On Wednesday, the FX Cold War–era spy series The Americans begins its sixth and final season, bringing one of the best dramas of the decade to a close. The series centers on KGB officers Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who were paired off in their early twenties and sent to D.C., where they work as “travel agents” and live with their teenage children, Henry (Keidrich Sellati) and Paige (Holly Taylor). Created by Joe Weisberg — a former CIA-officer-turned-high-school-teacher who wrote for Damages and Falling Skies before helming his own show — The Americans has ratcheted up the tension with every season. But the show’s trademark intensity really kicks into high gear at the end of the third season, when older sibling Paige finally discovers who her parents really are. In season five, Elizabeth slowly starts to teach her the tricks of the trade. In the season six premiere, Paige is beginning to look a lot like her mother.
I spoke to Weisberg and his co-showrunner, Joel Fields, about The American’s reputation as a “slow burn,” the tortured yet devoted relationship between Philip and Elizabeth, and the real-life turns of events that, since the premiere in 2013, have inevitably altered our view of the show.
When the show premiered, three years before Donald Trump’s election, I feel like the idea of Russia as the enemy of America was almost funny — like, “Remember when that scared us?” When you conceived of the show, were you thinking about that? How did you position that dynamic for an American audience?
Joe Weisberg: The very key to the conception of the show was that it was a time in American-Russian relations when Russia was not considered an enemy, and the concept of the Soviet enemy had disappeared so far into the background. The idea was that we colloquially present these two KGB officers in a way that people might be open to thinking of them not as these stereotypical, evil monsters, and instead be able to perceive them as human beings and be able to relate to them. If it were today, when Russia has really sort of reappeared in the way of American enemies, it would have been very hard to come up with the idea of the show, much less something that would be presented to the public as a show about rethinking the whole concept of “enemy.”
Was that surprising to you, the speed with which that changed?
JW: It’s shocking.
Joel Fields: It’s also really depressing. The hope was that you could look back and wonder at how these people were ever enemies — not be reminded.
JW: As I say to Joel all the time, I don’t think this show worked!
One the things that interested me about the show early on was that it would introduce characters who I assumed were just sort of throwaways, like Nina and Martha, both of whom I assumed would be just two of many assets that get worked over the course of the first season. But both stuck around for much longer than that. How much of that do you figure out as you go along, and how much you do you know when you first introduce a character?
JF: In terms of Nina and Martha, those were planned, really, over the course of that first season. We knew that they were gonna run a long time. For Nina, it ran a little longer than we expected, in part just because it took longer to tell the story and in part because we discovered, in the great character of Anton, a whole new story we could tell for her in that fourth season.
I think one of the lessons for us in the course of the first season was, the longer we spent with the characters in relationships, the more impactful everything became. Sometimes people talk about the show as having a slow burn, but to us, that was always the exciting, interesting stuff to explore, and it only made things increasingly emotional and powerful as the consequences finally hit.
I agree, and you’ve got two lead characters who have made this ultimate commitment to each other, literally till death do them part. It’s very romantic, but it’s an unsentimental view of partnership.
JW: The guide for us was to try to tell stories that were as realistic as possible in an emotional realm. They didn’t have to be as realistic as possible necessarily in the espionage realm — we did try to hew as close as we could there, but we didn’t mind going a little bit in the unrealistic realm there, as long as everything came back to feeling real between the people. I think it comes back to your other question, because the longer you had characters around, the more real you could make their stories.
As you mentioned, the show has a reputation of being a “slow burn,” particularly last season. How do you balance the desire to tell the story at your own pace with the need to keep audiences entertained and engaged?
JF: For better or for worse, we’ve always been guided by what seems the most interesting to us. Last season, we really wanted to explore a different phase of this marriage — a better phase in the marriage, a phase we felt that they had earned. It was more them against the world than them against each other, and it took four seasons to get there. To us it was really satisfying to see them figuring out how to be married that way, and ultimately, literally to get married that way. We never really think about pace; we just think about telling the most interesting parts of the story we can find.
