Talk about collusion and you might think the showrunners of FX’s “The Americans” somehow timed the premiere of their sixth and final season to coincide with the nearly constant barrage of headlines about Russia in the news.
The new chapters of the acclaimed spy drama, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as undercover Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, are set in 1987 on the eve of arms talks between the United States and the then-Soviet Union, with the outcome putting the world either at the precipice of nuclear war or breathing easier in a safer place.
History tells us that the Cold War dissipated and relationships between the two superpowers improved — although espionage was probably never dialed down — and that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Former CIA agent turned television creator Joe Weisberg was inspired to develop “The Americans” in 2010, after ten deep-cover Russian spies based in New York City were arrested and expelled from the U.S. They had been collecting information for the SVR, Russia’s intelligence service, which had formerly been the KGB.
It was vestiges of the old Russia, perhaps even going back to the Reagan era, when “The Americans” is set, complete with a soundtrack of ’80s music standard bearers including Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads.
That’s just one of the joys for Weisberg and Joel Fields, who came onto the show at the beginning. Joe and Joel, who are self-admittedly easy to mix up, are now known as “The Js,” a moniker coined for them by Ms. Russell during the first season.
We caught up with them by phone from their offices in Brooklyn — a place that they joked overlooks a Superfund cleanup site, and smells that way — as they were prepping the final two episodes of this final season of 10 episodes, many of which run well over an hour.
“They’re long and full,” the Js promised about the episodes of the new season, which debuted last week.
TVWeek: When you started developing “The Americans,” could you have ever imagined that news about Russian espionage would be even more front and center for us today in America?
Weisberg: When I started developing it, I was working on another show, and thought if you put it during the Cold War, and made KGB spies the heroes, that would be different. I worked with Graham Yost for a year and a half before we sold it to FX, and then there were a lot of changes and development that was needed. Now, it’s shocking that the whole idea was the Cold War was over, relations between the two countries were fine and whole idea was to look back and humanize KGB officers, because there’s no reason for hostility anymore. If things had still been hostile, it’s hard to imagine the audience would go along for the ride and been sympathetic to Philip and Elizabeth.
TVWeek: Although your stories are set decades ago, have you taken inspiration or been able to fictionalize some of the incidents that have been attributed to Russian intelligence in recent years, including the 2006 poisoning in London of former spy Alexander Litvinenko and last month’s nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, that spurred the recent expulsions?
Fields: We do reach into history to create history, and do not use stories of today. A KGB agent defected to the West with full KGB archives and there was a lot of story material. Talking about nerve agents, we did an entire season on bioweapons, based on the Mitrokhin Archive, which is almost unredacted. “The Sword and the Shield,” the book Vasili Mitrokhin wrote with Christopher Andrew, tells you pretty much everything about the history of the KGB.
Weisberg: Our show is about illegal spies who went undercover in other countries. The Mitrokhin Archive, the KGB’s own files, was about all kinds of things including illegals, so we had access to what countries they were in and how they did their jobs. We were able to look and get story ideas. One of our favorites is how the KGB agents married secretaries [of American officials]. Who would ever think of that?
TVWeek: Work with me here. If Elizabeth and Philip were plying their trade now — on a fictional, prestigious hour-long cable series, of course — what would they be up to?
Weisberg: They would still be making contacts and getting to people in high levels of government — but not being successful.
Fields: If the show were set now, it might be a bunch of guys on the computer. We’re lucky the show is set in the ’80s, otherwise you’d be watching a bunch of sweaty guys in Moscow eating Russian takeout food while they’re tapping away at their computer keys.
TVWeek: No spoilers allowed, but the Jennings’ son seems to be away at school, safely distant from the spy murder and mayhem, but give us a little something about what their daughter Paige will encounter in this new season.
Weisberg: Well, let’s just say the battle for her heart and soul will continue to be fought out in the Jennings household.
TVWeek: Tell us more about how the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth may change — and discuss the journey that has brought them to this juncture.
Weisberg: The journey of their marriage has been the story of show. It started out with him more in love, but even in the first episode we see her falling in love with him. It’s tracked their ups and downs and their struggle to stay together. At the end of the fifth season, there was something profound. He drops out of the spy game and pursues his dream of being a businessman running the travel agency. She’s been working alone and we’re seeing the toll taken on their marriage. How will they survive? It’s not going to be the only stress. At the same time things are changing in the Soviet Union.
TVWeek: You obviously know what is going to happen to this couple in the end. But how long have you known and how far in advance did you map out this final season?
Fields: We had a very good sense of the series’ ending from the end of Season 1. We started talking during long walks — that was a necessary part of the process. We’re writers who do a lot of planning. We created a master document with details of every character, even as we’re open to stories changing. Part of the joy of this is allowing stories to surprise us. What’s most surprising is that we are doing the original ending.
Weisberg: At that time we didn’t know exactly how long we would go. Maybe at the end of Season 3, [FX Network CEO] John Landgraf asked us how much time we needed to finish. We took a long walk, and broke different versions.
TVWeek: What lessons can be learned about delving into past relations with the then-Soviet Union from the era that you depict in “The Americans”?
Weisberg: I think the thing we realized from the beginning is that history and politics were central and that’s unusual in a TV show. We had a sense that would really pay off in terms of story and character, and give it an added dimension. The characters were ideologically motivated in a very extreme way, as history has shown as the era went on, and that added a real layer to what we were doing. We had things to dig into from the external world, which was incredibly beneficial to our storytelling.
(“The Americans” airs on FX Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)