Slate: In Episode 2, the story revolves around an event in the life of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and a meeting with his British counterpart, John Nott. That made me ask myself, “Did that really happen?” Are you trying to get viewers to question the official version of the Reagan ’80s?
Fields: The show works on different levels of reality. There’s the fictional world of Philip and Elizabeth, their marriage, and their life. There’s the real world of what happened during the Cold War. And then there’s this hazy in-between world. So, for example, Caspar Weinberger was a real person. The show is speculating what nobody can know, which is what was going on in the secret world of the KGB at that time. Could they have possibly tried to put a bug in his home, and if they did, what would they have done with that information? Who knows?
There are times when we take leaps, but they’re careful leaps. For example, in Episode 4, the Reagan assassination episode, the Jenningses go back and listen to some things off that bug. Now, we don’t know for sure that the KGB did that. However, we do know that there were tapes made of the White House Situation Room that day, and we used sections of those tapes in the bug that Philip and Elizabeth listen to. The question becomes what would they have done had they heard what actually happened? Among the things we found out in our research of that day was that Al Haig not only went on television and said, “I’m in control here,” but he also requested, and received, a copy of the nuclear football—the briefcase with the missile launch codes. So that episode asks what would these two spies do in the tension and fog of that day if they had that information.
Slate: You do some tricky things with viewers’ sympathies. In the first couple of episodes, it felt to me that Philip and Elizabeth were the more likable, sympathetic characters—even though they were working to undermine my country. Stan Beeman, the FBI man, felt less sympathetic, because his motivations and ideology were less clear, at least at the beginning. You made me identify with the Russian spies!
Weisberg: In the early days we used to worry: Will we be able to get people to sympathize with KGB officers? Then we cast Keri and Matthew and started watching, and that question evaporated, because they were so likable and sympathetic that we stopped worrying about it. Then we started writing the stories, and they do some terrible things, so we started worrying about it again.
Fields: What we have are these two characters who are fighting for their country. They’re fighting for a system that they believe in. But in 2013 we all know that repressive socialism was an utter failure. We know that system is not going to work.
Slate: Joe, your second novel, An Ordinary Spy, was set in the CIA, and you played around with censorship and how the CIA has to approve anything written by former agents. Did you also have to run The Americans by the agency?
Weisberg: Any script I write has to be submitted to the Publications Review Board at the CIA. They ask for a month, and we don’t really have that much time, so I send them in with what’s called a request to expedite. I always feel a little bad about it: “Dear Publications Review Board, here I am again asking for the expedited review ...” There haven’t been any occasions yet where they’ve asked me to take anything out of a script, which is what I expected, because I haven’t worked there for a number of years at this point. I still worry a little bit, though. Before giving the demonstration of surveillance techniques, I had to submit a request ahead of time, but that was approved also. Joel’s scripts go in, too, if we write them together.
Slate: So any script that has your name on it has to be reviewed by the agency?
Weisberg: That’s right.
Slate: There are certain similarities between the work of a CIA agent and a TV writer. They both deal with deception, misdirection, recruitment—albeit of viewers rather than assets—and loyalty-building. Are you aware of taking the skills you developed in one job and applying them to the other?
Weisberg: That had never occurred to me, but Joel is nodding his head.
Fields: But Joe swears that the hours were much better in the CIA.
Weisberg: It’s true, it was 9 to 5.
This interview has been edited and condensed.