'The Americans' Showrunners Are Just as Shocked About Russia as You Are
Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg talk about their Cold War–era drama and how Russian relations have shaped how the audience watches the show.
The world that The Americans will return to tonight looks a bit different than it did when we last heard from the Jennings family. Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg are well aware that their much-praised Cold War–era KGB spy series has taken on an unexpectedly prescient dimension since revelations began tumbling out earlier this year regarding Russian influence on US politics.
"We started this show at a relatively peaceful time in US/Russian relations, and a lot of the premise was that it was a good time to tell a story of a former enemy that's no longer an enemy," says Weisberg, a former CIA officer whose professional history has informed the show's often painstaking attention to detail. "I don't think in our wildest imaginations we would have predicted this kind of turn in this very short period of time."
That said, he and Fields haven't worried about it that much. The Americans is a period piece, after all, and history is history, regardless of how it might resonate with current events. Last week, the pair spoke to VICE from New York, where they're finishing up filming this season while simultaneously preparing what will be the sixth and final 13-episode installment of their intense espionage drama. We chatted about their approach to balancing historical accuracy with storytelling, what to expect from the new episodes, and what they hope audiences will take away from the show in the end.
The following conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Can you give readers a little insight into what they're going to be jumping into with these characters? A little time has passed when we start out the season.
Joe Weisberg: What you'll first see when you start the episode is going to feel a little surprising—a little like a different show, almost. That won't last forever, but the faces, pacing, feel, and tone of the show that we're going to drop you into will be a little bit different.
What was behind the decision to do that right off the bat?
Joel Fields: We always try to ask ourselves what's really happening with these characters. That's a curious question to ask about a fictional story, but once we decide on that story, we try to tell it in the most real way we can—so once we figured out what had happened for them, then the question becomes, "What are the most interesting scenes to show for an audience [to get] that story?" If we know we're not going to show every day of all of their lives, what are the most interesting thin slices of what has happened that we can serve up?
Oleg is back in Moscow, which is a pretty drastic shift for his character. Tell me a bit more about that decision.
Weisberg: We're still excited about that. It wasn't something we planned. Last year, of course, Nina was there for a while, but as a prisoner, most of the time. It never occurred to us that we would get to tell long, involved stories in the Soviet Union—that wasn't really the setup of the show.
But when the opportunity presented itself, it suddenly felt like a natural place it had wanted to go all along. It became an opportunity to talk about what was going on in that country and tell stories of real people living there—to show their world, their apartments, their offices, what they ate and drank, how they lived. It was this golden opportunity, and we had so much fun learning about what things in that era looked like, and seeing our incredible team here recreating those things and making sets to match them. It's been one of the most fun and exciting things that we've ever done on the show.
It seems like hunger is going to play a pretty big role this season.
Fields: I don't know! I'm trying to figure out how to speak on that—except to say yes, yes it will. Hunger is a very fundamental fear, and because the show, on some level, is about how we perceive our enemies… On one end, we're so connected by the fact that we're all human beings, and we're so similar in so many ways. But on the other, we're very different, based on our individual lives and on the cultures and times in which we were raised.
What we have or don't have.
Philip and Elizabeth experienced the end of the Second World War as children, which means they knew hunger and privation ways that Americans couldn't conceive. When you can't conceive of that experience, you really run the risk of not understanding the fears of the people on the other side. It's hard for Americans to imagine being starved out.
The Americans has a reputation for being pretty politically complex, where it can be hard to keep track of what's going on. How do you straddle that line, between writing as experts (alongside in-depth consultants) and writing for an audience that likely doesn't know half of what you know about espionage and the Cold War?
We solve that problem by trying to know everything we can about the story. We try to do as much research as possible, and when we figure out our stories, we really try to understand every detail of what's happening and make sure that we know every nook and cranny of the logic and drama—of what's happening to everybody.
Then we tell the story from the character's point of view. So if there's something they know or that they're experiencing, we'll never have them stop and exposit to one another things they would know, even if it would make it easier for the audience. We just let the characters experience it as they would and hope that the audience will go along with the characters, and in so doing, the story will unfold and make sense. As you said, eventually people catch up. We hope that, by telling a character's story, what happens to them, and breaking a story in a way we know it makes sense, it will all feel real and come together in the end.
Was avoiding using expositional dialogue something you talked about from the beginning?
Weisberg: We found that doing that with dialogue just didn't fit with the rest of our conception of the show. We're working hard in so many ways to keep the show feeling not just real, but increasingly more real, so writing dialogue that they wouldn't really say became increasingly anathema to us.
There are really only two solutions. One is having simple stories that people can just follow—but that didn't work for us, because these characters' stories were too complex. The espionage stories are complicated—espionage is just a complicated thing. You could follow those stories simply, but then spies couldn't do them, they'd be knocked out too easily. So the only other solution that remained was to just worry less about whether people were following the story and just assume that either they will or they won't—and if they don't, they'll be able to follow what's actually important, which is how the characters are feeling. We went with that approach, and it seems to have worked out well. Surprisingly, we don't get many complaints about people not following the stories.
You told Vox in January that you weren't surprised about what had been coming out about Russia and its involvement in the presidential election, but that was very early on in what's now become kind of a never-ending horror show. How do you feel now?
Fields: Some of the techniques that have been used were techniques that we were familiar with, so when we hear words like kompromat that were surprises to the general readership of most daily news, that's a word that has come up endlessly in our research. So in that sense, we weren't surprised—the vocabulary of the way these things go down are our bread and butter. But the fact that things have turned for the world again, and that suddenly we're looking at the Russians as enemies? That surprises anybody. It made me at least as bummed out as everybody else. Maybe a little more.
Is it odd to be in this position that you are right now, closer to the end than the beginning of a show like this, and have all this happening?
Weisberg: It's been a real shock. Even a couple years ago, when it was starting to get a little worse and people were saying there was going to be a new Cold War, we laughed it off and didn't think anything was really happening. But now it really has gotten ugly. In a way, it's gotten the show more attention, which I guess is good.
I also think it sort of warps how the audience views the show. I don't know if it makes it better or worse; I mean, people are going to see what they want to see. We all live and watch in our time, but people are not watching the show from the perspective that [we intended] when we began the show.
Does that shift impact you, either in how you're telling the story, or in the external factors of making a show like this?
Fields: No, it really hasn't. Maybe that's because it's season five, and by now the show is very set. Everything's very much in motion. But we really write the show very much inside our historical bubble, and as much as we think about what's happening in the world after work or during lunch, when we're making the show, we're in the early 80s. And for that, we're pretty grateful.
Do we have anything to fear in terms of what will have happened to these characters? Are you going to break our hearts?
Weisberg: Well, you've gotten to know us pretty well over these four years. We're not nice people.
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