When FX’s The Americans debuted, it was just another spy drama, living in the shadow of Homeland, and just another period piece, living in the shadow of Mad Men. After 13 episodes and increasingly strong critical reception, however, the show—about two undercover KGB spies working in Washington, D.C. in the early ’80s, as well as the FBI agents working to capture them—turned into one of the highlights of the TV season, an unexpectedly emotional and moving story of a marriage forged in convenience but made real by circumstance. Though they didn’t have time for a full, episode-by-episode walkthrough, creator and executive producer Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the season’s most prominent storylines.
The spy storyline
As the season progresses, Philip and Elizabeth become aware of an American program designed to put a missile defense system in space—an initiative that came to be known as the “Star Wars” program.
The A.V. Club: How did you decide to start the story when you do—not just the Cold War, but specifically in 1981?
Joe Weisberg: My initial inclination when I decided I wanted to set the pilot in the Cold War was to go ’70s, strictly because I loved the hair and the music. Probably the other way, probably the music best and then the hair. But I started thinking about Jimmy Carter—and I love Jimmy Carter too, actually—but it was hard to think of things getting too hot and everybody wanting to kill each other too much under Jimmy Carter. Then we started thinking about Ronald Reagan, and everything immediately clicked.
But of course the Cold War was, in retrospect, exciting and hot under Ronald Reagan. He was the most compelling and interesting president of my entire lifetime in so many ways, and to set a drama where the Soviets and the United States were at each others’ throats under Ronald Reagan seemed perfect. So to start the show almost immediately after he got elected seemed like the right thing to do. That’s how we ended up in 1981.
AVC: In your research, did you find that there were times in that period where it was really close to open aggression?
JW: I was born in 1965. I think Joel was too…
Joel Fields: I was born in September of 1964.
JW: So a lot of this is just stuff I remember, although we’ve been doing research, too. But all I have to do is think back and remember Reagan talking about the evil empire and things of that sort. Then when the [Berlin] Wall fell, a lot of things started coming out, and things started being written that were secret on the Soviet side because things were so withheld. One of my favorite things that came out was [that] the Soviet leadership, when Reagan spoke that way, thought that he was crazy. [Laughs.] They thought that for anybody to talk that way was so dangerous and insane that he must literally be mentally imbalanced. And so much escalated just through that type of misunderstanding that I don’t know if it brought us to the brink of war, but it certainly escalated things in a way that we may not even have understood at the time.
I don’t know that I would say that the research necessarily showed us at the brink of nuclear war, but there were things like that or the fact that when we were researching the episode about the Reagan assassination attempt, we discovered that [Secretary Of State] Al Haig, during that whole famous episode, actually got a copy of the nuclear football, which is something we hadn’t known before. Maybe still some steps away from war, but more dangerous than we had realized.
AVC: In that episode, one of the central conflicts is the difference between how someone steeped in the Soviet mindset, like Elizabeth is, perceives the assassination attempt, as opposed to someone like Philip. How did you get into those different perceptions of world events?
JF: I guess the most honest answer is, in collaborating, debating, discussing, and finding the stories, those things emerged. They emerged naturally. Joe created these two characters with two very different perspectives, and another very powerful element of the show is, as much as these are real, nuanced, living, and breathing characters, they can also function as allegories and themes for these geopolitical events that were happening around them. We were able—in every episode—to try to explore each of those facets simultaneously. Whenever we broke one of these spy stories, we would always stop and ask, “Is the personal story working? Is the marriage story working? Is it compelling, in and of itself, without any of the plot elements? Is it interesting us? Is it provoking interesting character stuff?” And if the answer was no, it didn’t matter how nail-biting a spy story we had cooked up. We would throw it out and start again.
AVC: How accurate is the spycraft? At an Emmy screening, you said, Joe, that sometimes you get some guff from your old CIA colleagues.
JW: I get both. The guff puts me in a bad mood; the compliments put me in a good mood. I just got one the other night from an old friend that I hadn’t heard from in years, this was after the Emmy screening, and he said that he and all his colleagues love the show and it’s the only spy show they watch. [Wryly.] Since that letter, I think it’s all incredibly accurate.
AVC: What were some things you turned up? You’ve got the umbrella assassination in episode two and the other various sorts of spy missions. How did you arrive at those individual stories?
