'The Americans' showrunners: Frosty US-Russia relations didn't influence season 5
With U.S.-Russia relations dominating 2017 headlines, it really does feel like we're living in the second coming of the Cold War. As a result, it could not be a more perfect time for FX's stellar drama The Americans to return to TV screens. The Emmy-nominated series, which tells the tale of two KGB spies posing as average Americans in the 1980s, premiered its fifth and penultimate season Tuesday.
The show currently takes place in 1984, but aside from the lack of internet and questionable wardrobe choices, the narrative clearly resonates with a 21st-century audience now that Russia has resumed its role as the United States' sketchy fellow superpower. It seems like a no-brainer this season's storylines would be influenced by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin's murky relationship — but if you ask The Americans' executive producers, it's more a case of history repeating itself.
Mic got on the phone with co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to discuss the similarities between life and art in The Americans' fifth season, as well as glean some insight into some of the more scintillating details from the premiere episode they co-wrote. Series creator Weisberg, it should be noted, is a former CIA officer.
Below are excerpts from our conversation.
[Editor's note: This interview contains spoilers from The Americans season five premiere episode, "Amber Waves."]
Mic: How much have the political events of the past year influenced your writing of the fifth season?
Joel Fields: Well, zero. We write the show very much in a bubble of the 1980s. And although the political events have certainly impacted our lunchtime conversation, and our mood and our experience of making the show, they haven't impacted our process or our content in creating the show. Although, to be honest, we're also increasingly aware that they will impact the audience's experience of watching it, and that's fine and as it should be.
Joe Weisberg: It also strongly affects the questions we get asked ... and, not that I'm saying we choose it, but maybe it will affect the amount of people who will watch. That would be nice, too. There's always a silver lining, you know.
I had a feeling that would be your answer, but given the current relationship between the United States and Russia, it's easy to draw comparisons.
JW: Well, it certainly was funny to see all of a sudden one day we wake up, and all the news is about kompromat. We thought that was a word that only we knew! Who's talking about that except us and like, a few people in, like, the intelligence agencies and a couple of Soviet scholars? And then it's like, on the front pages everywhere.
JF: Also, often the most outrageous spy things on the show are the things that are taken from a historical record. And suddenly you open up the newspaper, or open it up in your browser, and there it is, the most outrageous things in the world all over again.
So, no references to Putin and/or Trump on the show this season?
JF: No, ma'am. Not going to find 'em.
JW: We're always at pains not to do that. You never find any kind of a glaring 1980s reference in the show that would make someone think, "Wow, look what they put in!" Because we don't want to bum people out.
JF: We always try to have our characters living in the truth of the '80s, so we devoted an entire episode last season to, of course, The Day After. It made perfect sense for that to be part of the show. But what we try not to do is jam in cultural references that would seem self-aware.
We're all familiar with your inspiration walls for the years each season takes place. Was there anything in 1984 you were really looking forward to covering? The season premiere briefly touches on the Olympics ...
JF: You know, this is not a season of big cultural references like that. We were even in a bit of a bind, to be honest, just in terms of our calendar year, because the time frame of the show was so propelled from last season. We shoot in the winter, so for the first time in really five seasons, we had to be a little bit more in amorphous time. Season six, I think, is going to get much more specific, so there may be more specific references. Although there are cultural references, both our timeframe and our storytelling this year didn't pull us toward the iconic cultural moments. But we got some good iconic songs!
Can you share any?
JF: No, we consider those music spoilers.
Will this season cover the 1984 election?
JF: No, we're not going to get there. We're not focused on that.
That's fine, because my real question was this: Can Philip and Elizabeth even vote?
JW: That's a great question! There was a point in which we had thought about a big election story, and it had some interesting elements, but even in that story we had never thought literally about, "Are they registered to vote?" It's not that hard to register to vote, so I think with their covers and IDs that they have, they could register to vote. Which they might get a kick out of.
It is so rare in film and television to see such a long, slow, drawn-out sequence like the last 13 minutes of the season five premiere. What was your reasoning behind the great William dig scene?
JW: Well, it takes 13 minutes to dig a hole!
JF: Joking aside, it's a long and grueling process to dig a hole. And what we decided was either we wouldn't show it at all, or we would find a way to convey how long and grueling it would be.
It sure didn't work, because Joe and I sat in front of our big computer screens and wrote that sequence. Honestly, when we were done writing it, there was every possibility that it wouldn't work at all. It worked because here we are in season five, and we have in Chris Long, one of the best directing producers in the business. We have in Mary Rae Thewlis one of the best line producers in the business. We have a team of production designers and actors and stunt people and set dressers — all of whom are now not only working hard, but rowing together in the same direction and were able to make that sequence compelling. We have in Nate Barr one of the best composers who's working today. He was able to write this cue that is so perfect, I barely even notice it, which is one of the highest compliments you can give for a sequence like that.
JW: So, when we turned it over to Chris Long to direct, we were basically like, "This isn't going to work. But we're sure you can make it great." And the first thing he said was, "You know, guys, there's a high probability that this will be boring."
JF: And we said, "We know, so how can we work on that?" And we just talked and talked and talked, and ultimately, he and that team made it soar.
Well, the very end certainly wasn't boring [Philip and Elizabeth's young South African spy-in-training, Hans, was given a mercy killing after being infected with a deadly virus]. So, what's with The Americans and its Spinal Tap-ian tendency — we are in 1984, after all! — to have all their young, idealistic spies killed off? There's Lucia, Kate, Nina, Jared and now Hans. Seriously, it's the exploding drummer syndrome.
JW: Look, we are old people at this point, so I think we just don't want to kill old people.
JF: Also, we love Spinal Tap.
At the end of last season, it seemed like the Jennings' return to the Soviet Union was a foregone conclusion. But now they're staying with little explanation. How much of a risk are they running by staying in the United States?
JF: Well, it's always a risk, but as they say [in the first episode], the immediate risk had been whether or not William had talked. Given that time had passed, they've weathered that. How long that lasts, well, you gotta ask yourself how often you can keep dodging that bullet in this line of work.
Where did you get that Russian version of "America the Beautiful"?
JF: We made it ourselves! Isn't that cool? We got a chorus in Moscow and we had them sing it for us. I'll tell you, that is a high point for us. You dream it up, and then it happens.
The Americans airs on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern on Tuesdays.
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