Last night, FX’s Cold War-era drama The Americans aired its season three debut, with a crackling, action-packed opening sequence that had us exclaiming “holy shit!” as the intro credits rolled. Yet, true to the show’s form, this episode didn’t need fistfights and crashing motorcycles to provide engaging drama; exploring the family life of Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) was just as entertaining.
FX’s espionage thriller, Cold War history and family drama, picked up where season two left off, with the kids of playing an increasing role in the show. In the premiere, the USSR turns up the pressure on Philip and Elizabeth to break their cover to their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), then turn her into an undercover spy as well.
It’s a plot twist that can seem a little far out until you find the KGB actually embarked on a similar plan, according to The Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. We caught up with the two to ask them about that piece of Cold War history, where fiction meets reality on the show, and what inspires them as they craft characters and plots. But we began with the two men, who are usually interviewed jointly, diving right into them explaining how they’re used to being quoted interchangeably—and the odd situation that once ensued.
Has that ever backfired—one person being quoted for what the other said?
Fields: The only time it didn’t work for me was when Joe made the statement that, “We want you to root for the KGB,” and I said, “No, I don’t think that’s exclusively the case, after all we have these FBI characters, and this story is about them too.” Well, then there were a series of articles about how I said that I wanted people to root for the KGB and there was even an online petition that was started to boycott Rizzoli and Isles, which is a show I had worked on three years prior.
Weisberg: And then [Vladimir] Putin sent you a hundred-thousand-dollar watch.
Fields: Putin sent me a watch and a very nice bouquet.
Do you still want the audience to root for the KGB, Joe? Do you two disagree often in your vision of the show?
Weisberg: I think that was actually the last time we disagreed on anything. Whether or not we still disagree, you’re the first person to ask us that. My opinion is that Joel has now come around to my way of thinking, but I think he’s going to deny it.
Fields: It’s unfair to put it like that, because if I say I’ve come around to your way of thinking you win, Joe, and if I say I disagree, then you win. He’s a very wily guy.
First of all I want to congratulate you, Jeremy, we’re so used to getting all the same questions. No one’s asked us that and it’s going to start a fight between us that destroys the show! [Laughs] There are two good questions there. One has to do with where we stand on Joe’s KGB point, which conceptually I’m going to throw back at you, Joe. I think you meant your statement in an inflammatory and kind of a fun way. I don’t think you meant that the way the press took it. I don’t think you meant that we exclusively want you to root for the KGB and support a return to totalitarian socialism in the Soviet Union.
Weisberg: I didn’t say we support a return to totalitarian socialism in the KGB…
Fields: I think that’s the way those who wanted to boycott Rizolli and Isles took it.
Weisberg: That is probably true.
Fields: But to the greater question about our disagreements, we’ve been asked a few times, not by members of the press, but by people who do what we do who we know what happens when we disagree. The truth is when we really disagree on something creative it’s a sign to us that we haven’t found the right thing yet. And we walk and talk and debate internally, sometimes it takes awhile, sometimes it goes fast, but I think when we’re not in sync it’s just a sign that we’re not there yet.
Your main characters Elizabeth and Philip disagree about how to raise their kids, especially when it comes to instilling in them a devotion to the Soviet cause, of which Elizabeth has always seemed more committed. Do you ever find yourself siding with one character more than the other?
Weisberg: I’ll tell you, I feel like I very much see the world through Philip and Elizabeth’s eyes, but I feel that, I get very defensive for Elizabeth. I feel that more people have trouble understanding her point of view and seeing things in her way. It’s very easy for me to feel that I have to defend her or explain her point of view. It upsets me. I get defensive.
In the season three premiere you see Elizabeth developing her daughter like she would any other source to flip them to the KGB’s side; she takes a more active role in Paige’s life to build trust. It puts Philip off, and in that moment he felt like the audience stand-in. I sided with him in their disagreement.
Weisberg: See, that made me defensive when you said that.
Fields: As the season unfolds it’s possible that you may see things, that you may feel more from Elizabeth’s point of view, but you’re right, in that case it’s very challenging as an American in the audience to see things that way.
