Jessica Goldstein Special to The Washington Post. NEW YORK — Nothing about “The Americans” is as it should be.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings live in a peaceful neighborhood in suburban Virginia, and they’re at war with the FBI agent across the street. The heroes are in the KBG; the enemy is the United States. The war is supposed to be cold, but three minutes into last year’s pilot episode, there’s already a body count. No one is who they say they are. The married couple at the center of the show aren’t really married. The Americans of the title aren’t really American. Every story is a cover, every promise is a lie.
“The Americans” takes place in the 1980s, but it may as well be yesterday. That sneaking feeling that everyone is spinning a story instead of telling the truth on every resume and online dating profile, that suspicion that a husband or a wife — or a parent or a child — is not the person they seemed to be or the person they were when you met, that unnerving sense that security is an illusion, that nowhere is safe from an enemy who could be setting up shop in the back yard: modern anxieties all, explored on TV in an analog, action-driven drama.
“What’s evocative about the premise of the show, part of what’s exciting to us creatively, is that idea that we’re all spies in our own lives,” says executive producer Joel Fields. “And ultimately we have to make a choice to live in trust with other people.”
Philip and Elizabeth, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, are Soviet spies whose fake marriage was arranged by the KGB. Their two American children think Mom and Dad work at a travel agency. Elizabeth, communist to the marrow, is devoted to Mother Russia above all. (Typical dialogue: “I would go to jail. I would die. I would do anything before I would betray my country.”) Philip, grateful for the comforts and security American life provides, is leaning toward defection.
“The Americans” is a marriage story dressed up as a spy flick, with espionage work, and all the secrecy and deception it entails, standing in for the issues we grapple with in real relationships.
“You can choose between safety and risk with your heart and with your life,” says Fields. “If you want to be really super-safe from hurt, the best way to do it is to never engage with anybody else emotionally. If you want to live with emotion, heart” — at this, his voice drops low — “you’ve got to expose yourself.”
But how willing are any of us to take that risk, even with our loved ones? Or, as “The Americans” challenges us to ask: Are we ever really close to the people closest to us?
In the office adjacent to the writers room, Fields, who is probably only half-kidding when he says “I haven’t slept in six months,” reveals what is most “painful” for him and executive producer Joseph Weisberg: “It’s really hard for us to accept that people see this as a period show.”
“The Americans” is set in the early 1980s, when Intellivision was the hottest new thing in video game technology and the KGB touched base with agents in the field using radio signals and Morse code.
Though it hurts Fields to know his high school days are carbon-dated, “there’s something so liberating, creatively, about not having texts or cellphones. When someone drives away and you find out new information, there’s nothing you can do to warn them,” he says. “So it’s very helpful from a writing standpoint. You don’t have to worry about, ‘Oh, they’re in a zone with no cell service’ or ‘How do we get them underground?’ “
(Another perk, Rhys said, is toying with the now-ancient technology on the set: “I never tire of playing with the VCR in the Jennings house.”)
But the real power of the setting is how it places the show in a cultural moment when it felt like the world could blow up at any moment. “There was a real feeling that we were in a war,” says Fields. “And it was cold, but only because if it got hot, which was inevitable, we were all going to die in a nuclear thermoholocaust.”
“We live today with a low buzz of terrorist threat,” Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman, says by phone. But during the Reagan administration, “it was a more profound threat of global annihilation — that there were two hands on two triggers, and both had the power to create worldwide destruction. And that was a quite intense, unsettling time.”
“Americans” creator Weisberg worked in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. It was his idea to set the show in the ’80s, when Ronald Reagan was president and “he was ratcheting up the Cold War in such an intense way.”
Weisberg said by phone that “most of the spy stuff in the show is really real.” He even gave the cast lessons in countersurveillance techniques, classes he had to get CIA permission to teach. (Every script he writes must also be sent to the CIA for approval.) Some of the most outlandish-seeming plots on the show are based on reality, such as Philip’s pretending to be “Clark” and marrying Martha, a secretary at the FBI.
“It’s this cruel, crazy thing he does to her,” says Weisberg, and it’s “very closely based on historical fact. KGB illegals married secretaries of men who were in specific government and political positions that the KGB wanted to get intelligence on.”
The easy, unnerving parallels you could draw between what happens to these characters and what could happen to you — imagine finding out the person you’re dating has been lying to you all along about who he really is — are “why people relate to the show,” says Weisberg.
