Though The Americans’ first season was hugely successful creatively and critically, the second season started attracting the kinds of raves that are usually reserved for the upper echelon of TV dramas. This was for good reason: Through 13 episodes, the show’s missteps were minor, and the overall story arc for the second season proved to be a powerful tale of what it means to believe in something larger than yourself, while still trying to carve out space to be your own individual, as well as what it means to be a parent when you have to keep huge secrets from your children. Shortly before the second season finale aired, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields talked to The A.V. Club and walked through their second season, character by character.
Philip and Elizabeth
The A.V. Club: When you were figuring out what this season looked like, where did you want to take those two main characters?
Joe Weisberg: I think we started with two central thoughts. One, we left Paige in that laundry room, and we knew she was going to start questioning them. And we were interested in the pressure that was going to put on the marriage, because if she was going to question them, then they were going to probably pretty soon realize it. It wasn’t going to be a secret for long, and sure enough, right in the first episode of season two they start seeing that something is going on. She obviously looks in on them, and they realize it. That’s something they’ve never faced before in all the years of raising kids.
The other thing is they’re back together after all the struggles of the first season, and this marriage that has been so troubled is starting to congeal into something real and something with all these deeper, truer feelings. The first season was really about that happening, but now, in the second season, it’s: What is it like to settle into that? It’s almost like they’re newlyweds after 15 years. Now, they’re in a real marriage, and what’s it like to be in that when you’ve been together all these years? It just seemed like they had these incredibly fertile depths for us to explore. I think that was our starting point.
AVC: You mention that in season one, there was some trouble in the marriage, and it seems like you shifted away from that. Did you feel like the time was over for that?
Joel Fields: One of the things we talked about is the first season explored their marriage through the central conceit that they had been in a fake marriage, and that they were suddenly waking up to the reality and possibility that they’d been together for all these years, that they have kids, that they had to ask the question, “Do we want to be married for real or not?” And by the end of the first season, Elizabeth asked Philip to come home, and the season began with the idea that they were, in many ways for the first time, going to try to be married in a real sense. As they did, they were exploring things that people do for the first time and conflicts sometimes come up, but less extremely. As marriages wear on, conflict can surface, and wounds that were not properly healed can be reopened. It’s a long journey.
JW: As Joel says that, it occurs to me that’s one of the interesting things to navigate in a TV show: In the marriage part of the TV show, we work so hard to try to be real, and to have it feel like a real marriage, and yet you are telling a story in a format of one-hour blocks of 13 episodes. When you talk about conflicts in marriage, there are conflicts that come and conflicts that go, conflicts that build and conflicts that get resolved. And then there are just day-to-day conflicts. So to tell a realistic marriage story, what is the combination of dramatic conflict? If we were to tell it to you right now, we could say, “Here’s the story of their conflict over ideology that’s going to build from season one to three and ebb a little in season four and come back in the finale.” How do you then sprinkle that in with their little itsy-bitsy conflicts that could pop up in any singular episode? How do you put those all together?
JF: As with a real marriage, ultimately, our conflicts resolve or transform because we learn to become more like the person we’re married to, or because we learn more to accept those differences. In accepting them, is it that we learn to tolerate them, or that we learn to celebrate them? I think those things are true in all marriages in different ways.
AVC: Speaking of Philip and Elizabeth as spies, it seems like falling in love was one of the worst things that could have happened to them as far as their job was concerned. How did you make that choice?
JW: I remember that was something we always talked about from the very beginning, what impact that would have on their marriage, and Joel, I wonder if you have the same recollection of this that I do. I remember [FX president] John Landgraf talking about that from very early days, how dangerous that would be. Yet I don’t know if we specifically thought [this] would be the moment where that starts to put them in danger. It feels to me that it’s been a much more fluid thing and it sort of happened. That was something that we thought about, and then it kind of burrowed into our unconscious minds. Do you remember it the same way?
JF: Yeah, Joe, that’s exactly right. It’s kind of an interesting thing about our process because you and I will have conversations with John about these things. We’ll have long conversations in our writers’ room. Before we even assembled the room, you and I walked and talked so much about this stuff, and we have, sometimes, very intellectual conversations about these things. But I’d be interested in your thoughts, because to me, when it ultimately comes down to the creative process, all that’s part of it, but it sort of feels like when we get down to even breaking the big arcs of the story, you kind of let that go. It’s the characters are sort of telling us what the right way to tell the story is and what feels right in terms of their journey.