JF: I’ll give you a little background on the process. There was a really fun day in our development when Joe sat down with the entire writing staff, with the actors, with our producing director, set in front of a whiteboard and gave a lesson in spycraft, and we learned about surveillance, we learned about counter-surveillance, we learned about disguises. We learned all sorts of… we learned about dead drops…
JW: How to kill with an umbrella.
JF: How to kill with an umbrella, he left out, actually. I think he was concerned that he didn’t know us all that well. Then we all went outside and got to put our lessons into practice, and we all walked around the stages in Brooklyn and practiced seeing if we were being followed without looking behind us and getting in cars and looking behind without moving our heads. It was really fun and also very interesting. Part of what’s been cool about the show has been that Joe has, as we say in the writers’ room sometimes, a spy card that allows us to explore stories, but the level of experience gives us, we hope, a level of verisimilitude.
JW: Another thing that I think is accurate about the show that you see less often in shows is that a lot of the time, resources, and effort of intelligence agencies is spent recruiting and running agents. That’s one of the main activities of a spy, and we do a lot of that on this show. When you think about Martha or Prince or Charles Duluth, these are all agents that Philip and Elizabeth, who are intelligence officers, have recruited. And they’ve recruited them in order to get secret intelligence, to get information, or sometimes, they are recruited for various more active measures as well. But that’s really a centerpiece of this show and one of the things that make it realistic: [It] shows the actual activities of intelligence officers.
JF: And fortunately also creates relationships.
AVC: The central spy story of the season deals with the so-called Star Wars program. How did you arrive at that as a MacGuffin?
JW: Do you remember?
JF: Oh, I’d like to remember something really clever for you.
JF: We kicked around a lot of things, and I think it just sort of sprung [up] in there in the Gregory episode as a little thing we wanted to drop into that briefcase…
JW: Well, it was in “The Clock,” too…
JF: Oh no, it was in “The Clock,” too. There was that little line in “The Clock” where they were talking about it at the end…
JW: That little thing on the bug.
JF: That little reference to what they heard on the bug. Just from what was historically accurate, what they might have been talking about, that just blossomed into the story, and then of course we sort of found ourselves struggling with how much do we want to expose of this story? We want it to stay accurate. For example, we all find ourselves referring to it as Star Wars, but it was not referred to as Star Wars in 1981, and we found ourselves often going through scripts and removing references to “Star Wars” and turning it into “Reagan’s ballistic missile program,” which is a much more clunky mouthful, but what they called it at the time. I guess generously we can say that it sprung out of our unconscious, and ungenerously we can say it just happened.
JW: We also talked a lot about, should we have Philip and Elizabeth as the spies who destroy Star Wars? Should we work on the secret history, and have it be that Star Wars really could have worked, but our guys prevent it from working? And we had some really compelling stories along those lines, but also we felt it was taking too much liberty with the history. Even though it would be a lot of fun and make our heroes very heroic, at least to Moscow, it would warp our sense of reality for the show a little too much.
AVC: What were some places where you pushed the limits of what might have actually happened, or where things are a little smoothed-over for fiction’s purposes?
JW: Well, the Reagan episode is another interesting question. What’s the prime thing illegals did throughout the world, particularly Western Europe? I don’t think that history has recorded how much they did in the United States. I don’t think we know the answer to this, but in Western Europe, illegals were there in large part to cache weapons and to prepare for world warfare in case another world war broke out. So in the Reagan episode when Philip and Elizabeth are digging up a cache of weapons and preparing to assassinate foreign leaders, that was one of the prime directives of KGB illegals. Going so far as to have them digging up a cache of weapons and getting ready to blow Caspar Weinberger’s head off, there’s no evidence that an illegal ever did that in history. That’s invented, but hopefully we made it feel real and plausible in the circumstances of that story.
JF: Our test seems to be, “Is it possible that this might have happened?”
The Jennings marriage
Philip and Elizabeth renew their fake commitment to each other… then break up… then renew their commitment… then break up… and finally reunite (seemingly for good) in the season finale. Both also have other lovers throughout the season.
AVC: It seems as though everything on the show ultimately gets tied back into this marriage. How much of a directive was that for you in breaking story?