Weisberg: There’s no question that what you just said is built into the show and the story, so when I said defensive I’m almost kidding and I almost halfway mean it. It’s part of Elizabeth’s cross to bear that she’s going to be misunderstood to some degree, and as Joel said, part of that is because we’re Americans. So if Philip and Elizabeth were Americans it might be easier for us to understand her wanting her daughter to join the CIA in defense of our cause.
Fields: Right. And take it one step further. First season we did an exercise that we did a bit second season and now I think we just do it instinctively. We would take a moment and reimagine the entire thing as if the characters were deep-cover CIA agents at the height of the Cold War in Moscow. And we would ask ourselves would these people deeply embedded in the USSR fighting for freedom and the American Way and what they would see as the liberation of the oppressed Soviet people: Would they do the things our characters are doing?
In that light, the whole story with Paige might feel quite different, right? Imagine these two CIA operatives in Moscow and now they’ve been approached and told, look, your child has an instinct for freedom, seems to intuitively be gravitating towards these causes of liberty, and if they did a background check on her she could go right into the KGB and the Politbureau, she could do anything.
Weisberg: She could turn this country around.
Fields: She could turn this country around. What American who had devoted their life to the CIA and had sacrificed everything to go undercover permanently for the cause of freedom, who wouldn’t say yes to that? Who wouldn’t want their child…
Weisberg: Well, the parents are worried. But that’s understandable too.
Fields: That’s understandable too. But it’s certainly understandable that you would want your child to fight for freedom under those circumstances so if you just accept that these people believe in their cause the rest follows.
That’s the way it is in war, unfortunately. It’s very easy for any of us on any side to think that the other side’s position is impossible, monstrous, outrageous; that they should send their children in to fight for that cause. That’s our failure to see the humanity in the other side of these battles. However awful these battles are, they’re with humans, not monsters.
Does my aversion to Elizabeth come partially because our American culture is so ingrained in me? You have a character attending self-help classes—specifically the Erhard Seminars Training (EST) that was popular in that time. The early 1980s were such a fertile ground for the growth of self-help. It taught people to really look inward and focus on yourself. If we as a culture absorbed that message during the last 30 years even a little bit, then Elizabeth fighting for something way bigger to herself seems even more foreign to an audience today.
Fields: That’s right. Yup.
What motivated you to include the storyline about self-help?
Weisberg: We talk about our characters all the time on the scale of who’s the least self-aware. Sometimes depending on where we are in our overall arcs for all of them we rank them. They’re not a self-aware bunch. I think that’s true for a lot of characters in drama because people who are not self-aware are often more real and more compelling. If you do shows about really self-aware characters it can work, but sometimes, they’re not the best characters for drama.
Our guys are killing people and doing a lot of really horrible things that a lot of self-aware people might not do, and we’re sort of following their adventures.
The question of Philip becoming a little more self aware, and the question of will they develop in certain ways and will they come to know themselves a little better and how will that affect them and their family is a fundamental question of the show. So injecting this outside force of EST in to see whether or not it will shake them a little bit in that way was the motivation.
Fields: I also want to respond to this interesting idea you raise that turning one’s self over to a cause would be foreign, particularly in light of the people who have come of age in the era of EST. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. But I also think, as Joe says, you have to remember these are very unevolved, unaware characters.
There are many stages to helping the world. I think there’s an argument to be made that the way Elizabeth has turned herself over to a cause is not exactly constructive. There’s a lot of damage being done. The obsession with self that came out of the ‘70s and ‘80s led to Gordon Gecko and a certain kind of self-obsession. But there may be, in people who can truly reflect on themselves, their own enlightened self image and what’s best for themselves, well that may involve ultimately giving one’s self over to something greater too.
Weisberg: And to connect it with America is right. The journey of EST itself is such a really really interesting journey. EST didn’t last too much beyond where we’re at now, but it did last somewhat beyond, and then kind of turned into the Forum, which is a very different but connected creature and so as our characters struggle with these questions of themselves so did this group and so does the country, as you point out.
You guys have always said The Americans is as much about marriage as it is about the Cold War. The first two seasons were very much about Philip and Elizabeth making their relationship with each other work, and now their approach to parenting will be more integral. They seem to differ on approach right now, will that strain a relationship that has already been rocky?
