I arrive on The Americans’ Brooklyn set on a chilly November day, shortly after Donald Trump has won the presidency. At that point it is clear—but not as abundantly as it would become—that Russia had tried to exert influence over the election. It is after Trump had suggested that Russia find Hillary Clinton’s emails, but before the pee dossier, Michael Flynn’s resignation, and Jeff Sessions’ recusal. And here I am visiting with the enemy. The fictional enemy, that is. In 1984.
For four seasons going on five, The Americans has been one of the best shows on television. But only recently did it become easy to watch the news and remark, “It’s just like The Americans.” Sitting with Keri Russell in the dining room where she and real-life partner Matthew Rhys pose as Soviet spies posing as married Beltway travel agents, I ask about how the political climate in 2017 is making The Americans more germane. “It’s intriguing, but I guess it’s just how things don’t change,” she says. “But that’s probably a better Joe [Weisberg] and Joel [Fields] question. I let them handle the political stuff. But, I mean—scary and weird. Especially this week. It’s like, I don’t even know what to say. What the fuck? I don’t know.”
But when I get on the phone with showrunners Weisberg and Fields some months later, they aren’t eager to draw parallels to today’s world and the 1980s. Weisberg had told the crowd at the Television Critics Association press tour that “there is something, in a twisted way, kind of fun in seeing all the headlines about stuff we’re trafficking in.” Though these events were unfolding while they were writing the latest part of the Jennings’ journey, Weisberg says the writers’ typically work in a “bubble” of the past. Now that bubble is being punctured by people like me, who want Fields’ and Weisberg’s thoughts about the show’s real-world parallels. “The main thing we’ve experienced is just a huge number of people saying to us, ‘Wow, who ever would have expected? The show is so much more relevant now.’ I don’t know myself what to make of that,” Weisberg explains.
He’s not mad that people are interested in the show, of course, but he’s not sure he sees—aside from the obvious—what exactly is provoking the response. The show, according to Weisberg, has never had a partisan stance. “We always liked that people from all across the political spectrum would write articles about it and say that they saw it supporting their view one way or another,” he says, later adding: “The only way in which it’s more relevant now is that it happens to be on a topic that is of increased relevance.” Fields countered with, “Even when you say that it’s on a topic of increased relevance, I only think it’s peripherally true because this show is not really about the Soviet Union and the United States. The show is about marriage, family, truth, integrity, identity. To the extent that it’s about the political world, it’s about the nature of having an enemy.”
Indeed, The Americans reflects current events in theory, far more than execution. Yes, it’s about a pair of KGB officers working to protect their country and subsequently undermine the U.S., but it’s more invested in its characters’ personal traumas than the outcomes of their missions. It’s about how loyalty can be forged out of both passion and necessity, and in the fifth season it’s, more than ever, about a happy couple. “So they’re at a place where that love is primary, and that’s a new thing for them,” Fields says.
At the outset of the series, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings were two people in an arranged marriage, who differed in their approaches to their job. But—just before Philip’s fake wife Martha (Alison Wright) boarded a plane bound for the USSR—Elizabeth asked if he would like to go with her. He looked back in horror. No, he affirmed. Thus, Weisberg and Fields found themselves having odd conversations with new directors this time around. “We say, ‘They’re getting along so well in their marriage—this season there’s no conflict,’” Weisberg says. “And everybody sort of chuckles a little bit, and then we backtrack and we say, ‘Okay, we don’t mean that literally. Obviously, every episode is full of drama and conflict, but if there is something new going on between them where what Phillip and Elizabeth are navigating is that they’re relating to each other and getting along with each other in a way that’s new to them.’”
One common mission they have now is parenting, which is the topic of both the scenes I watch. Before lunch, Russell is filming a tense conversation with her onscreen daughter, Holly Taylor. Elizabeth slowly lets Paige (Taylor) in on the specifics of her job, elaborating on the deception required. All the while she makes lasagna. “It’s rare that we do, on this show, a full four-page scene,” Russell tells me later that day. “We do more and more of them, but it’s sort of rare—they tend to be a little shorter. That’s more of what I was skating on thin ice about. I was like, ‘Fuck, what are my lines?’ Mother of three, no brains.”
Over the years, Paige has become both the biggest threat to her parents and The Americans’ most sympathetic character. As we reconnect with her, she’s battling PTSD from watching her mother kill a man, and making an almost futile attempt at trying to be a normal teen by engaging in a relationship with the boy across the street, Matthew Beeman (Danny Flaherty), son of FBI agent Stan. “She’s still sad, she’s still confused,” Taylor says. “As much as she wanted to know the truth, now that she knows the truth, it’s obviously put a huge burden on her life.”
She’s “lost within herself,” Taylor says, and she wears a ponytail because she just does not care about how she looks anymore. The hairstyle “signals [Paige’s] mood,” Taylor explains. That day, Taylor was contending with a particularly aggravating bit of period clothing: an itchy sweater. “It was stabbing my skin,” she says. She put a long-sleeved shirt underneath, but it was still uncomfortable.
The Americans is winding down its run with a 13-episode fifth season and a 10-episode sixth. “Even when they said, it’ll be two more seasons, it puts a very kind of definite, final stamp on things,” Rhys says sitting in the Jennings’ bedroom. “It’s nice to know that you’re working toward an ending, and the boys have a specific ending in mind, which they’re not sharing with us.”
Even with an end in sight, the showrunners aren’t resting on their laurels. They’ve introduced a new tone (but decline to define the tone specifically, leaving that to critics). “We have in a sense much less espionage whizbang,” Weisberg says. “Of course, each season has had less than the season before, and this season though, there’s even a more dramatic drop-off than before.” After reading some of the scripts, FX CEO John Landgraf said he “noticed there’s a focus on emotional velocity.” That became Weisberg and Fields’ “catchphrase.”
Whereas in past years the writers would begin plotting the season by figuring out what theme would drive the action, that has changed. “The characters and the story are telling us what’s right tonally and what moves come next,” Fields says. Now, as well, they are dealing with even more stories that are taking place in Russia. KGB official Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) has returned to his family grieving the loss of his brother. There’s also the little matter of whatever became of poor Martha. “The truth is, as much as we plan all the moves of our story, we’re also open to being surprised by them as they unfold,” Fields explains. “That was one that was a surprise to us toward the end of last season, because the story pointed toward these characters being sent home.”
Back at the Jennings’, the crew moves onto a scene that centers around Paige’s often-ignored brother, Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Weisberg says that Henry “pushed his way in” this season. As the afternoon hits, it’s morning now in the ’80s, and Henry is being surly about a piece of toast, among other things. When they aren’t acting, the cast is easy with one another. Rhys jokingly comments on the action. “What has gotten into that young man?” he says, affecting a Southern accent, in reference to his fictional son’s shitty behavior. As production continues, Taylor and Sellati start munching on the extra bread that’s around. Sellati feeds some to Taylor at one point. The scenario on screen and off is familiar.
Russia is once again morphing into a monolithic bad guy, a notion the show has long been combatting. “When the show began it was set in the Cold War and present day Russia was not a threat or an enemy, but suddenly today, we’re divided as Americans as to how we perceive who they are and what they’ve done to us,” Fields says in our conversation. Weisberg jumps in. “Part of the premise of the show was to say, ‘Let’s take a second look at these people who we thought were such terrible enemies.’ If you look closely at them, they were more like us than we realized and maybe our perception of them as such mortal enemies was in fact terrible skewed,” he says. “Well, now you can say it has increased relevance but what’s actually happening is we’re doing it all over again. It’s the exact same thing with almost the exact same people, and I would certainly say with even less justification.”