The Americans writers' room debates Russia's new relevancy: 'It's an unwelcome surprise'
As the fifth season of The Americans gets underway, EW pulls back the (iron) curtain on the FX series’ writers’ room. To read the complete roundtable on The Americans, along with clues to season 5 and a list of pop culture essentials covering U.S.-Russian relations, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here now and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only on EW.
Between American politicians lying about their contacts with Russian envoys, overseas enemies tampering with the U.S. presidential election, and disturbing rumors about “golden showers,” it’s as if the entire country has time-traveled back to the early 1980s. While the Trump administration’s relationship to the Kremlin may not exactly resemble Reagan’s, recent headlines undeniably echo the frosty past.
But for FX’s The Americans, this déjà vu is uncharted territory. Airing its 1984-set fifth season amid real-life stories about Russia’s hand in U.S. politics, the critically acclaimed drama about married Soviet spies living in suburban America has found itself no longer just a thoughtful examination of a bygone era but also a bizarre reflection of the world today.
In February, EW stepped inside the series’ writers’ offices in Brooklyn, New York, where vibrant key art from past seasons, Cold War propaganda posters used on the show, and several (sadly erased) whiteboards cover the walls. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields gathered their writers’ room comrades Peter Ackerman, Joshua Brand, Stephen Schiff, and Tracey Scott Wilson for a roundtable interview to delve deep into how they’ve tackled the series’ sudden relevance — and why The Americans‘ themes have always resonated.
And for the uninitiated, a briefing on each of the writers: Weisberg, who created The Americans, is no stranger to spy games, having worked in the CIA in the 1990s before becoming a novelist and TV writer; Fields previously explored crime and partnership as a writer and EP for TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles; Ackerman worked on a different type of Cold War as co-writer of Ice Age and Ice Age 3; Brand has won three Emmys and co-created St. Elsewhere, A Year in the Life, Northern Exposure, and I’ll Fly Away; Schiff worked as a journalist before turning to screenwriting and penning films like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and the upcoming American Assassin; and Wilson is a prolific playwright whose latest play, Buzzer, debuted at the Public Theater in New York in 2015.
Below, they explore the newly knotty relationship between the present and the past portrayed on The Americans.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You started breaking this season’s story in April of last year. As you’re well aware, spring 2016 was a very different time in American politics. Different president, different headlines, different understanding of Russia’s influence on the election…
JOEL FIELDS: For me, I separate that out. The political, real-world component has been discussed a lot around the lunch table, but that really has nothing to do with the show. We write the show in a bubble of the early ’80s. Now the show has a lot of, we hope, allegorical value in terms of what’s happening today, a lot to say about the nature of what it is to have an enemy, what is it to be an enemy, but it also has a lot to say about trust and family and marriage, and those truths will extend until we find ways to not be tribal and territorial.
JOE WEISBERG: I think what happens in the world has a dual function. We’re the beneficiaries of it in that it creates a lot more attention for us, but what is actually happening is it’s fighting against the thematic intentions of the show, which were to say, “Hey, look, these people who were our enemies are not our enemies anymore.” That may be completely out of our control, but it’s an unwelcome surprise.
JOSHUA BRAND: It may be unwelcome for Joe and Joel but not necessarily for viewers, ’cause what it does is it takes a show that’s a period piece and it makes it feel very present. Now you don’t feel like you’re looking back, you’re looking into a mirror.
STEPHEN SCHIFF: As the world seems to be getting more Russian, so are we. [Laughs] As you can imagine, people have been coming up to us and saying, “Wow, you’re relevant all of a sudden,” and I always say, “Russia never went away.”
There are some eerie parallels between real-world events and what is going on with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) this season.