Weisberg: That’s the whole idea. We feel we hit the sweet spot of the show when the problems they’re having are they same problems they or any of us could be having without any espionage; without any violence or without any spying or killing or anything like that. So what you said is exactly right. Most marriages have disagreements or misalignments about how to raise the kids. Sometimes it’s about fundamental issues about how to raise them and you get into questions then about can a marriage work in those circumstances? A lot of times the answer is yes, but it can be very complicated about how do you do it. That’s what we’re exploring this season.
Fields: The first season we really explored a fake marriage and can it become real, and the second season was about them finding their equilibrium in a way as a newly committed couple that had been married for many years, but married in a new way now. This season explores that question Joe was talking about. If you truly love your partner and if you’re truly committed to your marriage, how do you handle a fundamental disagreement about the most important thing in your life?
How much do you draw on personal experience?
Fields: That’s classified.
I expected that answer.
Fields: It’s funny, I think some comment I made about marriage from season one that was quoted in The New York Times, and my wife totally understood it and had no problem with it but she kept being approached by people who kept saying, “I’m so sorry Joel said that about marriage.” She kept having to say, “What are you talking about?”
No, we have a lot of writers and a lot of people working on the show. Obviously all of us together, you know, you can’t write without drawing on personal experience but… God knows nobody will ever draw a line straight to anybody’s exact experience.
We give a speech at the beginning of every year in the writer’s room, even when most people are coming back, where we say that what’s said in the writer’s room as we explore creatively is treated the way a therapy session would be treated. It’s private, not to be repeated outside the room to anybody. That fosters an environment, we hope, where people can bring their personal stories and experiences and feelings to the creative process. We draw on all of it. Our own included.
Weisberg: We really don’t have one of those rooms where people are like pouring out their heart-wrenching stories.
Fields: No, it’s more people telling their embarrassing ones.
Are there books or films that inspired you guys as you work on the show?
Fields: Too many things to name. But I will say I’ve always I’ve always hoped the show could in a way have a Doctor Zhivago feel to it. It’s about people fighting through a long, difficult, painful war. It’s about love, romance, and love during time of war. If we could find a way for the show to have that kind of epic sweep of love during wartime we would have really done something beautiful.
I’m really talking about the book and not the movie. It’s not that I don’t like the movie. The movie because it’s visual and done with such an epic visual sweep is something very different from what we would be aspiring to do with the television show. The book has a different kind of historical and emotional sweep.
Weisberg: I would add to that since you mentioned visual style. We’ve talked a lot about the great movies of the 1970s. All the President’s Men is something we’ve talked about cinematically. The Sidney Lumet movies. We’ve looked a lot at a couple of iconic scenes from Prince of the City and talking about how violence is handled in such a realistic and true way. Never over exploited. It’s really powerful.
The book that occurred to me when you said that people worried about are you rooting for the KGB was All Quiet on the Western Front. It humanized the enemy in a way that was unexpected. We’re so used to demonizing the other side of history.
Weisberg: The idea that the enemy is human, which we talked about at the beginning of this interview, is a very important one to us.
Fields: I think those are both excellent examples. I would say the one difference is that both of those make no case for the enemy’s cause, but only for the understanding that the enemy is also human and also suffers. I think The Americans does something even further, which says you can go beyond the fact that the enemy also bleeds. It’s not just that the enemy bleeds like you, it’s that the enemy thinks like you.
I saw a remark you made in a previous interview that there’s the real world that existed, there’s the fictional world you’re creating, and then there’s the gray in between. How do you calibrate that gray in between? How much real do you want to inject into the story and where do you decide to take license?
Weisberg: I think that’s the way the show has kind of found itself, don’t you think?
Weisberg: I go back to the first season and I feel like it was in many ways less real. As we worked on the show and got on to the second season it sort of auto calibrated toward a more realistic show and we both liked it better and it seems everybody else did too, and that’s where we settled in.
Fields: Some of the stuff is detail stuff. For example, if there’s a TV show playing in the background of the scene we have a calendar up in our office that shows the dates on which that episode would be taking place. We decide on the date. We get a TV Guide from that night and we decide on what program that fictional character would be watching. We show what would be on at that time of day.