JF: It was an absolute directive. It was the beginning, middle, and end of what was to be explored in this season.
AVC: How did that idea arise, making this huge espionage story be boiled down to this one marriage?
JF: It seems as though from the beginning, if it was going to be a show with heart and a show that people cared about, then it was the relationship between this couple that was going to provide that. I don’t think there was any interest on anybody’s part in just doing a spy show. Spy shows are a dime a dozen, as are cop shows, doctor shows, and everything else, but the thing that was compelling about it was that it was about a married couple with kids. It was about a family.
Something happened very early on, we had an episode, and we sent it in to the network, and like all other episodes, Philip and Elizabeth are in a lot of danger of getting killed in complex operations. This could happen, that could happen, and one of the executives at the network said, “Wow, this is exactly what happened with me and my wife last week!” What he meant was that the struggle that Philip and Elizabeth had in their relationship as they went through this operation really resonated with him as something that he and his wife had gone through. And we thought, “That’s it. That’s exactly the point of the show.” If you’re married or you’re in a relationship, you deal with certain types of problems that everybody else does. The fact that the job may take Philip and Elizabeth to crazy places while they deal with these troubles may be why they have a TV show about them, and there’s no TV show about me and my wife, for example. But making it a relatable marriage, that was really the hook for the show.
AVC: One of the criticisms of the season is that there’s been a lot of twists and turns in Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. How much did you struggle with balancing out their struggle to stay together without having too many reversals?
JF: You never want to dismiss or be defensive of criticisms because everybody feels what they feel, and I think those are valid criticisms. I think when we started reading those criticisms, we hadn’t seen it that way. We thought Philip and Elizabeth struggle to figure out if they were going to make it as a couple or not, and it seemed natural to us that there would be a back and forth in that. Now I’m not saying that’s right. That was our perception, and then we saw, “Oh, some people are seeing that as too much of a back and forth.”
AVC: Is that a thing that you’ll consider heading into season two, or do you think that marriage is this constant negotiation between two states?
JF: [Chuckles.] Nice of you to put it that way, particularly in light of the show. To build on what Joe was saying and to be candid about the process, there were elements of these storylines, both plot-wise and character-wise, that were devised at the beginning and played out over the course of the season, and I think ultimately the Philip and Elizabeth relationship for us, grew organically. Even though there were things that we had planned, ultimately they fell somewhat by the wayside as the relationship unfolded for us, creatively.
In terms of the specific question with regard to next season, I think what we know is that we don’t want to tread over the same territory again because that would be boring, but marriage is a constant exploration, and these are two very complicated characters who are trying to engage in a relationship, and that’s always dramatically interesting, to us at least, but we don’t want it to feel repetitive. It’s something we’ll continue to be aware of, and maybe now after reading some of these thoughts from others, be even more aware of.
AVC: What were some of those ideas that ultimately fell by the wayside as you were writing out the season?
JF: I think we expected Philip and Elizabeth to get back together sooner, to be honest. I don’t think we expected that separation to last that long. And frankly, I think when we conceived of the separation, we were a little nervous that somehow it might put them in a position where they were less actively involved with one another. Ironically what we found, as we’ve sometimes seen among other real-life separated couples, a lot of the tension melted away, and they were able to get to know each other again without the pressure of being married. It allowed them to see each other in a different light.
AVC: Did you ever toy with them staying separated at the end of the season?
JW: We did. I don’t think we ever thought that they would stay separated forever or for a super long time, but one possibility was going into next season with them not back together yet.
AVC: There’s a lot of sex in this series. How realistic is that to how these people would have done their jobs?
JW: One of the fascinating things about KGB spycraft, and one of the ways in which it differs from, for example, CIA spycraft, is the KGB always explicitly encouraged its officers—both its illegals and mainstream officers that worked out of the embassies—to use sex as a tool to manipulate people and to gather intelligence. In a theoretical way, there’s a sort of communist theology that [have] inhibitions and prudishness about sex as a bourgeoisie idea, and the KGB in fact used this and said to its officers, “We shouldn’t be beholden to these bourgeoisie ideals that you can’t use sex.” Depending on how you want to look at it, that was an excuse for being exploitative of its officers, or you can think of it however you want. But the fact is that KGB officers were both allowed and encouraged to use sex in this way. The most shocking example you heard us refer to at the screening, where they had illegals who actually married women [illegals in Western Europe were encouraged to marry secretaries who worked in government offices], but there was also much more casual sex.