JW: I think that’s right, and when something like this comes back and you realize it was in there doing its own work unconsciously, that’s very satisfying.
JF: It is. We say, “All right! We did what we talked about doing! It actually happened!” [All laugh.]
AVC: It seems like this season played up, for all of the spy characters, but especially Philip and Elizabeth, the sense that they are controlled by other forces. How do you play up that sense, yet continue to give the characters agency and drive and momentum?
JF: That’s such a great question because momentum and volition and agency and drive are critical to good storytelling. I could see how you could look at the season and wonder about those problems, but we’re looking at the season forward and not backwards, if that makes sense, and I think to us, if those things weren’t there, then the story would just feel like it wasn’t working. That’s when we toss out a storyline, and step back, and wait until something feels that it has the right amount of emotional and thematic connection for us. I don’t think we ever start by saying, “We need drive in this story, or we need agency or propulsion.” I think we look at what the story is and then try to find the version that’s interesting to us. Usually, it’s not going to be one without those things.
AVC: This season, even Elizabeth seemed occasionally to be questioning the Center’s orders more, and that came up throughout the show. What made this the right time to do that?
JW: That’s interesting. I saw a number of critics who wrote that and had that response, and I knew what they were talking about, because I think there’s a number of places where it’s clear that she’s actually questioning it, where she actually says, “Is this the right thing?” My sense was that she wasn’t getting to deep questioning. She wasn’t going to, “Is the whole thing cocked?”, or even close to there. It was more, almost like tactical questioning. But I think it’s so important that people have their own sense and their own interpretation. I don’t claim that my sense of that is the right one.
JF: I think there are two prongs of that same question. One is, as Joe says, a question of questioning the whole organization and the purpose of it, but the other is being inside the organization. Philip and Elizabeth are both, ultimately, soldiers. And soldiers are extremely patriotic and committed people, but they also live in a world of a huge bureaucracy that is often screwed up. That’s a pretty universal experience for somebody in the military. That’s where FUBAR [Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition/Reason/Repair] comes from. And SNAFU [Situation Normal: All Fucked Up].
AVC: This season really centered on Philip and Elizabeth as parents. What were you trying to say, just generally, about parenting? What were you trying to say about what it’s like to be a parent and have to hide this huge secret from your kids?
JF: We talked about this so much together before the season and over the course of the season, that it’s funny to hear our responses afterward. You mention secrets, and I think both Joe and I feel very strongly that truth is the foundation of good relationships, and being able to be honest with one’s self and with the people one loves, that’s the bedrock of relationships. Of course, for Philip and Elizabeth, for spies, they’re constantly having to hold that back. So it’s a very lonely life. Here they are with their own children, and in their efforts to protect them, they’ve created this corrosive lie that is beneath everything. And yeah, we talked a lot about what that betrayal could mean to those kids long-term and the terrible trap that they’re in: To undo it would, as Philip says, destroy them. And to not face it, means that, as Elizabeth says, one day it’s coming. In some form or another, there’s a reckoning.
JW: I think that’s why we were so drawn to the story of Jared, because he’s one story of where that can go. Because we all lie to our kids, I mean, [Laughs.] you tell your kids lies, and not just white lies. There are things you don’t tell your kids because they’re too young. There are things you protect them from. But spies, all spies, tell their kids this big lie, which gets into the issue of their identity. You’re keeping your child’s own identity from them. Different kids respond to that different ways. The story we told with Jared is obviously the most extreme possible, worst response to that. If you’re viewing it as a spectrum, that’s all the way on the left side. I don’t think you could get any worse than that. But that made it a very interesting story to tell, a very powerful story.
Paige and Henry
AVC: It seemed like the whole season had been building to the reveal in the last 10 minutes that the Center wanted to recruit Paige. Was that something you decided early on, or did that come later as you were structuring the season?
JW: Joel, do you have the same recollection that that piece of it came later. The Jared part we knew all along, but—
JF: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The Jared piece of the puzzle was something that, once it came to us, it came to us very early on. Before we started writing the first episode, we had that whole story in our heads. As always, we keep open the possibility that things will change. With Paige, we had a different idea, and then a series of different ideas, and it wasn’t until we were in the writing of the last quarter of the season that the specifics of that came into focus.
AVC: Paige’s experiences with religion provided a fascinating counterpoint for the season. Was that chosen specifically to drive her parents nuts in a way we would not consider likely?
