‘The Americans’ producers on the sex, murder and wigs of season 2

Senior Television Writer
05.21.14 19 Comments


FX”s period spy drama “The Americans” went to a new level this season, going from a very good show to one of the very best on television by delving deeper into the emotional, moral and even sexual implications of two KGB spies pretending to be American spouses for decades and raising kids all the way. The season finale was devastating in the way it paid off the arcs about family, about whether FBI Agent Stan Beeman would betray his country to save Nina, and more. I reviewed the finale here, and I interviewed producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about the season, coming up just as soon as you tell me where your corkscrew is…

The most important question, obviously, is how much of this season was designed as a response to all of the wig jokes fans were making in season 1?

Joe Weisberg: (laughs) A lot of them! We’re pretty responsive. I mean, we agreed with them.

In what way?

Joe Weisberg: We thought it was a valid complaint. Something should have been done about that wig. The most egregious was the time when he was captured by the KGB, and that guy just pulled the wig right off his head like it wasn”t attached. That was just a screw-up. We thought, “We’ve got to have some answers to the questions about Martha, and how does she not know this, and what happens if they shower together?” So we sat down and came up with the best solutions we could. You can’t go back and fix it. But you can do what you can.

How much else of what happened in this season was in response to things you saw the viewers seeing in season 1?

Joel Fields: It’s hard to answer that question entirely, because some of our work takes place on a conscious level, and some of it takes place on a subconscious level. We really enjoyed reading all the response to the first season, and we ingested them. Some, like the wig stuff, turned into overt conversations, where we knew something played out wrong and we wanted to reshoot it but couldn”t. We wanted to address those questions with Martha, and that provoked a storyline, that Martha had been holding back from Philip over the course of the season. But there are other things that were just things we were responding to on a subconscious level.

Joe Weisberg: Another big shift we made in the show was to try to break the season as a more serialized season and less episodic. I don”t know that anybody said the first season was too episodic, but that”s something that changed our whole storytelling approach. That led to a lot of changes in the show.

Is the second generation program based on anything in reality?

Joe Weisberg: That is based on some historical things in the KGB. There was some sense that the KGB actually wanted to do that. There are a couple of different cases. There was one from the era of the KGB where some illegals actually did recruit their daughter, and got so far as to send her to GW, where she started spotting and assessing for the KGB, but by the time she was done with that, she didn’t want to do it anymore. Then there”s another case post-KGB, with the Russian intelligence service and all these illegals arrested in 2010, where there’s actually tape that the FBI has of the father recruiting the son. Our consultant, Keith Melton, who is an expert on illegals, told us a lot about this and how the father brought this along. These are the historical precedents we know about.

What made you decide Holly Taylor up for this? How did you approach integrating Paige more into the adult side of the show this season?

Joel Fields: We knew from the first season that Holly is a very very strong actress. So we had that going for us. In terms of integrating her, we just started talking a lot from the beginning, we knew that we wanted this to be a season more about family and more about how Philip and Elizabeth saw family and parenting, now that they were more engaged as a fully married couple. That meant exploring more with Paige, and also, by reflection, more with Henry.

Joe Weisberg: The two sides of the problems came together in a way. What happened naturally last season is that as a kid becomes a teenager, they start asking questions and becoming more suspicious , and we left last season on a cliffhanger about that: Paige is trouble, and how will her parents cope with that? Then the problem starts coming around from the other end, which is one possible way to deal with that is that the KGB approaches you and says, “Now go after the kid.” Now you”re coming from both ends towards the middle.

Did you know from the beginning that Jared killed his family?

Joel Fields: As soon as we broke the story, we knew that.

Why did you decide that that was the story?

Joe Weisberg: It was really thematically perfect for our show. What’s Philip and Elizabeth’s greatest fear? Whether it”s conscious or not, the question of the series is “What kind of damage are you doing to your children? What is all the toxic waste created by this life? What is the damage not just externally, but internally?” And the Jared story then becomes the worst case scenario of that. It”s not some monster from without. It”s not Ronald Reagan or CIA assassins or something you”ve seen a thousand times. It’s a psychological problem we”ve created.

Joel Fields: We found an article early in the season written by a psychiatrist who talked about a trauma patient, who said victims of extreme psychological trauma can all be treated successfully – except those who had been lied to by people they had loved and trusted for many years. If you find out that your father has had a second family for years, or if your spouse for years had pretended to be faithful and wasn”t, these were things that left you questioning your own memories and your own identity, and that that was something that was at best possible to live with, but never to fully recover from. That really resonated, because at the end of the day, what’s the identity of these individuals and this family, if they don’t have any trust?

Kate is now dead. Margo Martindale is still employed on another show. You were able to use her very effectively in these three episodes. Have you figured out yet what the handler situation is going to be next year. Will you have Margo for this many? More? Less?