There’s a very famous story of a British guy, I think it was a former policeman. He was turned into a sort of gigolo by the KGB and slept with many, many women in pursuit of their secrets. More often, the KGB used its own Russian officers in this way. In reality, as we try to show it on the TV show, I think the case with using Martha is very realistic, and the way it’s shown dramatically has a feeling of realism. Where we began the season with Annalise, that may have been more of a TV version of it, for some fun, but who’s to say?
AVC: How do you use sex as a storytelling tool in a series like this? Because sex is something that TV increasingly shies away from. It’s often used as for its juvenile, lizard-brain appeal.
JW: Not to keep talking about Martha, but that’s what I love about the Martha storyline: It’s something other than just the sex being used for fun and thrills. Although it’s being used horribly and cruelly, there’s nothing gratuitous about it.
JF: We hope the same is the case for the Stan/Nina stuff. That there, the inverse story is played out. He is truly sincere in his own mind; he’s attracted to her, she’s attracted to him, he’s a powerful guy, he saved her life. But you don’t have to step back too many paces to see it the way Arkady sees it, which is this guy took advantage of her and was using her. It’s like a prism. It just depends which way you hold it to the light and it looks differently.
JW: On the Martha stuff, obviously it’s not just a story about sex, but a story about love. It’s been interesting to see people’s reaction to that. They’re so much angrier at Philip/Clark and what he’s doing than they seem to be at any of the killings that Philip or Elizabeth have done over the course of the season. There’s a sense of outrage over that particular cruelty. I’m not disagreeing with that. I just think it’s interesting to note that breaking a woman’s heart in that way and screwing with her sense of reality is taken to be an act of immeasurable cruelty, almost worse than taking a person’s life.
JF: In a strange way, we’ve talked about this in the past, Joe, that the murders, one could argue, were a necessity. When Elizabeth killed that security guard, it was essentially “kill or be killed,” although that guy didn’t know it. She gave that guy every opportunity to get back in his car and drive away, and it was only when he went for that radio that she made the decision that had to be made to protect her cover, her husband’s cover, her family, and the KGB assets in D.C. But with Martha, they’re making a calculated choice to manipulate her, to dig deeper into the FBI counterintelligence department.
AVC: There’s really an element of calculation, of people seeing what they can talk someone else into or what they can get over on somebody else, in all of the relationships on this show, especially the romantic ones. Is that how you view the world, or is that a storytelling tool?
JW: It’s certainly how I view espionage.
JF: Again, we talk about that a lot as we discuss what we want to accomplish in the show. We talk about identity, individual identity. Who are we? Is it how we’re perceived? Is it how we perceive ourselves? Is it the sum total of our actions? Who are we in relationships, and what is a relationship? What is trust? What is the balance between defending ourselves from being hurt— which the more one does, the more one must live alone—or opening ourselves up to a relationship—which is gratifying, but exposes us to pain? That happens in a small way every day when you navigate your relationships. In a bigger way every day if you’re navigating a family and a marriage, and wow, it happens in a huge way if you’re a spy behind enemy lines and you can tell the truth to nobody about who you are. One misstep means you literally get killed.
AVC: You seem to use the Beeman marriage as sort of a mirror to what Philip and Elizabeth are going through. Was that intentional?
JW: Yeah, that was certainly part of the idea of having two married couples across the street from each other, that they’d be able mirror each other. I don’t think that we knew starting out exactly how that mirror would function, and I still don’t think we know going forward all the possibilities of how that mirror could function, but I think it’s set up to be a pretty good mirror. I think that Stan/Nina also functions as a complicated mirror, too.
JF: And Clark/Martha, too!
AVC: You’ve also got the kids there. They’re an important part of the show, but they’re also more backgrounded this season. Do you see their role becoming more important moving forward?
JF: We hope so. We have such a terrific cast. There’s Keri [Russell, playing Elizabeth] and Matthew [Rhys, playing Philip], and of course, Noah [Emmerich, playing Stan], but you go straight down the line, and we’re blessed with two phenomenal young actors in these roles, so we certainly have the opportunity to do it. And exploring family is something we’ve talked a lot about. Having dug so deep into marriage this season, expanding the circle out towards the kids and the family seems like an interesting vein to tap.