JF: We felt like it’s a story that could really only be told on this show with these characters. It’s to the point where we, a few times, had to remind certain people on the show that this was a nice church. That there was nothing nefarious. They kept waiting, I think, for this minister to pull his mask off. I think they were so invested with Philip and Elizabeth’s point of view. But it really tapped into their own cultural perspective. Although, that was a story also that we landed on and stuck with, it took a lot of iterations and explorations before we figured out how we wanted to tell that story.
JW: By the way, some of these stories, you come up with a story idea, and then you sort of look around the TV landscape and say, “Well, this story’s been told on this show and that show, so we’re not going to pile on and do it, too.” But as Joel was just saying, we looked around and we thought of the different shows we knew that had done a similar story, and we thought to ourselves, “Yup, but nobody can do it like us.” It’s just a totally different story on The Americans. [Laughs.] We at least feel good about how came out, that what we had hoped for was true.
AVC: Paige’s questioning of her parents is both a vital element of the show and also just normal adolescent behavior. How far do you want to push her snooping around? It came up a few times throughout the season, but also, realistically, she couldn’t possibly guess her parents were KGB spies.
JW: I think that’s right. It just would be too far outside the realm of anything that would ever occur to an American kid. They’d have to make a big mistake for her to get on to that. So I think you’re right that the snooping is not the fruitful avenue.
JF: Although, the subconscious is a powerful provider of mistakes if ever needed.
JW: It’s interesting. We do see quite a few reactions from people. You never know what this represents in terms of how many people feel this way or general reactions of everything, but there seems to be at least some subset of people who find her irritating or annoying and the fact that she’s rebelling in this way and asking these questions, and they say, “Oh, here’s another annoying teenage girl.” And that doesn’t make any sense to us. We don’t understand that. Or we don’t relate to it. It seems to us that she’s a teenage girl in a very specific situation with a lot of things going on, and we’re really in sympathy with her. We don’t find her behavior unrealistic or irritating. It’s an interesting question for us. We certainly plan to continue going down this road with her.
JF: Between seasons, I read this really interesting book by Erik Erikson’s daughter about what it was like to grow up as his daughter, and among the things in the book is that it turned out that her parents had this huge secret: They’d had a child that they prepared to receive in the home, and it turned out the child was severely disabled. At that time, what you did was put the child in a home and told the kids and everybody that the child had died, so that’s what they did. And she found out years later, but as she looked back over her childhood there were all of these emotional clues, and she had these recurring dreams that as soon as she drilled into them with some therapy, it became clear that subconsciously, she had a great sense of what the story was, and it was really central to the formation of her character. It was the driving story of her childhood, even more so than her father’s fame, in a lot of ways. We talked a lot about how this lives in the subconscious of Paige and Henry and how this unknown thing, this secret, is the central story of this family, even if they don’t know its details.
AVC: How important is that understanding of psychology and psychological realism to your process of writing this show?
JW: We’re psychological people. What Joel just said, we talk that way a lot. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the first step in how we break story, but it’s always a step. We’re always looking for the psychological motivations and what’s going on behind the actions and the decisions and always trying to understand our characters from a psychological point of view. And there are certainly times when that will turn the direction the story takes, and, of course, one of the most interesting elements of it is that our characters are not psychologically attuned people at all. None of them. Not one of them. On that spectrum, they’re all very far on the left side. We always go through each draft of a script, and when we find a character making a psychologically in-tune or aware statement, we pull it out.
AVC: It seems like when you have a show like this, and there are two kids, the younger of the two always gets served less well than the older, but you did some interesting things with Henry this season. What were some of your goals for that character and where do you see that character’s role in the show going forward? He seems much more consciously innocent.
JF: More consciously innocent than last season or more consciously innocent than—
AVC: Than his sister.
JF: His murderous parents?
AVC: Than his murderous parents. And also his sister. He’s not questioning.
JF: Well, he is younger, so it makes sense for him to be questioning less, but I’m glad you noticed because we talked a lot about Henry, and it took a lot to get to those things. We’re blessed with really talented child actors, so when you think about what he did in that episode “New Car,” and the performance he delivered at the end of that episode was so heartbreaking and true. But we really wanted to find something that got to what was going on in his psychology. Honestly, one of my favorite little moments of the season is Paige saying to her parents, “My brother commits a criminal act and is guilty of breaking and entering, and he doesn’t even get punished, and all I want to do is make the world a better place, and I’m the bad guy!”
