The Creators of The Americans Talk About Spies, Sex, and Their Great Second Season

Slate's Culture Blog
May 22 2014 8:31 AM

The Creators of The Americans Talk About Spies, Sex, and Their Great Second Season

americans
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys on The Americans

FX

The Americans wrapped up its second season on FX last night. Slate TV critic Willa Paskin spoke with creators Joe Weisberg—who is the brother of Slate Group Chair Jacob Weisberg—and Joel Fields about their big reveal, how they got there, and where they might be going. Obviously, this interview is full of spoilers for all the episodes of the show that have aired so far.

The interview has been condensed and edited. Slate Plus members can listen to the entire interview here (or in their Slate Plus podcast feed).

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Slate: I’m going to start this interview in perhaps a tawdrier way than I should and talk about sex, which I think your show uses in a more intellectual way than other shows. It can be very titillating, but it does a lot of character work.

Joe Weisberg: Our guiding principle was that if we were always revealing character, it would not be gratuitous. So, a good example is that 69 from the season opener. There were a lot of things going on there. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) had just been shot and she was coming back home, and had just had to perform a honey trap. And now this married couple was reunited and wanting to connect and be intimate in this situation that is essentially unimaginable to almost any of us. So how would the two of them sexually connect in that circumstance, in a way we could show visually? We essentially ran through all the sexual positions. What are all the possibilities? And anything regular that you’re used to wouldn’t really do the trick.

And then we came up with that idea for the 69, and it was so different and not cliché, and even though it had a little element of humor to it, and seemed a little bizarre, there was also something incredibly intimate about it, maybe because you don’t see it very much.

Joel Fields: Part of that 69 scene that was very important to us was the little moment that preceded it in the car. It was a silent scene, driving in a car at night, the hardest sort of scene to shoot, the first scene you would cut for production. But it was so important to see that moment of them driving, of her intuiting something had gone wrong, him admitting something had gone bad, and that long silent moment where they just held hands, that showed that they were trying to connect, that led into the 69.

Slate: And then there’s the Freudian aspect: Paige (Holly Taylor) comes upon her parents in the bedroom, and in keeping with this family, it’s the most extreme version of the thing she could see.

Fields: And what’s Paige’s first response to seeing that extreme thing? She yells at her brother.

Weisberg: And the next morning at breakfast, Elizabeth is eating the bacon, so we’re not afraid to get the humor out of it. We have something called a tone meeting where we talk to the director about what the tone is, and it seemed to us that if that wasn’t handled perfectly in tone, with the right amount of humor, the right amount of shock from Paige, the right response from the parents, then the whole thing would be bizarre, almost sick. But we had Tommy Schlamme, one of the greatest directors in television history, directing that episode, so the whole thing was great. And we got so wrapped up in all these things we’re discussing that when some of the reaction was, “Oh my god, they did a 69 on TV,” we were surprised, because we had forgotten that that would be a natural reaction. We were thinking of all these ideas.

Slate: The other episode that I thought was remarkable in this respect is the one where Elizabeth has a conversation with Martha (Alison Wright) about what an animal in the sack Philip is. And, the next week, Elizabeth starts flirting with Philip (Matthew Rhys), and she wants him to have sex with her like Clark would. And it’s this really sexy story that then turns so bad so quickly. I was wondering if you were thinking of your approach here as a contrast to any other shows, as though you were leading viewers up to titillation—and then pulling the rug out.

Fields: We don’t need to think about other shows. We can be completely messed up and dramatic all on our own!

Weisberg: That makes me think of the religion story with Paige this season, where we did a little bit think, “Oh, there are plenty of other shows that have done a story about a kid getting religious, but because of where our characters are coming from—they are communists and they hate religion—that story will be so different in our show.” This is the same thing. There have been plenty of other shows where someone dresses up or plays another character—oh god, what they did on Girls with that this season was fantastic. I loved that episode.

Fields: That was so good.

Weisberg: But where our characters are coming from, they’re spies, and they have got these crazy things they are doing with these costumes and characters, so there is no concern that it could even relate to any other show. They are going to go to their own crazy dark places.

Slate: Is that how Martha and Philip have sex? Or was he just frustrated with Elizabeth?

Weisberg: [Looks at Fields.] I am interested to see if we have the same answer. I think that is how he and Martha have sex, but without him being upset.

Fields: I think that’s right. When I think about the scenes where we have shown Clark and Martha having sex, that seems to be the position and it seems to be pretty animalistic. The difference is, for Philip as Clark, he’s playing a character there, and it’s not a place he wanted to go to with Elizabeth.

Slate: That scene with Martha and Elizabeth was so much fun to watch, a moment when all the complications started to feel like farce, not just heaviness.

Fields: Part of the great fun of this season has been discovering a way for these incredibly out of touch, emotionally inarticulate characters to start to connect to parts of their souls when in disguise. The idea that Elizabeth, when dressed up as Jennifer, pretending to be Clark’s sister, and speaking to Martha, her real-fake husband’s real-fake wife, is suddenly able to gain insight into this man she’s been with for 15 years—that was really rich territory for us to explore.