Do you get other people asking about the pace, like someone from the network?
JF: No, we get critics telling us about the pace.
JW: Very early in the show, we had to almost embrace what everybody was saying. It became sort of a joke around the office for us. The stuff we liked in the show was long, slow looks between people — somebody raising an eyebrow, and somebody turning away when somebody said something. Those were the big moments in the show! Those were moments that made us really feel things. So all we could do was say, “Hey, it’s a slow burn! Hey, this week, it’s an even slower burn! Next season, it’s gonna be the slowest burn yet!” We felt that was the strength of the show, so we just had to lean into it.
It strikes me that it’s maybe not so much slow as it is somber.
JF: What you’re describing in terms of something that’s more somber, is more Russian in its soul. Maybe last season we got to see their Russian-ness bloom a little in their relationship, and it may have felt a little more foreign to American audiences. Don’t worry — this coming season, they’ll unfortunately lapse much more into an American approach to marriage.
JW: This is a show about a marriage, and we wanted to show a very realistic marriage, and marriages go through ups and downs.
I wanted to ask about the final season, and particularly Paige, who has very quickly and dramatically become a part of her parents’ lives. She’s all up in their business now. Is that something that you originally thought about doing, or did it develop more as you got to know Holly Taylor as an actor?
JW: That was a pretty late development. We knew from early on that the issues around telling her the truth and how that would play out were going to be fundamental issues of the series. But the fact that we get to this point where she’s actually, as you say, “up in their business” — we did not know it would get to that point. That’s been one of those pleasant surprises of television, and of not getting cancelled.
I understand you haven’t changed anything to reflect the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, since the show takes place in the 1980s. But did you shift things in a more tonal way, in reaction to what’s been happening in the past couple years? I’m curious what you hope American audiences will take away from this story, and if that’s changed at all.
JF: There are multiple answers to that question. One is, it hasn’t changed at all — we’re existing in the world of the early and mid-Eighties. We work very hard to keep the characters and the story strictly pre-1987. That said, we’re also aware that the experience of watching the show is going to be different for the audience watching today than it was three years ago. We also really hope that ten years from now, it’ll be an entirely different experience, where we look back with wonder that there were a few bad years with the Russians again. Whether you’re looking at it in the face of a current enemy, or whether you’re looking at it with a bemused historical perspective, the fundamental themes of the show — about what it is to have an enemy and to be an enemy, and what it is to have a spouse and be a spouse, and how those things can relate to one another — those, we hope, hold regardless.
As people who have been steeped in this world and this history for so long, is it frustrating for you to see what’s happening? What is the most vexing aspect of this to you, in terms of how the Russians are being portrayed by our government and by our media?
JW: I’d need a couple hours on that one. I’d say that [as a nation] we are continuing with our old pattern, which is, we tend to see the Russians as we saw the Soviets — very one-dimensionally. We block out everything that is positive about them, and we only, in vain, look at what’s good about us and block out anything that we do wrong. And so we turn ourselves into the victims.
For example, we look at them interfering with our elections and we see us as the victims of this aggression of theirs, and we just don’t pay any attention to anything we did to provoke that. Now, we’re at a point in time where the type of thinking is going back into such a fever pitch, it’s seen in black-and-white terms again, where they’re the bad guys and we’re the good guys, just like we saw in Soviet times. I find that pretty maddening.
The dynamic you’re describing, where America only sees itself as a victim of the Soviets, kind of feels like how Philip and Elizabeth see the Soviet Union. I wonder if that comes from your own sense, as Americans, that we don’t consider our own faults enough.
JF: I think that’s something universal, well beyond American and Russian. I think it’s fundamentally human. There’s nothing more dangerously liberating than feeling like the victim. As soon as one is a victim, one is empowered to do anything in proportional response. You see that all over the world. You see that in marriages, and you see that between nations. It’s dangerous for human beings, but it’s really fun for writers to explore.
The final season of The Americans premieres Wednesday, March 28 at 10 p.m. on FX.