JW: I think it’s also an element of screen time. You’ve only got so much time to tell your stories, and that’s one of the reasons these younger siblings end up getting a little less developed. But we have a lot we want to do with him, and we’re hoping to pick it up next season.
I’ve always thought of him, to a certain degree, as the most American in that family and sort of an outlier. The most outsider in the family, in a sense. Although it’s obviously the American kids and the Russian parents, you can sort of feel Paige, you can see her trouble and her angst and her mother inside of her, and there’s something about Henry that feels like this all-American boy. That he is the most thoroughly Americanized in this group. I don’t know for sure if next season that’s the way the stories will go, or if we’ll find something else in that character that will go a different direction, but something’s very fascinating in that character, and in that actor, that sort of leans into that a little bit.
Stan and Sandy
AVC: Moving on to Stan, it seemed like you really consciously isolated him from just about everybody this season. What was behind that impetus?
JF: When you asked the question about psychology and the role that it plays in our thinking, Joe gave a very eloquent answer, and the answer that popped into my mind was, yes, we are very psychological people and we do think a lot about the psychology of our characters, but we try to do it subconsciously rather than consciously. Then I realized the absurdity of my thought. [Both laugh.]
So when you say that we’ve consciously isolated him, I think we talked a lot about what felt true in terms of where his character was going, and we talked a lot about where he would be at and the things that were happening around him and what crucible we wanted to take him through. Boy, it’s been a very emotionally punishing, isolating, challenging season for Stan Beeman. In the end, he made a very big choice, and now, we’ll get to explore the repercussions of that on his soul, as well as the repercussions of everything that’s happening in his marriage and the rest of his life.
JW: I think, Todd, the way you tended to put it can feel almost like he’s in a different show or a different story, and I think that’s right. We know exactly what you’re talking about. And that was, of course, the Nina story, the Stan-and-Nina story that he was living in. There were two stories that are designed and exist for him in the same show, in the same one story. One is, of course, the story of the FBI tracking the illegals, and the other is this story of Stan and Philip’s friendship. What we fight a constant and, I believe, a winning battle with, is to not push either of those in a way that doesn’t feel real just to get the two stories integrated. Our decision was to let those worlds feel more separate, because that felt more real. From the beginning of season one, we want Stan and Philip to become friends, to become close, to have this tight relationship. And yet, it’s happening at its own speed. We’ll see what happens next season. We’ll see if they have more integration that way. Essentially, the same is true of the FBI’s pursuit of the illegals. It goes at the rate that a realistic plot wants to go, rather than an accelerated rate that would integrate those two stories together more completely.
AVC: Stan provides some information to Oleg earlier in the season, but when it comes time to provide the big secret, he can’t do it. Did you talk about both sides of what choice he might make, or were you always thinking he was going to decide not to in the end?
JW: Did we ever have the discussion about him actually doing it? I mean, it must have come up. I can’t believe it didn’t ever come up, but I’m dubious that it ever got serious consideration.
JF: No, the story arc of that started with us wanting to tell it pretty much as it played out. Our concern was, is it going to feel truly believable that he would do it? Can we put enough pressure on him that he would do it? Then as we got toward the end, the question became, wow, how can we get him to explore his psyche in such a way that he gets rattled enough to remember who the hell he is?
JW: Enough so that he doesn’t do it! Because he’s so in love with his woman. It’s a good problem to have.
JF: Fortunately the answer was not that we had to recreate plot, but that we had to expose what we knew was going on inside him. But that dream was an odd moment. That’s not normally the style of the show, to do a dream moment, but it felt like it really worked for him there.
AVC: It really had just a feel of not being like a lot of dream sequences, where it tells you everything in very obvious symbols. What was the process of writing that scene like?
JF: Oh, it was layered. With many different versions.
JF: Options. I mean, the first question was, “Do we want to do the dream sequence?”
JW: [Laughs.] Nobody likes flashbacks, nobody likes dream sequences.
JF: We talked around that a lot, and then we just decided well, what the heck, let’s write it. And boy, that was just the beginning of writing a lot of different versions of the dream sequence, what he was going to see, and what he was not going to see.
