Last week The Americans, quite possibly the best show on TV, returned for its fourth season, and it’s packed with all-new levels of intrigue, deceit and violence. For those of you who’ve missed out so far, the series follows a pair of deep-cover Soviet spies (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) posing as ordinary American citizens as they attempt to lie, cheat and steal their way to a victory for their nation in the final years of the Cold War. That’s complicated enough, but there’s another catch to their lives of deep deception: They’re also the parents of two children, including a teenager daughter who has become very curious about what they’re really up to.
When Season 4 kicked off last week, our “Americans” were faced not only with the growing curiosity of their children, but also with a mission to smuggle a deadly new bioweapon back to the U.S.S.R., a suspicious pastor, an angry FBI agent neighbor and their own guilt over just how far their missions can make them go.
We caught up with showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who also spoke with us at the outset of season 3, about this season’s secrets and themes, and whether they’re prepared to end their story anytime soon.
One of the things that I’ve been so impressed by with the show over the years is you get this feeling that if Philip and Elizabeth get caught, the show’s over. So they can’t get caught, but at the same time you’re able to maintain this incredible level of suspense. We’re looking at this going ‘OK, if they’re caught, we don’t have a show anymore,’ but at the same time you still feel, over and over again, the lack of inevitability. How do you guys balance that?
Fields: I think in a way we realize the same thing. At the beginning, we felt the solution to that was to not make the show that much about them getting caught, but rather to make it about their lives and their family, and then their espionage missions, in which we had to take for granted that everybody would know they’re not going to get caught. Every show on television is really about different peoples’ lives. Anybody could get killed at any moment or have some horrible thing happen. There were just intrinsically so many other sources of emotion and tension in the story, and that’s just what we wrote to. It’s not to say that we didn’t have moments where there would be a piece of a story that involved the fear of them getting caught, but we just had to be careful never to play it too big. Or it would be what we call “schmuck bait.”
One of the things that you’re touching on early in this season is Philip’s relationship to the violence he’s committed throughout his life, and it’s clear that it’s weighing on him in a way that it’s maybe not weighing on Elizabeth so much. Was that something that grew out of last season, was it something you always intended? How did that come about, that you kind of meditate on the kind of brutality that he has to confront in his daily life?
Fields: Well, that’s something he’s been struggling with from early on, but certainly, over the past two seasons – Seasons 2 and 3 – it’s become increasingly challenging for him to deal with that, and he’s been struggling with all of the uncontrollable emotion that’s been roiling in him around what his work has forced him to do. And you’re right, it does seem to be coming to a head at the beginning of this season, and of course that comes with its own set of dangers.
Speaking of dangers, you ended last season with Ronald Reagan’s infamous “Evil Empire” speech, and right now we’re living in a world where the Republican frontrunner is a guy who is constantly railing against the evils of Russia and China and North Korea. Do you find a deliberate connection there when you’re writing the show, or is it just something we can find coincidentally as we take in the world as it is now?
Fields: We really don’t think about the contemporary world when we write the show. We keep ourselves real bubbled in 1983, and of course there are inevitably going to be parallels in politics, because politics is reflective of human nature, and human nature is something that universally repeats itself through life and drama. But we never think about what’s happening in the world today and how it reflects back on the show. We just tell our story. As I say that I realize it might not be the most exciting answer, so Joe maybe you can…
Weisberg: All I’ll say is I really only call my assistant evil if lunch is late.
Fields: Yeah, that’s the Evil Empire.
Joe, a lot of this show obviously came from your CIA background. Are you still drawing from your own CIA experience this year, or are we shifting further into pure creativity right now?
Weisberg: I had no experience with bioweapons at the CIA.
Obviously it was a concern of the era, but how did you arrive at bioweapons being the main operation that would take up the beginning of the season?
Fields: There’s so many things since the fall of the Soviet Union people have written extensively about, and therefore there’s a tremendous amount of information about them that was just not available 15 years ago. The Illegals Program is one of them, and another one of them is bioweapons, so this is just something that we researched and learned about, that the Soviet Union had this incredibly expensive program to develop biological weapons during the Soviet period. It employed a couple hundred thousand people inside the Soviet Union, and yet it was a secret program. They weren’t able to keep it a 100 percent secret, but even inside the Soviet Union, even with that many people knowing about it, they kept it largely secret, and it was a massive program. Once we started learning about it, the books that have been written about it are so detailed and so fascinating and so scary, and it just seemed like a perfect story for us because, of course it’s a story that you’ve seen treated over and over again in film and television, but it’s usually treated in the same way which is “Oh my God, there’s a bioweapon that’s going to kill everyone on the Eastern seaboard!” And that’s perfect for us because we can treat it in our kinda different style, which is much more “We’ve got a couple of officers under deep cover in suburban Washington D.C., and if they get tasked with stealing something, how’s that going to affect them emotionally? What are their interactions with people like? And, with the actual bioweapon, what kind of espionage things are they going to have to do that are different from what they usually see?”
There are some interesting moments in the early episodes of this season with Henry (Keidrich Sellati). We have spent so much time with Paige because Paige has had this great arc all the way from Season 1 ‘til now because of being curious about her parents, and Henry is kind of starting to come into his own now. Where do you see Henry going?
Fields: We’re just at the real beginning of breaking the next season, so we’re kind of in the middle of those discussions. Do you mean for season 4 or for season 5?
I mean both.
Fields: They shared this weird secret place in the family, and now that dynamic has changed since last season. And now Paige is on in it with their parents, and that leaves Henry out in the cold, although he doesn’t know it. But, he’s going to feel it.
Last season, there was a scene–and I’ll just call it “The Suitcase Scene"–and I watched it and was horrified. The next morning I read a recap from Laura Hudson, writing for Wired, and she referred to that scene as “Human Origami.” It somehow made it all the more horrifying. You guys have a habit of taking those very dramatic, horrifying scenes, and you make them very human. Are we to expect more of that in Season 4?
Fields: That’s an interesting question. We try to make every season different, and I think there’s some very, very upsetting and powerful things that happen this season, but they are of a different nature than the tooth-pulling scene [from last season] and the suitcase scene. So, I think you’ll be as shocked and upset in Season 4, but not in the same way by the same things.
John Landgraf of FX has said in the past that he could see this as a “five-season show,” and you said earlier that you’re already working toward what’s going to happen in Season 5. I’ve also read, Joe, that you’ve said you have an ending in mind, or at least a variation on an ending. As of right now, how far do you see the show going? Do you still have the ending?
Weisberg: We’re just working on that really today, in a way, really digging into that, and the network–John Landgraf and FX–have been very generous in telling us that we have the freedom to finish out the show in the way that creatively makes the most sense for the show. Whether that’s five or six seasons, that’s really been put into our hands as storytellers. And we’ll figure it out and we’ll tell a version of it that fits into the best vessel.
So, how far are you on Season 4 right now? Are you done with Season 4?
Fields: We finished shooting yesterday.
Do either of you have a favorite episode?
Weisberg: That’s like asking if we have a favorite child.
Fields: Particularly on this season.
Weisberg: This season, the storytelling has become even more of a piece, and so much less episodic than it was certainly in season 1 and even along the way. Are we allowed to count the entire season as one long episode and go for that?
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10/9C on FX.