Weisberg: It’s one of the struggles and one of the joys of this show, that we have characters who are not emotionally in touch with themselves and do not have any kind of psychological awareness or vocabulary. How do you write that? It’s hard. They can’t talk about their problems with anybody. Even the little bit of awareness they might have, because they are spies, is kept secret. Everything has to be written in a very sparse way. And with every script we take a pass and go through and take out anything where they have become a little too emotionally aware. What Joel is talking about is this one little vein we can tap, where a little bit of awareness has started to come through unconsciously, and it’s such a bizarrely appropriate place to find it in a spy.

Slate: With Mad Men, it seems pretty clear that while Matt Weiner has a lot to say about the present, he also has a huge amount to say about the ’60s as the ’60s. Do you feel that way about the ’80s? Is there something about that decade and that moment in America that you want to communicate?

Weisberg: It began with the idea that if you want to tell a story about the KGB and Soviets squaring off against the United States, it belonged during Ronald Reagan’s era, so that there were stakes, so that everyone was trying to kill each other and on the verge of blowing each other to smithereens. That was the time to tell that story. But I would also say that—again I’ll be interested to see what Joel says, but I’ll bet we’re in sync about this—when we talk about stories, when we talk about the things that excite us, it’s character-based, it’s about people and what they’re going through. And that tends to then branch out into a time period, it branches out into ideas, it branches out into things of that sort, but it very rarely, if ever, starts there.

Fields: I think that’s exactly right. There’s something that is also interesting about the time period, which is that as much as that decade was ultimately the demise of the Soviet Union, it was also the end of a certain kind of American way of life. It really was the end of the 9-to-5 workday, the end of being able to go home and not have your device constantly buzzing with your boss expecting you to be working 24-7. It was the end of the time when kids would just go out and play until the street lights came on. It feels to me like the end of the America that was my childhood.

Weisberg: I think that’s right, and it’s interesting because all of that stuff, for an espionage show, is all reflected in trade craft, too. And although we’re showing the computers coming in, and the looming threat of what they’re going to do to the world of espionage—as well as everybody else’s world—this is about dead drops, and secret writing, and about people talking to each other and recruiting agents.

Slate: I don’t know if you were filming still when the Ukraine situation started to unfold, but do you think that this idea of Russia as our new-old enemy is helpful to the mood or does it have no bearing?

Weisberg: I find it mildly distracting, to tell you the truth.

Fields: Yeah, I agree. As Joe says, we think about the characters and themes of the show, but I don’t think we think about its particular connection to contemporary politics except in some broader thematic sense. And the particulars of Russia today and the Soviet Union then, they’re not of interest to me with respect to the show. What’s of interest, I think, is the sense of what it is to have an enemy, how we treat “the other,” how far we’re willing to go to protect our nation or our tribe or our family. But the specifics of Russia or Ukraine, that’s not what the show’s about to me.

Weisberg: I think that’s right. It’s a profoundly political show, it is a show about politics, it’s about people who are motivated by politics, people who are motivated by ideology. It is, as Joel said, about how you think about the enemy. So when everybody’s asking about how does it relate to small “p” politics, that feels like it gets off the point. But when suddenly things were happening in Donetsk, Ukraine, and we had had a scene the first season in Donetsk, I was a little bit like, “Oh, that’s cool.”

Slate: The only way that I think it’s related is that the USSR, from the vantage point of 2014, feels kind of quaint. It’s one enemy, and we know that we win, we know nuclear annihilation didn’t happen. And so this really powerful idea that the protagonists of the show are enemies of America does not have the almost sinkable weight it would have if the show were set contemporarily and was about, say, Iranian spies killing people. But the Ukraine situation raised the possibility of Russia as our enemy in a more contemporary way—and that might alter how we see Philip and Elizabeth.

Weisberg: You’re right, in a sense, that it’s a tonal question. A lot of people have written about seeing the show in a different light because of the shift in the politics.

Fields: We didn’t die in a global thermonuclear war, but at that time, those were the stakes. And I think when we talk about the Russia of today and the conflict in Ukraine and the things that are happening now, sitting here in Manhattan, nobody’s thinking that the missiles are about to fly. It’s more about regional politics and power plays. And who knows what the future holds, but we’re nowhere near World War III. And back then we were at the brink. And so the stakes are extremely heightened because we’re at the brink of this global confrontation—and yet, as viewers, we know it didn’t happen, so we can watch it more freely.

Slate: Are we really done with Nina (Annet Mahendru)? Is she really dead?

Weisberg: Who said she’s dead?

Slate: Oh, good! That’s what I wanted to know.

Weisberg: You know it’s funny, we were talking about it earlier, here’s how we would describe it: She’s in a car, on the way to the airport.

Slate: Unless you see the body on a television show, there’s no body. Even if you see the body.

Fields: On this one, you’d have to see the body and have acid poured on it.

Slate: Did you know it was Jared (Owen Campbell) the whole time?