JW: Yeah, we had an unusually high number of opinions about exactly how to film it, more than we usually have. And just a lot of discussions. [Director] Dan Sackheim really did a beautiful job with it. I remember him talking to us over and over. This is what I’m talking about: the level of detail that Dan Sackheim was talking about, how many feet he was going to be behind Stan at this point and that point. I mean, he was that specific about the feeling he was going to evoke.
JF: If you watch the sequence carefully, you’ll notice Martha appears behind Stan just a little faster than is actually humanly possible.
JW: And he was, like, “That’ll just unconsciously get the audience a little aware that something funny is going on. Maybe 1 percent of the audience will consciously pick it up.”
And then, of course, there’s this other thing in the dream sequence that we have no idea what percentage of people will see this, but Martha takes a file off the mail robot in that dream sequence—
JF: Puts it in her bag.
JW: So, unconsciously, Stan is aware because he’s such a good detective—which we haven’t seen him being a great detective in a lot of ways this season—but he’s still in love with Nina and so smitten and being played and fucking up. Great detective Stan is still at work in his unconscious mind. His unconscious mind has figured out that Martha is betraying her country with Clark and stealing things from mail robots, and it’s visible in that dream sequence, but he’s not consciously aware of it.
JF: Again, if you watch what’s on there, it happens behind his back. It really is in the subconscious of his subconscious in the dream. The character in the dream doesn’t see it, but it’s there.
AVC: Sandy flitted through the season. Her arc is kind of happening on the edges. Do you have plans for her going forward?
JF: We do have plans for her going forward, in that, on some level, this is a show about marriage, and even though this is a marriage that’s dissolving, you don’t have a child with somebody and spend almost two decades married to somebody and then blink and have them disappear from your life. I don’t know who was the comedian who said that he really felt that after a break-up, the only courteous thing that the other person could do is die. [All laugh.] But really, short of that, our lives are intertwined, particularly when we have children after a relationship like that. There’s potentially a world to explore there, too, if we choose. On camera or off.
AVC: Returning to that dream sequence, it seems like it indicates that Stan’s more upset about Sandy’s affair than he lets on. Why do you think Stan is so clumsy about realizing his own feelings?
JW: We were talking about that spectrum of un-psychologically astute, unemotionally evolved people, and Stan is just what you said: He’s clumsy. He’s not aware of his own feelings. That’s just who he is. He’s truly a great detective who has now been skillfully played by a spy. He’s in counterintelligence. That shouldn’t happen to him. And yet it does, because, when it comes to affairs of the heart, he’s not operating at a sophisticated level. As so many adults don’t. And as probably most adults don’t, in their bad moments.
JF: That’s so right, and also, Joe, I think there’s a bit of a period reference here on top of that, which is: It’s hard enough to be self-aware in 2014 after a couple generations of people having therapy available to them. But for a man in 1983, who got married in 1965, that’s asking a lot. Even Sandra is just starting to explore that this season and she’s casting about through EST and other sorts of ways and trying to find a connection to her inner landscape.
JW: It’s interesting you say that. In the show, we don’t make fun of things like EST, and I think, Joel, what you just said, we didn’t really talk about it before, but I think one of the reasons we don’t is because that is more what was available then. People who went to EST then probably would go to therapy now. But then, if you were searching and trying to find some self-awareness and some help, you’d more likely go to EST. So why make fun of it? People are trying.
Nina and Oleg
AVC: Both visually and in dialogue you’re constantly mirroring Nina off of some of the other characters, be it Lucia or Elizabeth or Paige. What did you see as Nina’s role in the season, and why put that character at the moment where she could potentially be gone from the show forever?
JW: You know, there was an interesting thing that happened and I’m not sure exactly how, where, when, or why, and I also don’t know if it happened at some point last season, or some point this season, but Nina really went from a function of the Stan story to the Nina story. And I’m so glad that happened. I think it was so important and so powerful, but we really got this season more as writers to think about her and who she was and what was going on in her life. I think that helped us write her in a different way and come at scenes she had with Stan from both of their directions equally, which I think really helped us.
AVC: She seems so trapped this season, and yet she navigates very well until the very end. What were you looking at with that particular aspect of her character?
JF: In a way she’d been trapped since that moment at the fruit stand [in season one]. She’s a character who’s always been able to dance on this tightrope and somehow survive. The question is, how long can you keep doing it?
AVC: You do that a lot: play out slow-motion tragedies where people’s fates have been set from the first time we see them, but they play out after season after season after season. Do you have endpoints in mind when you start those stories? Even just very general ones like, “This is ultimately going to destroy their life,” or something like that?
