Yeah, that's true, but these people have to fight and kill and possibly die.
Weisberg: That's right. Which means the stories they tell themselves have to be all the more passionate and convincing.
Fields: They're not self-aware people. So they're certainly examples of people who perceive of themselves as almost fully motivated by ideology. They are not aware of how motivated they are by the personal. But we can look at them and say these people are profoundly motivated by the personal as well.
Obviously we see that in the finale with Claudia taking out the CIA guy who killed Zhukov.
Weisberg: She certainly is aware of the personal there, right.
As I know you know, people love Claudia, and they really love the scenes of Margo and Keri this season. Please tell me that if Margo is available for Season 2, there'll be more of that.
Weisberg: We can promise that.
Excellent. I know she's signed on with another pilot, but -- well, honestly, I hope that one doesn't go forward.
Weisberg: We're secretly working to destroy that show.
Fields: In conjunction with the KGB.
I'm all for it. So the hope is to have her back if the other show doesn’t work out? Excellent.
[At this point, "The Americans" executive producer Graham Yost, who was also in the room, chimed in.]
Yost: We can take her back any time. You saw the finale. We've got it nicely set up.
I certainly would love to know more about Claudia's past and meet her friends and enemies.
Weisberg: It would be interesting to do her flashbacks, too. It's just the way she's told those stories [about her past] in the Reagan episode and in the finale. It's another thing we talk about with each other and in the writers' room: Here you are in 1981 in the United States of America -- life is good and it's easy for everybody. And these people, Philip and Elizabeth and Claudia, they did not grow up in an easy world. They grew up in a war with violence where daily survival was an issue.
Fields: And poor, so poor. Even after the war.
To survive in that world you had to be very, very, very strong.
Weisberg: Right, and it's easy through today's prism to think of the Western world as just a great place that's filled with riches. [Some] see it differently -- they see it as built on the backs of people who are exploited. And Philip and Elizabeth come much more out of that world. They lived it, it's not just ideology, it's not the ideology of somebody who grew up comfortable and read some books -- the struggle was theirs.
One of the ideas, at least at the start of the season, is that Philip has been more seduced by America or is more attuned to life here, whereas Elizabeth is not. But if you think about her actions, especially toward the end of the season, she sets her own agenda, she disobeys orders, she does her own thing. She's very proactive and independent. Isn't she almost as much of an American at this point as Philip? Is that an arc that you want to explore with her?
Weisberg: It's an interesting question. You could look at those actions as a type of Americanization or you could look at them as just a person who's committed to her cause and feels that she's being led astray by Claudia, by somebody who isn't as true as she is. It's the same with Philip.
There's an interpretation that he's been seduced by America, which I think is part of the story, but I think there's another interpretation that he's just doing his job differently. He's approaching it differently, because he's more comfortable here and that's a plus for him in doing his job. [The idea is that] he's a more flexible person and isn't as stuck in that poverty-ridden past. He's been able to move on, in a way, and she's still living in it. But I don't mean that as derogatory. In a way, [Elizabeth's outlook] makes her a better agent, because she's more faithful and true to the motherland.
Looking ahead, in terms of historic events, in late 1982 [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev dies.
Weisberg: I'm dying to get to Brezhnev dying.
Would you start off the next season with that or not?
Fields: It would be really good to ask us these questions at the end of next season [laughs].
But that's something that you hope to get to?
Fields: Oh, we talked a lot about that, and we've talked a lot about trying to use current events of [the early '80s] to provoke stories for them, the way the Reagan assassination attempt did.
Weisberg: Brezhnev is going to die, and the next two Soviet leaders are going to die both pretty quickly after that. So it is going to be a very tumultuous time for them.
So you're not going to jump in with that in Season 2?
Weisberg: I'm not sure. The way our timeframe is working, 1981 has gone slowly for us. We're not going to start [Season 2] with a big time jump. But then how the second season unfolds, we don't know.
Speaking of some of the other characters, is Richard Thomas going to be back for Season 2 as Agent Gaad?
Fields: We hope so. Richard's a longtime friend of mine and [I had emailed him to say I was going to come out to New York to work on this show. Then I emailed him as pre-production and production got underway] to say, "I'm not going to be able to see anybody until we're done." And then I emailed him and said, "Is there any chance you could do this?" And he's been just so wonderful, such a delight to work with, and he's also created that great character.
And you made Susan Misner (who plays Stan's wife, Sandra) a regular for Season 2, right? It seems like Stan is going to have some complications.
Weisberg: Stan's in tough times. Stan has gone down the rabbit hole.
Just going back to the learning process of this season, what would you do differently?
Fields: We worked very hard to get ahead and have some scripts ready before we started shooting, and we were able to go back and refine stuff but the deeper you get in [production], particularly in a first season, the more you're working on spinning plates and working on all sorts of different things. I think there were certain character stories I wish we had spent more time with. I wish we had spent more time with Elizabeth and Zhukov over the course of the season before he died.
Fields: And Gregory, for sure.
Weisberg: It's sort of a first-season problem, that if you want to have the impact of killing these people, it would have been nice to know them better first. But on the other hand, you get a lot of story impact out of the drama that happened there. It's a tough choice to make.
There were some comparisons to "Homeland" when "The Americans" came out. Your show's examined similar territory in terms of loyalty and betrayal. But to me the shows are doing pretty different things.
Fields: We're both fans of that show. We really like what they do. But the comparison -- yes, they both are in the world of spying, but beyond that, they seem to us like such different shows in terms of pace, in terms of plotting -- really, in terms of everything.
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings
Stills from "The Americans"
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings
Stills from "The Americans"
Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings
Stills from "The Americans"