Joe Weisberg: We sure hope to have her back. We love her personally, we love her character. Fortunately, her show and her network have been really open and generous in supporting that. We hope that we’ll be able to bring her back. And we have talked about the situation with the handler. I”m not sure we want to get in much detail, but we’ve been able to pick up the pace on our walks when the subject comes up.

One of the main hooks of the show going in was, “Here”s an FBI agent living across the street from two KGB sleeper agents. When is he going to figure that out?” And you more or less dropped that this season, as Stan focused on other things. Why did you decide not to go forward with that, at least right now?

Joe Weisberg: It seemed like that was a question that was dealt with in the pilot, that Stan had those suspicions and then he got over them. It didn”t seem like it would be fertile or fun to go back to that again and again. It seemed like it’d be goofy to have Stan continually be suspicious and getting over it. You have to get over it, and then you’re done with that, at least for a pretty long time. One of the merits of being an illegal is that your cover is so incredibly strong. If they arise Stan’s suspicions again, that’s really gotta be when you’re getting towards your endgame. Now, I say that, and maybe we”ll change our mind and come up with something good, but it just seems like it would be repetitive.

Why does Stan make the decision he makes in the finale about Nina? Did you ever seriously consider having Nina and Oleg and Arkady would actually turn him?

Joel Fields: That’s a storyline that pretty much held unchanged over the course of the season. Although, interestingly, the exact endpoint of that story shifted somewhat. We had a couple of different endpoints in mind, although not different endings in mind. This one was where the story seemed to land as things unfolded. But no, we never really had a version of Arkady and Nina successfully turning Stan in our minds. As we played it out, we wanted it to feel close, and it actually got closer than we expected it to get, in terms of his emotional experience.

Joe Weisberg: I don’t think Stan becoming a Soviet agent was something we seriously wanted to consider. In a sense, it got further than we thought, in the sense that I feel ambivalent about Stan’s decision. I feel that Stan was coming close to someone who would make a decision and lead with his heart, and would allow his love for a woman be more important than his love of country or abstract principals. And there’s something about that that would oddly enough be a step forward for him. So I feel ambivalent about his choice. And in that way, I think we took him further than I ever could have imagined we would have gotten him. But turning him into a Soviet spy never appealed to us.

Going this way means that, at the very least, Nina leaves the country, even if she doesn”t leave the show. Are we going to see Nina and Vasilli uncomfortably being roommates next year?

Joel Fields: That’s possible, although Vasilli has very nice quarters. And with this operation at an end, there’s no reason for him to keep his freedom a secret anymore now that she’s come back. There could certainly be an uncomfortable reunion there, although they wouldn”t have to be roommates. She would definitely have the lesser quarters.

Nina’s motivation – you and Annet played that very ambiguously at various points through the season. There were times when it seemed like she was maybe really falling for Oleg, or for Stan, or that she was simply trying to keep her options open. Where do you feel her loyalties lay, or were they simply to herself?

Joe Weisberg: You could never get two people to answer the same way – including me and Joel, including Annet, including any two critics writing about the show. It was just so interesting, and a lot of it was how Annet played it, with so much ambiguity. For me, I thought that her attraction to Oleg was real, and even developing into something much deeper than attraction. The one thing all of us agreed upon was the undercurrent of her being a survivor with a very strong survival instinct and a need to keep herself afloat under very dangerous circumstances, and that would trump almost anything. But the one thing I felt, that I got a lot of disagreement from a lot of people on, is that she never really went back to any serious feelings for Stan. But many people disagree with me on that.

Joel Fields: The one thing I’d add is, one thing we talk about a lot in the process is that multiple things can be true for people at the same time. Conflicting things can be true for people at the same time. I think we like that.

Was the second season more violent than the first? It sure felt like there was a higher body count.

Joel Fields: Our script coordinator, in the first season, kept this graph for the number of deaths and who was responsible for each one. We turned over the first episode of season 2 for formatting, and about three hours later, she comes into our office and says, “Well, you’ve exceeded yourself in one episode. The body count is officially higher.” She had thrown up her hands. By the time we did “Martial Eagle,” she just gave up counting, I think. Though when she went us the final tally, it was pretty bloody. But it wasn’t something we set out to do. I think it was something that came out of the nature of what we were exploring the season, as the stakes of the war escalated.

Joe Weisberg: I think so, too. That Philip storyline really required a lot of killing for him to have the crisis of conscience he was having.

By the end of “Martial Eagle,” he looks like a man who could choke out a minister. What is it that eases him off that dark path? Is it just what Pastor Tim says to him about the possibility of forgiveness? Is it the realization that this is him going too far if he hurts this man?