AVC: What was the casting process like on this show?
JW: The pilot casting was there were a lot of good people involved. Gavin O’Connor, who directed the pilot, is a genius at casting. And a lot of great people at the networks and at DreamWorks, all sorts of actual casting directors themselves helped cast for the pilot, and then when we started series, just continued going.
AVC: Were there any particular parts that you thought were going to be hard to fill and then you found the perfect actor for that part?
JW: All of ’em!
JF: Yeah, all of ’em. But imagine writing a character and then turning to the casting department and saying, “Okay, we need a beautiful, early/mid-20s actress who can play at all levels probably a lot of scenes with Noah Emmerich, so she’s got to have a really strong training in classical acting to be able to hit the ball back to an actor of that caliber. She should be attractive, but also we need her to seem intelligent. She should be strong. And by the way, she needs to be fluent in Russian.” [Laughs.] We got lucky. Very lucky.
AVC: So many of these serialized dramas use teenage girls as a mirror for their own parents’ flaws. As a show that has that element within it, do you have any idea why that might be the case?
JF: [Beat.] Because it’s true in life? [Laughs.]
I’m not joking! Really, I think that may be the case because on the one hand, our children mirror our flaws, and on the other hand, there comes this point right in those years where they’re heading out to become their own people. I’m amazed [by] my own children who I love dearly, but from the first moments you realize they have their own personalities, it’s an incredible thing to experience, and yet you also live in some level of denial of it. Yet when they become teenagers, you know they’re going to set out on their own. One of the things we talked about was there’s a moment for every teenager where they cross a threshold and start to question that younger perception, that idealized perception of their parents that they’ve always had, and we’re starting to explore that moment for Paige, dramatically compounded by the fact that while every ordinary teenager thinks that their parents have been lying about who they really are on some level, Philip and Elizabeth really have been in the biggest way imaginable.
AVC: You’ve talked so often, Joe, about the speech that CIA agents give their kids announcing their true occupation. Is there a possible imagined version of that speech that you think Philip and Elizabeth could give their children, or do you think the KGB thing would just be too much?
JW: The real illegals—there was an idea that their covers weren’t good enough, their legends weren’t good enough to survive a government security check, so if the real illegals wanted to join the defense department or an intelligence agency of a foreign government, it wouldn’t be possible.
But the kids of real illegals might be able to get through a security check like that, so having a real illegal eventually tell their kids who they were and recruit them into the service was one of the goals for [them]. I don’t know that that’s a direction that we might want to go, that it might work for our story or it might not, but I think that there could be direction where I could see that talk happening. I could see other reasons why Philip and Elizabeth might want to do anything to avoid that talk. I’m not sure.
AVC: One of the other storylines you got criticism for was when the two kids are at the mall and they hitchhike back home. Where did that story arise from?
JF: I’m not remembering the genesis. I know we wanted to explore the question of how much of their parents did the kids have in them without knowing it, and what would happen if something went wrong with the parents in a world without cell phones, without communication. But I don’t remember the specific genesis.
JW: We read the writing on the show very, very closely. We read a lot of it, and it’s a very interesting thing. It’s an interesting thing to follow and try to decide what we were after because yeah, we got a lot of criticism for that and also a lot of people that loved it. And you have other stories where there doesn’t seem [to be] much criticism, and again, you’re wondering what you’re trying to do. Are you just trying to write stories everybody will love? I guess that would be ideal. How do you feel about a story like that, that had a lot of positive reactions but also a fair amount of negative? I’m torn on that story myself. I always had some reservations about it, but I’ve always loved that final piece where he pees his pants and Paige takes him down to the laundry room to wash his pants for him; I’m so moved by that. I also love when he cracks the guy with a beer bottle—you can see his father in him. I loved that.
JF: That whole episode had some fabulous elements and some things that we really struggled with. It just did.
AVC: Were there other episodes like that, where you felt like things came together really well, or you had some trouble getting the stories together?
JW: Joel’s going to start talking about episode 110…
JF: [Laughs.] Or as Todd would know it, 11. The numbering system is a little off.
