'The Americans' producers on the sex, murder and wigs of season 2
FX’s period spy drama “The Americans” went to a new level this season, going from a very good show to one of the very best on television by delving deeper into the emotional, moral and even sexual implications of two KGB spies pretending to be American spouses for decades and raising kids all the way. The season finale was devastating in the way it paid off the arcs about family, about whether FBI Agent Stan Beeman would betray his country to save Nina, and more. I reviewed the finale here, and I interviewed producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about the season, coming up just as soon as you tell me where your corkscrew is…
The most important question, obviously, is how much of this season was designed as a response to all of the wig jokes fans were making in season 1?
Joe Weisberg: (laughs) A lot of them! We're pretty responsive. I mean, we agreed with them.
In what way?
Joe Weisberg: We thought it was a valid complaint. Something should have been done about that wig. The most egregious was the time when he was captured by the KGB, and that guy just pulled the wig right off his head like it wasn’t attached. That was just a screw-up. We thought, “We've got to have some answers to the questions about Martha, and how does she not know this, and what happens if they shower together?” So we sat down and came up with the best solutions we could. You can't go back and fix it. But you can do what you can.
How much else of what happened in this season was in response to things you saw the viewers seeing in season 1?
Joel Fields: It's hard to answer that question entirely, because some of our work takes place on a conscious level, and some of it takes place on a subconscious level. We really enjoyed reading all the response to the first season, and we ingested them. Some, like the wig stuff, turned into overt conversations, where we knew something played out wrong and we wanted to reshoot it but couldn’t. We wanted to address those questions with Martha, and that provoked a storyline, that Martha had been holding back from Philip over the course of the season. But there are other things that were just things we were responding to on a subconscious level.
Joe Weisberg: Another big shift we made in the show was to try to break the season as a more serialized season and less episodic. I don’t know that anybody said the first season was too episodic, but that’s something that changed our whole storytelling approach. That led to a lot of changes in the show.
Is the second generation program based on anything in reality?
Joe Weisberg: That is based on some historical things in the KGB. There was some sense that the KGB actually wanted to do that. There are a couple of different cases. There was one from the era of the KGB where some illegals actually did recruit their daughter, and got so far as to send her to GW, where she started spotting and assessing for the KGB, but by the time she was done with that, she didn't want to do it anymore. Then there’s another case post-KGB, with the Russian intelligence service and all these illegals arrested in 2010, where there's actually tape that the FBI has of the father recruiting the son. Our consultant, Keith Melton, who is an expert on illegals, told us a lot about this and how the father brought this along. These are the historical precedents we know about.
What made you decide Holly Taylor up for this? How did you approach integrating Paige more into the adult side of the show this season?
Joel Fields: We knew from the first season that Holly is a very very strong actress. So we had that going for us. In terms of integrating her, we just started talking a lot from the beginning, we knew that we wanted this to be a season more about family and more about how Philip and Elizabeth saw family and parenting, now that they were more engaged as a fully married couple. That meant exploring more with Paige, and also, by reflection, more with Henry.
Joe Weisberg: The two sides of the problems came together in a way. What happened naturally last season is that as a kid becomes a teenager, they start asking questions and becoming more suspicious , and we left last season on a cliffhanger about that: Paige is trouble, and how will her parents cope with that? Then the problem starts coming around from the other end, which is one possible way to deal with that is that the KGB approaches you and says, “Now go after the kid.” Now you’re coming from both ends towards the middle.
Did you know from the beginning that Jared killed his family?
Joel Fields: As soon as we broke the story, we knew that.
Why did you decide that that was the story?
Joe Weisberg: It was really thematically perfect for our show. What's Philip and Elizabeth's greatest fear? Whether it’s conscious or not, the question of the series is “What kind of damage are you doing to your children? What is all the toxic waste created by this life? What is the damage not just externally, but internally?” And the Jared story then becomes the worst case scenario of that. It’s not some monster from without. It’s not Ronald Reagan or CIA assassins or something you’ve seen a thousand times. It's a psychological problem we’ve created.
Joel Fields: We found an article early in the season written by a psychiatrist who talked about a trauma patient, who said victims of extreme psychological trauma can all be treated successfully — except those who had been lied to by people they had loved and trusted for many years. If you find out that your father has had a second family for years, or if your spouse for years had pretended to be faithful and wasn’t, these were things that left you questioning your own memories and your own identity, and that that was something that was at best possible to live with, but never to fully recover from. That really resonated, because at the end of the day, what's the identity of these individuals and this family, if they don't have any trust?