'The Americans' producers on marriage, spycraft and the wigs of season 1
FX’s “The Americans” just concluded a superb debut season. I have a review of the finale here, and I interviewed executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about the state of the Jennings marriage, the period, how production of the season was impacted by Hurricane Sandy and, of course, the wigs, all coming up just as soon as I ask if you like wallpaper...
Joe Weisberg: When we started out, I don't know that we had a specific goal. Our goal was to tell a story about a marriage. It was less that we had a specific plot story we wanted to tell, and more that we wanted to tell a story about a couple that had a complex, crazy, real/not-real arranged marriage. We wanted that story to resonate with people. So even though this couple went through these crazy things in their day to day life — their lives were in danger of exposure, they spy for a foreign government, there are incredibly high stakes in their world all the time — at the end of the day they were also a married couple who, like any of us whoa re married, the audience would be able to relate to them and understand the dynamics and their concepts with each other, within those bigger stories, to be relatable and understandable, and people could feel the same things they felt. I think that is the story we wanted to tell.
Speaking of the marriage, one of the few major issues I had with this season was the way in which you guys kept flip flopping back and forth between which half of the couple wanted the relationship to be real and which was pushing the other away. Is that something you were aware of as it was happening, and what was the point of the frequent reversals between Philip and Elizabeth?
Joel Fields: I guess the best answer we can give is we hope it's not too much of a window into our own marriages. We hope it wasn't flip flopping too much.
Joe Weisberg: We knew where we were going as we were writing. We started out ahead on the scripts, but we did have some luxury at the beginning of being able to go back and retune scripts as we saw where the relationship was going later. Believe it or not, we originally thought we would need more twists and turns in the marriage, and we wound up slowing things down and opening things up between them, in a way that felt real and true to us. I guess the challenge is to leave room to continue to honestly explore that —in a deeper, richer and truer way as we go into next season.
As we were going through the season, the assumption among a lot of us was that one or both of Nina and Martha would be dead, and it was just a matter of when. But we get to the end of the season, and not only are both still alive, but are in more complicated, important positions than before. Did you figure that was what we would assume as well, or is that just how the stories played out?
Joel Fields: Part of the fun of this season is there were certain things that we really knew from the beginning, and other things we thought we knew but were wrong on. If we’d had a conversation around episode 3, we could have told you where we were going with Philip and Elizabeth, and we would have been wrong. That story unfolded and changed and grew as the episodes came together, and as they led us in different directions. But with Nina and Martha, we really knew where we were going. Although the way those stories played out was slightly different, they ended up as we originally broke them. Joe and I have really enjoyed reading the reviews, the critiques, the blogs, the emails and the Twitter feed during the episodes, and part of the fun has been watching everybody wait breathlessly for Nina or Martha to get it. We hadn't really planned on making the audience expect that to happen. We didn't think of that. There's a certain fun in people expecting it to go differently.
Joe Weisberg: When you're telling these long stories, there’s so many times the audience is ahead of you. And the more times they’re ahead of you, the more you get nervous. So it’s kind of a relief, too. We were glad people were making the wrong assumption.
Joe Weisberg: That's a very interesting question, and it goes to the heart of how intelligence agencies work. I once wrote an article about one of the fundamental problems in the real world of running agents at all is the difficulty in ever evaluating their intelligence, and ever knowing if you're dealing with a double agent. Almost no intelligence you get from an agent is actually verifiable. There’s almost no way to ever know if this is the truth. So forget Philip; what is the KGB itself going to do with this information? How are they going to know if it’s true, if the colonel is a real agent or a double agent? If they do know that he's a real agent, how are they going to know if he's right or not, trying to mislead them for personal reasons or not? Just the fact that the audience knows it's the truth is only one piece of the game. How we deal with that next season, I don’t think we’ve fully decided yet. I don't think we're going to necessarily make a meal out of that, in terms of a huge espionage arc, but Star Wars is something that’s going to go on for many years. It’s not something we want the KGB to be resolving for sure in December of 1981.
So how do you deal with not having their characters change history, and yet seem like effective agents? Like Chris tells them right before he dies, they’re going to lose this war.
Joel Fields: It's been a fun challenge. I think back to when Joe and I were writing the Reagan assassination attempt episode. The question we had to ask there, as we were putting them right smack in the center in a prominent piece of history, is how would we tell what we were creating as a "secret story" for them without violating what's known in terms of historical fact? What we decided was to keep the public story true and let the secret story be a what if? Obviously, there's the famous Al Haig press conference moment, and we know it triggered some panic internationally, and we know what it triggered domestically. But there was also that tape Elizabeth found, where it was revealed that Al Haig got his hands on a copy of the nuclear football. We know from our research that there was a tape made in the White House where Haig was being criticized by people around the table, talking about the proximity of Russian subs, and the discussions of what Defcon the country should be at given the fact that the president was shot, and where the words “How the hell did Al Haig get a copy of the nuclear football?” were uttered. The what if question we asked was, what if a couple of deep cover Soviet illegals got their hands on this thing?