PETER ACKERMAN: Our day-to-day lunch conversations are very animated about the current situation. We were all surprised, frankly, as everybody else. Before all of that there were a lot of people I would run into who would say, “Are there still people in the United States who are doing what the Jenningses are doing?” And I would say, “I think that there are, but it all seems rather under the carpet and almost fictional.” So when things like this happen, you think, “Yeah, people really are active.” That’s a real change. People are like, “I didn’t know that Russians actually care so much about what we’re doing all the time.” They really care!
WEISBERG: I like that you said that the Russians care. I’m always trying to explain the Russians to make them sound not so bad to people, and the idea that they interfere with our elections because they care… [Laughs] That’s a great take. Depending on where you stand, I think this notion that we’re all human beings is an important one to hold on to. In the first season, when we were still struggling to find the show, we would retell every story to each other as if Philip and Elizabeth were deep-cover CIA agents in Moscow fighting for the cause of freedom. We thought if they would go to these lengths there as CIA agents fighting for America, then they can do it here. We’ve stopped doing that as an exercise because it’s become so second nature.
FIELDS: It’s interesting, if Hillary Clinton had won the election, the show would be the same show, but it would be experienced differently by the audience.
WEISBERG: Thematically, the show is about enemies, how you create enemies, and what that does to you. We are watching that happen again in real time, and that’s a pretty bizarre experience. When we talk about these thematic elements in a show, people usually doze off, you know? For me, time melts away, and it makes me look at how we created those enemies in the first place and how we’re creating them now.
So the same questions about international relations are coming up, if not the same events. Although I could imagine The Americans carrying out a mission involving a golden shower…
WEISBERG: I can’t believe we didn’t do that. How did we not do that? This stuff writes itself.
FIELDS: We still have a season ahead of us. [Laughs]
Speaking of which, do you think these headlines will permeate the show down the line?
FIELDS: I don’t think they will in a substantive way. One line that is drawn from our lunchtime political table talk into the show and back is the sense that we, not as Americans but as human beings, need to remember that it’s in our nature to have an “other,” to have an enemy. If we can remember that about ourselves, that may be a way forward out of that kind of thinking.
We’ve talked a lot about how the current real world has affected your writing, but how has writing the show affected your worldview?
TRACEY SCOTT WILSON: Back when we were talking about the Russian influence on the election, Joe said, “Well, at least it was nonviolent,” and that just hit me, because how many elections have there been that are tampered with and involve assassinations and deaths? That allowed me to step back and realize that it’s a complicated situation. All of the stuff that we debate changes my perspective of now, and it changes my perspective of 1984.
ACKERMAN: To that point, it’s not the political of 2017 that is in our show, it’s the personal of 2017 that’s in our show. Each of us brings to the show what’s in our relationships, in our lives, and there are emotional story lines that permeate the show constantly.
How do you think about history when it comes to the stories? When is it appropriate to talk about historical events?
ACKERMAN: We write the show as if it’s real, as if this could really happen in 1984. To that point, and this is the last thing I’ll say about today’s headlines, we don’t want to draw viewers’ attention. We don’t want to put Donald Trump on television because then they’re thinking, “Ooh, the writers in 2017 are thinking this will be funny if Donald Trump is on television.” We want them to think they’re watching history.
WEISBERG: In a funny way, the present is like a poison that will destroy the show. It was easy to compartmentalize the show from season 1. It’s a tonal question. As soon as you start dropping in those little things that have self-awareness, those little jokey, clever things, the whole tone of your show changes.
FIELDS: That has to do with today’s headlines, but it also has to do with the headlines of the ’80s, because we want to feel true. We really try to let any cultural or historical references just be as they would have been experienced at the time.
ACKERMAN: These guys are meticulous to that, even to set dressings. If you’re in a teenager’s room and you’re putting a poster on the wall, you want it to be historically accurate and not draw the viewers’ attention and have them say, “Oh my God, that was such and such!” Now they’re thinking of the writers who made that choice.
WEISBERG: You just want to be lost in the show and not feel the writers did this or the writers did that.
FIELDS: And also look at us. [Laughs] No one wants to feel our presence.
The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.