JW: I don’t think so. Certainly not with Nina, right Joel? I don’t even remember thinking about where Nina might go when we started that story, did we?
JF: We did, and actually, we had one full season’s worth of story for Nina when we started that story.
JW: We knew the season story, but we didn’t know where she would end.
JF: That’s right. And in a way, we broke it from Stan’s perspective, which is we knew it would end with her secretly having turned Stan without his knowledge. She was working him, but it was much more thinking about her as a character provoking his story, and then as this season opened up, it did become much more about her story. So, when we launched her story, we didn’t know that. In a way, I can say she was trapped from the moment Stan confronted her at that fruit stand. Maybe she was trapped from the moment she started sending money back in those stereos. Maybe she was trapped from the moment the thing that happened that made her feel she had to send money back. All these things, you can make sense of in some way in retrospect. But ultimately, when that tragedy strikes in its horrible moment or looking at it in slow motion, it doesn’t matter.
JW: That fruit-stand piece of it, or rather the stereo piece of it, was based on the case of the Soviet diplomat who was found to be doing almost exactly that by the FBI in the ’80s. And the FBI blackmailed him and got him to spy for them, and he was caught and taken back to the Soviet Union and executed. I remember reading about that case and just thinking, my God, the whole Cold War—I don’t think any of this came up until after the Cold War was over—the whole Cold War, all the United States, the CIA, the FBI, everybody else, said was, “We don’t do that. That’s what they do. They blackmail people. We would never do anything like that.” And here was just one example of us doing exactly that and the most tragic kind of ending. It’s just, like, basically a nice guy who was trying to make a little hard currency, had a wife and two kids. There’s just a lot of tragedy in this world. It’s a good Americans story, that story, because everybody’s just as shitty as everybody else.
AVC: You do a lot of conflict between individuals and institutions, especially institutions they work for, on this show. What interests you about that theme?
JW: Well, I’ll say I’m just fascinated by bureaucracies. For some reason, in my head, this was even before I worked at the CIA, I had some interest in bureaucracies. And having worked in a very large, bizarre, entirely dysfunctional bureaucracy, I just found it fascinating on every level how people act. How the bureaucracy dictates how you act. There’s nothing surprising about this, so many people will say the same thing, how bureaucratic rules and culture dictate behavior in ways that are kind of hard to believe. It’s not really Kafkaesque. It’s so much more mundane than that. The mundane level of it is hard to believe, and then, going back and looking at the Soviet Union was one of the great bureaucratic cultures in the history of mankind. The whole thing was one giant bureaucracy, and it was painted by the United States as an evil empire. I mean, under Stalin, I think you could have reasonably called it evil, but post-Stalin it was closer to a giant, crazy bureaucracy.
AVC: Do you see this as the end of Nina’s story on the show?
JF: No, we plan to have her back next season.
AVC: Oleg enters the story here as a very important character to the season. He’s also a subtly different character from Arkady and some of the other Soviets we’ve seen. What did you want that character to be when you brought him on to the story?
JW: I think back to this idea that is so intrinsic to the whole show: Can we get people to sympathize with the Soviets, with the KGB officers? Can we draw parallels between the two societies that people can relate to when they’re supposed to be the bad guy? So here was a guy that came from the nomenclature, which was the Soviet version of a privileged kid. The upper elite of the Communist party, and would a young guy from that upper elite essentially seem the same and have the same issues and the same prejudices as an American rich kid? The story seemed familiar, even though the casing around it would look very different. I think that was a lot of the original impetus. That’s where it started, and then, of course, as with all high falutin’ ideas, once you develop it into a real person, it ultimately gets much more interesting and human than the idea.
JF: Then we landed a phenomenal actor. And the other piece of it is, there’s a bit of a historical thing we wanted to start playing with: In a lot of ways, these people became the power brokers in the new Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. We started to wonder about who were those characters who wound up inside the KGB, grabbing power once the Berlin Wall fell, and what would it be like to place one of those characters in our story.
AVC: He’s also a little more tech-friendly. Tech and stealth were such important parts of this season. Why were you interested in integrating stealth and ARPANET and that ’80s technology?
JW: We just wanted to get ahead of the AMC series coming up. [All laugh.]
JF: When you ask, “What would Soviet spies in 1983 have been looking for?”, stealth was immediately one of the top things on the radar. When you think about what we explored this season, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and stealth seem to be three of the big things they would be exploring. Then as we started to do the research into the technologies, there was just so much great story there for the characters.