I don’t know. It’s very easy from the outside to imagine shows, scripts, spring to life in their perfect form from writers’ heads, but the reality is, it’s a struggle. It’s a hard struggle; it starts with discussion, debate. One hopes for inspiration. We work consciously, we work subconsciously, we work individually, we work collectively—
JW: We work when asleep!
JF: We do! We work when asleep. Ideas come to us when we finally get a free moment and we stop thinking about it. We call each other, email each other at odd hours. It’d be great to live in the world of being able to deliver a platonic ideal of the series, but one of the great and terrible things about series television is that once that start gun is fired and you’re moving toward production, even if a hurricane hits, you’re still moving toward production, as we found out this year.
What that means is you do the best you can, you explore the best you can, and you’re putting on a show. It forces you into decisions, and ultimately, we feel really good about how the season turned out. If we could do it all over again, there’s a lot of stuff we might do differently, but then there’s a lot of stuff that might not come out the same. Who’s to say if we went back and corrected all our perceived mistakes of the season, that it would be less interesting or somehow it wouldn’t end up more polished? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. All we know is that we hope that we can make it more interesting next season and the season after that. We’ll start with trying to make it more interesting for us. We’re the first audience members. We hope people will also enjoy it.
AVC: How much did Hurricane Sandy affect your production and writing schedules?
JF: We wish it had affected our post-production schedule more. It impacted our production schedule, but we didn’t change our air-date schedule. We pretty much lost our production office. It was flooded up to the desktops, and we were out of there. I think we didn’t get back until February.
JW: And it still smells.
JF: It still smells kind of musty, even though they did a lot of work. And the sets were hit as well. It had just been almost completed. We had a fair amount of water damage, so for the first time in my career, we were trying to figure out how to move shooting scenes off of the standing sets. Absolutely the most expensive way to do it, but it was the only way to keep to schedule. The challenge became, it did set us behind script-wise because we were so focused on trying to pick ourselves up from the hurricane. Because the air date remained immutable, rightfully so, we got this plum spot of premièring the week after American Horror Story went off the air. It was a great slot to have, but it meant that we didn’t have much flexibility in our post turnaround, which just translated into not much sleep. And no weekends.
AVC: So you’re glad to be done.
JF: To be perfectly honest, we wish it felt more like we were done. We were just talking about that. The finale aired last night—
JW: When are we done?!
JF: [Laughs.] —and we were telling ourselves this story that we’d be done by two weeks ago, then it was one week ago, then it was this week. Now we’re sitting here surrounded by résumés, figuring out practical budget and staff stuff for next season. But it’s great to have a next season to think about, and we look forward to going home soon.
AVC: One thing that worked really well this season was the story of Gregory and Elizabeth. How did you develop that?
JW: I talked about some things coming into the season. When you develop the show, you do a lot of work developing ideas and thoughts and other characters and potential plots and storylines, and a lot of it just gets thrown out or you forget about it, but some things stick. I had a whole list of agents for Philip and Elizabeth that they either had recruited through the years or agents they might want to recruit at some point in the series, and one of the ones that I think was compelling was Gregory. I don’t know when or where I thought of him, but I thought that would really be a great character for Elizabeth to have recruited right after she came to America. That was just something that came along through the development process. Joel, when you were writing that script, I think that expanded to include the idea of the romance.
JF: I think that it was a true relationship; that was the thing that evolved. It was the one person that she could be honest with, and he had that kind of ’70s idealism where they had this honest communication. This woman, who had been unable to be honest with her husband, could be honest with this man that she had recruited. It became a way for her character to be humanized and softened, and that evolved.
AVC: Philip has the same situation with his lover, Irina, from Russia. Do you want to return to that relationship? You suggest that his potential son with Irina does not exist, but did you leave yourself just enough room to suggest that he does if you decide that you want him to?
JF: Or does he? [Laughs.] In fact, there was a line in the script that took it slightly over to the other side and made it seem like he did exist. We wrote it, we shot it, and we decided to be on the other side of vague. It was vague, but yes, there’s enough room either way.
JW: When that picture of that woman was ripped up in the pilot, if you had asked then, I would have said, “That’s not even a character. We’ll never hear from that woman again,” and she certainly showed up again in episode seven. And the picture got replaced in the pilot. Or did it?