Fields: We did. As soon as we broke that story, who killed the parents, we knew very early it was Jared.

Slate: It seems like you are now poised to get into all of these questions about parenthood with regard to Paige becoming, maybe, a spy. Did you know that, thematically, is where you wanted to wind up at the end of the season?

Fields: We knew we wanted to get into those questions at the end of the season, but the specifics of how that story played out unfolded rather late in the process for us. Whereas the Jared story we knew from the beginning.

Weisberg: Looking at the final episode from last season and Paige in the laundry room, you knew this season was going to be about parenthood, but the fact that it circled back around to Paige and the idea of a second-generation illegal, that was just the way things come back around when it’s all working well in the story universe.

Slate: Talk to me about the scene where Philip rips up Paige’s Bible. Paige, like the audience, is used to thinking of Elizabeth as the sterner parent, but it’s Philip who got angriest with her this season.

Weisberg: You know, a lot of times you have one parent as the disciplinarian. But what does that really mean? The other parent is letting the other parent play that role. And I think it’s confusing to a kid—the child gets mixed and confusing signals, and what they’re seeing isn’t necessarily reality. So her dad, Philip, has been playing the part of the nice guy all these years, he’s been playing the part of the cheerful one who plays with the kids more and tells more jokes, while Elizabeth has been the more somber one. Joel and I discovered that we both did a lot of reading of Carl Jung, and Jung would say that those two have split up the two sides, but they both have each of those sides in them. And Paige may read Jung herself one day and see that she’s been a little bit bamboozled.

Fields: It may be, ironically, that their parenting is the most in sync it ever is in that episode.

Slate: All of these great moments from the season are just flashing through my mind now—like the episode in which Henry (Keidrich Sellati) gets caught playing video games in other people’s houses and has that searing moment at the end where he screams over and over,  “I’m a good person!”

Weisberg: We love that scene, too. There’s something for me about the way the three of them, the parents and Henry, are spaced in that scene—and nobody’s exactly touching. Television for me is such an ongoing lesson in visual storytelling, and I don’t know what it’s going to look like until we see it. And who touches each other where and when in that scene is such a big part of the story. It’s just held for so long until anybody reaches out to anybody, and that to me is how Philip and Elizabeth parent differently than American parents, who often—you can’t generalize, but so many American parents would be so eager to comfort so soon. And I don’t think that they’re withholding the comfort, I think that they’re letting him find himself there. There’s a great strength in it. So much of that scene is in the visual story.

Slate: We haven’t talked at all about Stan (Noah Emmerich), who had a really sad year.

Fields: It’s been a rough season for Stan Beeman. But he pulled it out in the end—tragically.

Slate: He did do the right thing … but I wasn’t sure that he did the right thing.

Weisberg: Me too! I keep saying that. Maybe he should’ve gone with Nina—even though she was playing him. But he didn’t know it.

Slate: But that was of the things that was so beautiful about how that story was set up: She was playing him, but everything she said was at stake was actually at stake.

Weisberg: Right! Choose love, Stan, choose love!

Slate: Do you feel differently, Joel?

Fields: Well, as someone who wasn’t killed in a global thermonuclear war I’m glad he didn’t give away the secrets of Echo, yes. So I appreciate his patriotism. Semper Fi, Stan.

Slate: This reminds me, when I spoke to you guys in the past, you had a disagreement, i think, about whether Philip and Elizabeth are heroes or not.

Weisberg: You’re getting at our origin story.

Fields: I think at the first press tour the question was asked about this, and Joe said—

Weisberg: —you’re supposed to root for the KGB.

Fields: And I immediately got up and said, “Well, I don’t feel that way.” But at least 50 percent of the publications had me saying that. And my life was threatened. At least one show that I worked on in the past was threatened with a boycott, which I thought was pretty funny. But I still maintain that the show’s not asking you to root for the KGB, and certainly not asking you to root for the success of the former Soviet Union. We all know that totalitarian socialism was a failure. But I think what the show does do successfully is make you see these people as human beings, and make you root for them as human beings, and root for their marriage and root for their humanity. And that’s something you should be able to do for anybody.

Slate: Do you guys know how the show will end?

Weisberg: It’s funny you should ask, we’ve got a talk about it scheduled for tomorrow at 1:30 p.m.

Fields: About 1:45, give us a call. We’ve talked a lot about it. As for knowing? Well…

Weisberg: Yeah, we’re a long way from knowing, but we have a lot of possibilities, a lot of ideas.

Slate: How much have you thought about next season?

Weisberg: Quite a bit. The characters have started to build their own momentum. We have a pretty good sense.

Slate: Are there any themes of next season that you could share?

Fields: If the first season was about exploring marriage and the second season was about exploring family, the third season is an opportunity to explore what happens in a marriage when two people are really committed to each other and yet find themselves opposed in their ideology, in their belief systems—and most importantly in terms of what to do for the children. And how do you deal with those huge conflicts with big stakes when you still want to remain committed to one another? What gives? Who gives?

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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