Joe Weisberg: THE KGB of course had a lot of successes and a lot of failures, and I don't think it's hard to create a couple of successful KGB officers, even if they’re going to lose the endgame. If you’re in Chicago, it’s never that hard to root for the Cubs, even if you know how it’s going to end.
How much attention should we be paying to the timeline? There were some people who pointed out in the episode where Philip goes to New York that you took a Reagan speech from much later in the year and applied it to this situation, for instance.
Joe Weisberg: I think that may have been a mistake about the speech. In that same episode, we used Polish red riots from the exact month we imagined that being in. If we're getting more than a few months beyond what we think we are, then we’re probably tripping up a bit. But as Joel pointed out, we literally can't keep the weather consistent.
Joel Fields: We are trying. It's funny, we've had a few sports references in there, and it's been a matter of debate. We wanted to be in spring for baseball at one point, but if you do that and go outside and it’s snowing, it’s going to feel wrong. So we struggled with that a bit on the production side. But we've also tried to keep the timeframe and the historical references as true as possible. Not to say that we haven’t tripped up from time to time. I’m sure we have.
Margo Martindale is doing a sitcom pilot for CBS, and my understanding is that they have first contractual position with her. The finale sets things up so it could go either way: the KGB recalls Claudia at Philip and Elizabeth’s request, or Philip and Elizabeth ask to keep her around after she races to save Philip. What are your expectations for next season regarding that character?
Joel Fields: It's disturbing to think that Leslie Moonves may be in charge of the KGB in 1981. Boy, we love Margo. She's so talented, and she's so wonderful in that role. Sooner or later, we think Claudia should be in the show.
Most shows tend to get bigger and add more characters as a season moves along. You almost went the opposite way, in that you killed off or otherwise wrote out several characters like Chris and Gregory without replacing them. Was it an intentional thing to make the world seem smaller and more insular, or did you just not have time yet to, say, give Stan a new partner?
Joe Weisberg: I think there are different things at play. I think in the business they're in, it's a dangerous business. People die, and the agents and law enforcement officers are taking their life in their hands. We have to be willing to sacrifice and lose even characters we like and believe have the potential to have interesting stories ahead if we were to keep them, but we can't keep everybody and tell this kind of story and have the story be both exciting and feel real. It gets very emotional in a way. We would've loved to have those characters have a bigger life. But on the other hand, you want to be able to tell very emotional, meaningful, dramatic stories right out of the gate. I think, though, that we have to expand the world at the same time, both to fill in the holes that those characters left and to make the world a little broader and bigger as we go forward, just so it isn’t too small.
I have to ask about the wigs. It’s seemingly everyone’s favorite topic about the show. What was the level of Soviet wig technology in 1981 that Philip could be marrying a woman, having vigorous sex with her, sleeping next to her, and the wig never reveals itself to be a wig?
Joel Fields: I'm going to give you two words and a phrase: “clips,” “glue” and “a suspension of disbelief.” And you can arrange those three however you like. All joking aside about the wigs, part of the "fun," and I use that word very nervously, about the relationship with Martha, because it's fun on the surface but also dark and disturbing. Part of the disturbing fun of that relationship is the power of denial in our personal relationships. There are women who marry serial killers. They'll start with, 'Oh, he's innocent. He was wrongly convicted.' And then it's, 'Well, he's misunderstood.' And the story about this bizarre marriage between Clark and Martha grew on the one hand out of a desire to explore marriage in all its crazy facets, but in another way out of history. This is something that deep cover Soviet agents did. They had an operation at one point which was called “the secretary's offensive,” where they had undercover illegals marrying secretaries of defense officials and diplomats, mostly across Europe. I’ll let Joe tell you how the women reacted after arrests were made.
Joe Weisberg: They denied it. They refused to believe that as it was put in front of them. I don’t think all women reacted exactly the same way, but I think there was a range of denial and saying the police were wrong. And when they couldn't deny the evidence any longer, then they still insisted that the men still loved them. And who’s to say, really? Maybe in a few cases, it was true? Maybe after a few decades of marriage, these KGB officers did love these women. But in the real cases, the KGB officers who did this job, that was all they did. They were sent from Moscow, and their entire assignment was to be married with these women. So they didn’t have to wear disguises. But I also don’t know if they could have had television shows based on them. Maybe on the BBC.