JW: The general rule is, the U.S.—because we haven’t needed to steal technology from anybody else—our spying has been focused on political intelligence, but the Soviet Union put almost all their espionage resources into stealing technology. Because first of all, they realized the political intelligence wasn’t all that valuable, and then second of all, their own technology sucked. So the way they got it was by stealing it, and they were pretty good at it.
JF: Yeah, they stole the atom bomb secret twice or three times, Joe?
JW: I think twice.
AVC: Martha is another character who’s on the edges of the season but has very important moments. It seems like she’s subconsciously picking up that her husband is not what he seems. Is that what you’re pushing toward?
JF: On the one hand, as they say, denial is not just a river in Egypt. On the other hand, we know what’s going on in our lives at some level. It can be deeply subconscious, or we can stare at it until we see more truth about it. We try to really think about all the different levels at which our characters are aware of what’s going on in their lives. Martha, as hard as she tries, one thing she knows: She’s not in a normal marriage.
JW: In a way, we’ve asked ourselves that from the very beginning. You’re right. It’s much like the Paige question. We asked ourselves from the beginning what does she unconsciously know? I don’t think we need an answer to what she’s picking up unconsciously, but it’s something. We just found out she’s known about the toupee for a while.
AVC: Of all the characters on the show, she’s the one that’s treated the most poorly by Philip and Elizabeth. How far can you push that, without them pushing too far and making them too horrible to consider?
JW: [Laughs.] That’s a good question. If they haven’t crossed that line yet, I wonder if it’s crossable. I’m sure, Todd, I’ve probably said this to you. I’m positive I’ve said it to you a couple times. I may have said it to you a hundred times, but this is based on real cases where illegals married unsuspecting women. I think there’s three reported cases where we know about what happened at the end, when the truth finally came out, in each of these three cases after many years of marriage. In one of the cases, the woman absolutely refused to believe it. Even when the police were presenting her with irrefutable evidence, she was in denial. There was nothing you could say; she just never believed it. In another case, the woman got up from her chair, walked over to a window and jumped out the window. Just immediately killed herself within five seconds of being told. And in another case, the woman hung herself an hour later. So you have two out of three suicides. I’m not suggesting that’s where our story is going because who knows where our story will go. But how horrible what they’re doing is, to me, it’s already at peak horror. I don’t know. What twist could it take to get any worse?
JF: Although, to that question, one thing that’s starting to happen is Philip can’t hide entirely from the consequences of his actions, and that’s especially the case this season. It’s the case with the killings, but it’s also the case with Martha. He knows, tactically, he needs to get her back on board. He makes that tape and goes there to play her the tape, and he just can’t do it. It’s not until something else happens and he’s numb with alcohol and anger that he’s able to do tactically what he knew he had to do sometime before.
JW: Which is connected to something else, Joel: On a certain level you could argue, and I probably would, not everybody would, but I would argue that Philip has developed some kind of feelings for her. What those feelings are, whatever. He’s developed some level of human feelings for this woman, so you could also say that what he’s doing to Martha is getting better, rather than worse. You could argue. It’s got a long way to go before it’s a healthy relationship.
Gaad and Arkady
AVC: This season, you’re starting to collapse the many worlds of the show together. Probably the most prominent instance of that is when Gaad walks up to Arkady at breakfast. What are you hoping to do with bringing those worlds together? Is that process just inevitably going to continue?
JF: Reagan and Brezhnev.
JW: Can we get those guys?
JF: We’ve been itching for that Arkady/Gaad scene for so long and holding ourselves back from it for so long. It really felt great to finally get there. As for how much they’ll collapse and crash and depart from one another, who knows? But it’s sure interesting when they do.
AVC: Where did you conceive of Larrick as this season’s villain? If you look at it from his perspective, he’s like the hero of an ’80s action movie.
JF: That’s exactly what we said!
JW: It’s not just an ’80s action movie! But a legitimate, decent guy in a lot of ways.
JF: We said several times to several people on the show, you could do an ’80s action movie with him as the hero. You really could feel sorry for the guy and get his heroism, and you could tell a whole story from his perspective of being trapped and tricked and fighting back and going for justice. It probably would have had a different ending in the ’80s action movie. [All laugh.]
JW: And not have the gay part, either.
JF: Nah, that probably would have been changed when they attached Stallone.