JF: No, I don’t think we replaced it in the pilot. And… no promises, but she’s not dead.
AVC: That episode, “Duty And Honor,” was written by Joshua Brand, who has had a storied TV career. What does he bring to your show?
JW: I think of it as having Michael Jordan on your writing staff. [Laughs.]
JF: We call him Lord Brand. [Laughs.] Josh is a long-time personal friend of mine and writing partner of mine over the years. We had written pilots together, written a movie together, been friends. My coming into The Americans happened very quickly, and I actually had had, I think, breakfast scheduled with Josh, and we were supposed to talk about a pilot we were considering taking out to pitch. I showed up at breakfast, and I said, “We’re not going to talk about the pilot. I want to talk to you about something else.”
JF: “I know it’s crazy, I know you’ve never gone on someone else’s show. But I also know that your wife loves New York and your kids are on the East Coast and we have fun together… wouldja, couldja, maybe?” And we just feel so lucky to have Josh. He’s great.
The FBI Office
Throughout the season, Stan and his FBI colleagues get closer and closer to a mysterious couple who seem to be KGB illegals.
AVC: You built this workplace drama within your show. How did that develop as time went on?
JF: Thank you for noticing that. We talk a lot about it. In [Richard Thomas’ Agent] Gaad, we struggled a lot with how do we create a character in the boss who isn’t the stock FBI boss guy, and how do we do it in the writing? How do we do it in the casting? And you meet these people. They do come in all shapes, forms, and, most importantly, styles and personalities. We had particular fun with it where Martha got to make her comments about sexism, and we got to see in two quick strokes, two totally different sides of Frank Gaad, one as he did the absolute human-resources trained, 1981 critique of the behavior in the office, and then, as soon as she walked away, rolled his eyes at what they have to put up with now.
AVC: Was it complicated to build all those extra relationships?
JW: Yes, and I think we feel that we want to do a lot more of that. We’re starting to look at next season, thinking, “How can we do more and even more effectively?” The more we can do, the more we can add to them, the more we can take these landscapes and fill them out, and have the greatest and richest world possible.
AVC: How do you see the character of Stan fitting into this world? At first it just seems like he’s going to be the guy who could learn the secret, and then he becomes so much more.
JW: He’s as central to the show as Philip and Elizabeth, without a doubt. He’s the third leg of the three-legged chair, I think.
JF: It’s no longer about will he or won’t he find out. It’s really about the relationship.
AVC: How did you decide to make the Nina/Stan relationship proceed like that? Was that always in the plans?
JW: It was. It was one of those pieces that we did plan out early. A lot of things like that fall apart, fall apart and rebuild themselves, or the storylines start to have a mind of their own, but that was one that was planned out early.
JF: Yeah, the whole Nina story sort of stuck. As did the whole Martha story. But a lot else changed along the way.
JW: I remember that first scene of Stan and Nina, when he blackmailed/recruited her at the fruit stand; it was all sort of written there.
JF: I remember talking about that storyline with you at my house in L.A. before we even came back to New York, in the very early days. On the other hand, the tough—and really, what ended up for us being a shocking—decision, for Amador [Stan’s partner] to die, came up in the writers’ room as a total surprise. When it bubbled forth, it got a collective gasp from some of the writers. It was just one of those unexpected things. And then once it was out of the bottle, it couldn’t be stuffed back in, as much as, maybe because we loved Max Hernández as an actor so much, we loved what he brought to the role, it was such an unimaginable thing to do, once we thought of it, we sort of had to do it.
AVC: Are you going to get more into Stan’s backstory in the future?
JF: We are. We actually wrote a whole story. We didn’t actually write the script, we wrote the episode in pretty extensive outline that delved into that backstory this season, and then ultimately, for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t the time to do it. But we’re looking forward to when the moment is right.
AVC: Did you do a lot of research about the FBI during that period?
JW: I don’t know about a lot. I knew a little bit about it, and I did a little bit of research. It was an interesting time, in terms of the racial dynamic and a lot of what came out of that, and some of that with Amador and what it was like to work there at the time. But not a lot of that.
AVC: You glanced at, but didn’t really delve into, racial politics in the United States, how the KGB would exploit that and how it might play out in a setting like the FBI office. How did that enter the story?
