When “The Americans” returns for season 2 next month on FX, Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings will commit to giving their fake marriage and real go, but that doesn’t mean their problems are over.
“We saw the first season very much as about the marriage,” creator and executive producer Joe Weisberg says at TCA’s Winter press tour. “At the end of the season, Elizabeth tells Philip to come home and after that there’s a sense they’re going to be solid and more together. [In season two] we’re going to see how this family struggles and tries to hold it together.”
One big factor that fuels the fire: teen daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), who started to get suspicious about her parents’ strange behavior at the end of season 1 and continues to snoop around as the new season opens.
[SPOILER WARNING: A few Season 2 premiere plot spoilers follow, if you want to preserve the surprise (and it’s worth preserving), skip down to the end of spoilers bracket.]
In one particularly shocking moment of the premiere, Paige opens the door to her parents’ bedroom at night only to discover them in an extremely compromising position. (Think of it as that episode of “Modern Family” where the kids walk in on Claire and Phil crossed with the Playboy channel.) As HitFix’s own Dan Fienberg put it, the scene makes “The Americans” the “Neil Armstrong of TV 69-ing.”
“I think what we wanted to depict was the most powerful, shocking and maybe mildly humorous [situation],” Weisberg shares about the decision making process for the scene. “We discussed every possible position and that’s what we came up with.”
“When Tommy Schlamme, who directed the episode, sat down and talked with us about the script he did ask us how we intended to see that in our heads,” executive producer Joel Fields adds with a coy smile. Ah, the powers of being a TV showrunner.
But Matthew Rhys, who plays Philip and finds himself particularly exposed in the scene, wants to make one thing clear: “No children were harmed in the filming of that scene!”
[END OF MAJOR SPOILERS]
As fans already know, sexuality is an integral part of “The Americans.” So it’s fortunate Keri Russell says she’s not really bothered by how sex is used on the show or the demands that puts on the actors.
“The good thing about the sexuality of the show — which we’ve sort of talked about before — is there is a gift in it not having to be a big sweeping romantic movie where you have to be so in love and beautiful and sexy,” Russell says. “[On the show] you’re usually using the sexuality, at least in the spy end of it, to get something. There’s a freedom in that.” She then hands the question off to Rhys, saying: “You should talk because you have the most sex on the show.”
“That’s in my contract,” Rhys jokes, before delving into his own take on how the sexuality reflects the complex inner lives of the characters. “When I first read the pilot script, you saw two people who upheld a mandate to be operatives for X amount of time and then for the first time real emotion seeps in. It’s an incredibly interesting journey. You have these two people who are evolving as a couple and all of a sudden these layers of complexity are added.”
Among the layers added in season 1: Philip’s second fake marriage, to FBI secretary and unwitting informant Martha Hanson (Alison Wright, who is now a full-time regular in season 2).
Weisberg says there’s much more story to mine there: “We were always intrigued by this crazy insane idea that — I don’t even know what to call it, one more fake marriage? Could that be good for Martha? Could it build her self-esteem even though it’s this insane cruel thing that’s happening to her?”
“The show is about trust and relationships and marriage,” Joel Fields adds. “The idea that being able to explore — particularly now that Philip and Elizabeth are embarking on a real marriage for the first time — to explore Philip in this fake marriage is really interesting.”
As for whether or not Philip and Elizabeth ever need to be “punished” for their more violent actions, Weisberg and Fields admit they’re still figuring out the show as it goes, and spend a lot of time discussing and debating where they’re heading. (Which probably adds to the show’s best quality: the rich shades of grey complexity evident in every character and situation.)
“We take these long walks and think of a lot of different possible endings for the show,” Weisberg says. “We have a lot of things percolating in our head. Is this a Russian story or an American story? I don’t think even that question has a clear answer at this point.”
More highlights from the TCA panel:
– “It’s not on a Russian network but we hear various reports of it being bootlegged there,” Weisberg says when asked about the show’s response in foreign countries, specifically Russia. “Some of our cast who are Russian run into people who have seen it that way and have various comments. They have a very positive reaction.” Fields adds: “We know from foreign press interviews and Twitter that there’s a very strong appetite for it and very strong response to it.”
– Margo Martindale may be committed to “The Millers” on CBS, but that doesn’t mean viewers have seen the last of Elizabeth’s least favorite handler, Claudia. “Claudia is back and we’ll see her in several episodes,” Fields confirms. “We’re very grateful and excited to have her back.” But when he’s pressed about whether or not they wish she was available to be a regular, Fields will only allow: “It’s hard to argue with Margo Martindale and that character, we love her.”
– Does it bother the stars that they were unfairly overlooked by the Emmys? (Because they most certainly were.) Apparently it doesn’t, at least not that they’ll admit. Russell says not getting nominations means “one less day you have to get dressed up that fancy,” before adding the requisite, “It would be an honor obviously.” Rhys adds that “the validation is when people come up on the street and say ‘I can’t believe that happened!'”
– There’s not much concern about the show’s ’80s setting slipping into parody, but the producers are careful about the details. “We both grew up in the 80s so it probably never occurred to us that the 80s were funny,” Weisberg says. Fields adds: “We talk a lot about with regards to the wardrobe that we want to make sure it feels real and true but not arch. It presents many many production challenges, you go outside and everything is different. Every car that passes by could be a mini van and need to be erased. It’s a challenge but we’re working on it.”
– If you’re hoping for a meaty storyline for Philip and Elizabeth’s son Henry in season 2, you may want to lower your expectations. “I wish you hadn’t said that,” Weisberg says when one critic points out the cable drama trend of marginalizing younger brothers in favor of older sisters. (Think Dana and Chris Brody on “Homeland” or Sally and Bobby Draper on “Mad Men.”) “We may reverse that trend a little more in season 3 than season 2.” Fields explains that storylines favoring Paige over Henry are “more a question of age and maturity than [gender].”
– Another “Americans” hallmark: wigs! And they’re back in full force in season 2, including a pivotal scene in the premiere. “We have big wig plans,” Weisberg allows. Fields adds: “There’s a wig arc as we write the finale [now]. We hope you like it … We’re not kidding. We’re smiling but it’s true.”