Joe Weisberg: It’s a very interesting question. You have to look at it in two different ways. One, I think Pastor Tim himself confronted Philip with great courage, and didn’t back down, and a combination of meeting an equal in a way, backed Philip down, along with the words he said. But then additionally, although Philip for that moment was then backed off the dark path of actually killing the guy, which is probably what he went there for, the overall path that Philip is on, in this struggle with what he’s doing, is not over. Philip was able to not kill the guy and go back to work after that, but I think the overall life path was not altered.

Joel Fields: As for all of us – although it”s much more extreme for these characters – there’s this struggle between who we are in our soul and who we are in our actions as people, and who we want to be as people.

And in terms of the sexual content, is that something that you were also conscious of increasing this season?

Joe Weisberg: That was something we were very conscious of trying to handle the sex and the violence in a way that felt character-driven and not gratuitous. We felt that a couple of places in the first season maybe, it had been a little gratuitous, and we wanted to make sure that this season, when we used sexual content, it was to make a point about the characters and where they were at. The 69 scene was a good example of that, it was interesting, and it was shocking, and it was very sexual. But it was specifically designed to be as intimate an act for these two characters as we could muster for these two characters in this very specific point in time, where she had come back from this near-death experience, and they were trying to reconnect after her having to do a honey trap. And in the ’80s, what would these two choose? And what would be the most shocking thing that Paige could see, and how would they all react to that? And that was the sort of thing we were trying to keep in mind all season.

And then there was Elizabeth”s horrible horrible idea to do role-play with Clark. You could have gone in a lot of directions with that, and it even started out as a light-hearted thing, and then it took this very dark and unhappy turn. How did that all come about?

Joel Fields: We’ve talked a lot about the arc of their sexual relationship, and as we were exploring marriage, we wanted to really explore their unique sexuality as part of that character study. These are very very emotionally inarticulate people. They’re people who at best this season could start to express themselves in disguise with strangers. There’s a large aspect of them playing with fire when it comes to intimacy, and particularly when it comes to the intimacy of sexuality with each other. We got to explore Elizabeth’s desire to get closer, and to have a connection with a part of him she felt disconnected from. But what it brought up wasn”t easy.

Joe Weisberg: This is what I really love about television – I say this provided I don’t blow my brains out next season or we don”t get canceled – that hese are all really ongoing stories: Philip and how he’s struggling with killing people, there’s a next beat to that story, or to Philip being with Elizabeth with the Clark disguise on. These are just continuing, and all of season 2 took place over a couple of months. These are evolving stories, and you can tell them over several seasons. By the way, right after that Clark thing, that was the next beat in the wig story. We didn”t have to rush, and we had the opportunity for him to remove the wig from his head and then face the real Philip in the mirror at one of the lowest points he can possibly be at. Things can come together when they’re ready. You don”t have to tell the next beat of any of these stories in the next episode, or the next episode, or the next episode.

Other than that incident, the state of the Jennings marriage was much stronger than last year. They had committed to the idea of being a married couple. Instead, they clashed over parenting styles, and at the end of the season, Philip is horrified by the idea of having to turn Paige, while Elizabeth is at least intrigued by it. Is that going to be one of the main sources of conflict as we head into season 3?

Joe Weisberg: We think so. It looks very promising to us as an avenue of marital conflict. We think about real marriages, we”re both married, and about the things that come up, and ways to parent. What do you care most about: your kid and how you’re going to raise your kid. That’s a great idea, it will be a nuclear showoff, because the stakes are so high. Your kid”s whole future rests on it. What do you do if you disagree on that?

Joel Fields: And yet one of the premises of being married is that you’re going to do it together. So what does that mean in a marriage when the fundamental worldview about the most important thing in your life is different than that of your partner?

I”m sure you”re both familiar of the famous Chekhov saying that if you put a gun in a kitchen drawer in the first act, it has to go off by the last.

Joe Weisberg: (laughs) Obviously, we disagree.

Was there a stage where the Ladysmith was going to be involved here, or were you always saving it to be used down the line?

Joel Fields: Interestingly, that’s a storyline that we had again from the beginning of the season. And mostly for reasons of story space, it took a while for her to purchase that gun, and for him to find it in that drawer. But it doesn’t seem like a good thing for Clark. It’s never good for your fake wife to get a weapon.

Joe Weisberg: Even your real wife, it”s probably not great.

Are we meant to read something into the fact that even in Stan’s dream, Martha is stealing files off of the mail robot?

Joel Fields: Thank you for noticing, first of all. We spent a lot of time talking about that, and made sure that it happened.

Joe Weisberg: It was important to us, too, that even as he was dreaming, she”s stealing it. But he doesn”t notice, even in his dream. It’s in the deep recesses of his subconscious that it”s happening.

Joel Fields: Not a great sign, because he’s a pretty good detective. His subconscious is pretty good. Even working when he”s hashing out the dissolution of his marriage, potential treason, and the potential loss of the woman he loves, his subconscious detective is obviously at work.

Joe Weisberg: That would be a good show, though: “The Subconscious Detective.”

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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