JW: I was always fascinated by the Soviet use of American racism as a propaganda tool. The Soviet government and the Soviet propaganda machine was always trying to show the Soviet people evidence of how America treated black people to say, “Hey, America sucks, and we’re great!” This fostered all kinds of different perceptions and misperceptions among the Soviet populace and also among the Soviet propagandists themselves who believed a lot of their own propaganda. For example, in the KGB there was often a sense that people in the civil rights movement, and blacks in particular, might be susceptible to recruitment because of the ways that they were victims of injustice in America. Some of that was where the idea for the Gregory character came from.
AVC: How did you arrive at the character of Grannie?
JF: It’s funny, we’ve been referring to her as Grannie for so long, but somehow, in the last episodes I feel as though we’ve become obligated to refer to her as Claudia. It’s an interesting transition. Maybe it’s just personal, or maybe it’s because we took her in this new direction in that final episode. Once you discovered that she was actually, in her own way, like Coach Wooden—[Laughs.] Tough as nails, with her own set of rules, but really out for her team to win, and just wanted her players to get out of their own damn way—she became Claudia.
JW: We get a lot of great notes from our network. We are not in a situation where we dread our network notes. We actually look forward to our network notes, because they make our scripts better and our work a lot better, and if I recall correctly, one of our network notes was, “What about a handler?”
JF: Yup. And I think that was [FX president] John Landgraf. “What about a handler? What about Margo Martindale?”
JF: So there you go. Character payment to John Landgraf. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you hope to see more of her in the next season? Margo Martindale has some other commitments.
JF: Yeah, well, there’s another character who ain’t dead. We really love that character, and we really love that actress, and we sure hope so.
AVC: As you look over the season, do each of you have an episode that stands above the others? Do you have one that doesn’t quite work as well?
JW: I’ll start with the one that was less than, and then I’ll end on a high note. I sometimes think the one with the assassin [“Mutually Assured Destruction”] had a tone that had a little goofiness to it, and it came from a place where we wanted to do something a little more fun, and although I think there are ways to have fun in this show, as we were still finding our way in the first season it felt a little tonally different from what really works for us. So that’s one that I’d maybe do a little differently the second time around.
I think it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’m a little partial to the episode where Gregory dies [“Only You”]. There are a lot of things about it that I found particularly moving. It’s not the only one, but it’s an episode that made me cry. I’m not the easiest cry, but I cried at that one. There was something about the Philip and Elizabeth and Gregory in that safe house before Gregory goes off and right after that where Philip and Elizabeth look at each other and across the street at each other in their cars without saying anything. I just found it a very moving episode, and I’m partial to it.
JF: I could look at many of them and see things we would have done differently. I agree with Joe that episode eight, the assassin, that certainly could have been better grounded, though I think our marriage story was strong there. That powerful, gosh, that Philip and Elizabeth moment at the end where she confronts him about Irina, and he says, “I love you,” and she says, “Love. Huh.” Ah. What she gave us in that “Huh,” was just wrenching to me, and when Philip finally said, “You know what? You don’t want to be married to me? I don’t even think the center would care anymore.” That broke my heart yet in an episode where we could have done the spy story better.
For me, if I had to pick one as a do-over, I think it would be episode 11 [“Covert War”], as Joe knows. Where Zhukov gets assassinated. In retrospect, I wish we had doled out that relationship over more time. I wish we had used it as a way of playing out Elizabeth’s story where it was a real father figure relationship. Again, a good episode with great moments, and I think there were some plot stuff we could have done better there. Not sure why you kidnap a guy to kill him. Ah, things we could have done better there.
As for favorites, yeah, Gregory dying. I felt very good about the finale [“The Colonel”], too, because I felt good that we resisted temptation. I feel like we did what we set out to do there, the right amount, emotionally. The wedding [“The Oath”], I felt very emotional about, and “Gregory,” the episode where we met him. Tommy Schlamme directed that episode. Very powerful.
AVC: Where are you in the season-two process? Do you even have any idea what the story looks like?
JW: I wouldn’t say the story. We’re starting a little bit to think about the general ideas of what we want to explore. That’s where we’re at. And a little bit on the budget. [Laughs.]