We’re not going to create any incidents that historically clearly didn’t happen. So we’re within a realm of history. We like to sometimes tell ourselves that we’re telling the secret story. So, going back to first season, the story we told about the day Reagan was assassinated, we found out there were tapes made in the situation room that had references to getting a copy of the nuclear football, then we created a what if story. What if Soviet operatives had gotten their hands on things like that?
Were there Soviet spies actually who infiltrated the U.S. then tried to have kids?
Fields: I’ll give you a qualified, yes, there were. The record of Soviet illegals in the United States, there is something called the Mitrokhin Archive, have you ever heard of that?
A KGB archivist named Mitrokhin stole the entire KGB archive and brought it to the West. So we know a lot about the history of the KGB that otherwise would have been secret, including a lot of history about the illegals. A lot of who was here in the U.S., KGB illegals who were here in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. Less is known publicly about the illegals in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, maybe because Mitrokhin didn’t get that. Nobody’s really sure if there were fewer here, or if he didn’t get it, but I think there’s a feeling that because of the history in the ‘50s and 60s it is extremely possible that there were a number of illegals here in the ‘70s and 80s and we just don’t know the facts about them. There’s also a sense that it may well be that the U.S. government knows about them and it hasn’t become public.
There’s one known Soviet case where the illegals did recruit their child into the service. Then there’s the case of illegals who were arrested in 2010. These were no longer Soviets, they were now Russian illegals, where the son was recruited also into the service. So this is historically based.
Are you guys ever assigning homework to the writer’s room, telling them things they should read? Or are you all history buffs and it’s something that you were naturally drawn to anyway so you were already reading this stuff?
Weisberg: At the beginning of the season we divided different areas of research for different writers. And we also have a fantastic group of assistants in the office, many of whom are writers themselves and they do research. At the beginning of the season we would start our writer’s room with them coming in and doing presentations of background and research. We try to immerse ourselves in that. We also have this, I don’t know if you’ve heard about our ‘80s wall, but we have a huge wall when you walk into the writer’s office that’s painted red. It starts at the beginning of the year the season’s starting and it ends at the end of the season. It’s just filled with articles and magazine covers and tidbits and events. People get to see what was going on in that sense too, be in the middle of that year.
I want to end with a question about Martha, because she’s so fascinating to me. She seems like the nicest and yet the saddest person in this show. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for her? When it comes to Martha how do you approach writing her?
Fields: We don’t find her just sad. It’s possible we’re in denial because a lot of people find her that way. But we find her to be kind of shockingly enough, growing through this marriage. Crazy though that may seem. Before she met Clark [Philip Jennings in disguise] she was in a pretty bad place—sad, lonely and not doing well. Now she’s fallen into this semi-nightmare scenario but she’s in her own crazy way becoming a stronger person.
Weisberg: It’s not even that crazy. If you give a plant water it’ll grow, if you give a person love they will grow. And she’s growing. The truth is, part of what’s fun and interesting to explore in this seemingly fake marriage between them, is what Philip is taking from it and what’s happening to them as a couple.
As a therapist experiences transference with a patient, so too anybody, even if you’re a spy, if you’re working with somebody even if they don’t know you’re working them, you’re in an intimate relationship. That’s gonna have its impact on you.
Fields: You asked about the illegals recruiting their kids. The Martha relationship is also historical. That was something the KGB we know did a number of times, have their illegals marry unsuspecting people to get intelligence.
Wow, that’s nuts.
Weisberg: Yeah, that’s fucked up, right?
Did we do the same?
Weisberg: Not as far as I’ve ever heard. That was one step too far for us. But we didn’t used to torture people either, so who knows.
Martha’s got a gun now—is that Chekhov’s gun she’s got there?
Weisberg: We joke about that all the time. Does Chekhov apply to television? Does Chekhov apply to spies? Is Chekhov wrong? What exactly is an act in a multi-season drama?
Fields: But we know she’s got a gun.
Weisberg: She’s got a gun!
She’s practicing at the range and now she knows how to shoot it.
Weisberg: That’s right. Maybe the final piece of the series is Martha holding that gun and reading Chekhov.
She’s like, “Oh, I’m supposed to do something with this.”
Weisberg: Right. And Philip walks in and shoots her with a different gun.
Fields: Oh, spoiler alert, my friends!