AVC: Where did that character come from?
JW: I’m pretty sure that the initial thing spun out of the idea that Emmett and Leanne would have been running a guy whom they had been able to blackmail because he was gay and that he would have been, therefore, one of the prime suspects in their murder. Isn’t that how it started, Joel?
JF: It is. One thing I remember talking a lot about is that we didn’t want to find a singular villain they’d be going up against in an escalatory way from episode to episode that sort of took over the entire story. We talked it, but as we broke the story out, we saw a structure where this horrible event happened, and then they looked into it, and this guy came up as a potential suspect. But then they were forced to work with him, and really the story became about the relationship and having it morph into something else, and then the result of that operation going wrong being the thing that triggers him coming back and creating the final showdown. That general shape was something we talked about very early in the process, and it seemed to stick.
AVC: This season you had a lot of very prominent guest characters, and it seemed like most of them were there to die. There was a very high body count this season. Were you trying to focus on the fact that these people, in their line of work, all of them, have to murder every once in a while?
JW: Well, two things jump to mind: One is that Philip’s storyline involved his trouble and pain from murdering people, so we had to murder a lot of people for that to make sense. [Laughs.]
JF: Can we use the word “kill” instead of murder?
JW: He’s just trying to make it easy on us. And I think a lot of it was that, and a lot of it was just where the plots went. It was funny, our script supervisor came to us, and I think after the first episode, the body count in the first episode equaled the whole first season. That surprised us. We hadn’t set out to make the show more violent.
AVC: One of the other things that you were really acclaimed for in season one was your use of ’80s music. This season you didn’t use as much music. What was behind that decision?
JF: Our composer, Nathan Barr, is so talented. We love everything he does for the show. We never set out to put a lot of ’80s music into the show. Even season one, we really looked for places where it felt like it belonged and then laid it in. We did the same thing this season. It’s funny, I remember sitting in the editing room for the first episode this season, and it felt like there were three or four places where we could put big songs, and we kept trying to put songs there, and it kept feeling like we were trying to feature ’80s music. We wound up going, I think, with no song placements in the first episode. We just feel guided by what feels right for each sequence. So even in the final episode, it took a long time to find “Twilight Zone.” It was just the right song for us for that sequence, but that took place in the teaser, in the first 10 minutes and it wasn’t that traditional closing montage. So that’s a long-winded way of saying, we just go with what feels right and don’t have a particular formula.
AVC: Are there episodes this season you felt really nailed what you wanted to do, and then were there some that you felt kind of didn’t quite hit the mark?
JW: We had a lot that we were very proud of this season. I’ll tell you some of the ones that are jumping to mind for me. I really loved the episode, it was 205, where Anton got taken back to the Soviet Union. It was so, not just emotionally devastating for me, but in the sort of dilemmas they were facing and the actions they took, but also thematically what it said about home and sending somebody else back to the place where they came from. It just resonated for me on a lot of levels, but at the same time, we worked very hard to make the show visually better this year, and it was very successful in that. I really liked a lot of them. It’s painful to pick one out, but that’s one that jumps out for me.
JF: As a neurotic writer, it’s sometimes easy to look back and say, these are the three episodes I feel we miffed it on, and last season, I feel like we had some better answers for you on our failings. While I can look back on this season and think about things I wish we had done better or more successfully, because there always are, it feels, in a way, like kind of a charmed season. From the moment Joe and I started talking about it, where we were in this creative zone. We worked very hard, but the direction felt right. And we feel good about the results.
I personally can’t point to an episode where it feels like the whole episode wasn’t quite what we hoped for, and, in terms of singular ones, yes, episode five was a great one for all the reasons Joe mentioned. I also think about episode nine, “Martial Eagle,” the episode where they finally raid the secret training camp and how that hits both Philip and Elizabeth and what happens to Stan in that episode. As an episode that explored the consequences of what they do on all the characters, it really felt like it worked.
AVC: Where are you in the process on season three, and what themes are you hoping to look at for that year?
JW: Well, we really have a good head start. We’ve started talking a lot about the stories and the characters and where everybody’s going. Even though we’re on hiatus, we got a little bit of a head start before the hiatus. We had some time, and Joel and I are kicking around a lot of stuff. I think you see at the end of the finale hints of where the story’s going, so those are the avenues. I think we’ve got some big surprises about how that’s going to play out. But I think we’re off to a good start.