“Philip and Elizabeth are not aliens from another planet,” he says. “Obviously, their job exaggerates all of it and takes it to this life-and-death level. But when you look at [the] way they relate to each other and their kids, it resonates. In one episode, Philip and Elizabeth did some crazy espionage thing, and someone on set said, ‘This is just the fight I had with my wife last week!’ And that’s the whole point of the show.”
“The Americans” is part of what you could call the second wave of “Golden Age” television, and one of the ways this new class betters its formers is by embedding complicated female characters in the heart of the action. It’s a pretty thrilling change of pace from the typical “wife left in the dark” roles that were often the weak spots in otherwise excellent dramas. Elizabeth — like Claire Underwood on “House of Cards” and Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” — is as brutal as every guy on screen, the clear winner of “most likely to pummel someone’s face into pulp.” Or, as Fields puts it: “Boy, you don’t want to be a security guard in the wrong place at the wrong time when Elizabeth needs to get something done.”
“She’s the more ideologically fervent partner in the show,” says Weisberg. “That gives her a kind of strength and a way to kind of guide the ship.”
“I like how cold she is,” Russell says. “You know, people have hard lives, and people aren’t always fuzzy and warm. . . . And people have protections around them, and I think that’s interesting. And it leaves you somewhere to go.”
Elizabeth gets shot in the Season 1 finale, and it’s the last push she and Philip need to realize how much they love each other. “Weirdly, ballistic injuries draw couples so much closer together,” says Rhys. But given that the Jenningses have to swap sex for secrets and engage in deception more often than most people brush their teeth, this is not exactly the safest development.
Elizabeth, says Russell, “is definitely a better soldier in the first season when she’s not as in love with Philip. She’s not as vulnerable. She’s making very clear choices. It’s easier to do the honey traps. It’s easier to do the sexuality that she has to do for her job, it’s easier to accept her husband using sexuality for his job. So her intention is much more clear. It’s much more black and white. And I think that has shifted radically.”
Rhys agrees. “All of a sudden, [when] emotions become real, the honey traps take on a new color. And it’s incredibly hard for Philip to deal with what she does.”
“Everything’s heightened,” he says. “And not necessarily for the better of their jobs.”
A quick spoiler-free Season 2 preview: The focus is expanding, from the United States and the Soviet Union to Afghanistan and Nicaragua, from marriage to family. You may have not thought this was possible, but the sex gets even more graphic. Russell and Rhys raised concerns about one scene in particular — you’ll know it when you see it — but were overruled. (There’s a chart in the writers room that tracks, among other things, how often sex and violence are used. “We never want to have too much,” Fields says.)
The issue of what Philip and Elizabeth owe their children, whether that’s the truth or just more lies to keep them safe, drives much of these coming episodes. “You know from the last shot of the last season that Paige [the Jenningses’ daughter] is beginning to sense, as all teenagers do, that maybe her parents aren’t exactly who she thought they were,” says Fields. “It’s very universal. In her case, the truth is pretty devastating.”
“When I worked at the CIA,” Weisberg says, “one of the things that fascinated me and moved me was . . . [that] to do this job, parents had to lie to their kids. And at some point, the parents would have to sit down and say, ‘I’ve been lying to you your whole life.’ “
In the show, Weisberg asks, “how long can that lie go on?”
That familial lie might be the worst betrayal on a drama where betrayal is all around. “There’s a part of me that just wonders about the long-term lies in this family,” says Fields, “and what impact that has on these kids who didn’t choose to be a part of it.”
Then again, Emmerich says: “How do you define betrayal? Everyone’s just doing their job.”
Philip and Elizabeth also have to reckon with the fact that their children, born and raised in the United States, aren’t carbon copies of their communist parents. Early in Season 2, Paige rebels in the most adorable, all-American way imaginable, and Elizabeth’s reaction is bananas.
All is not well, really, with anyone. As for Stan, “his world [is] sort of falling apart,” says Emmerich. And Philip, said Rhys, has no choice but to lie to his family. “I have to at this point. I’m entrenched.” A horrific event in the season premiere sends even the usually steely-eyed Elizabeth into a tailspin.
Bad news for the characters, but good news for the show.
“If you’re trying to tell stories,” says Weisberg. “Problems are good for you.”
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“The Americans” Season 2 premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.