The Americans Showrunners on Philip and Elizabeth Memes, Russia, and What’s Ahead in Season 5

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Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

The Americans, the acclaimed FX drama about a pair of Russians posing as regular suburban parents in the Washington, D.C., area, returns for its fifth season Tuesday night. It does so at a moment when the relationship between the Russian government and the Trump administration continues to be a major news story, which places showrunner Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, also writers and executive producers on the series, in an interesting position.

On one hand, they’re telling a story that’s set, at this point, in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was president, and commander-in-chief tweet storms were still more than two decades from becoming a reality. On the other hand, both of them are aware that viewers will be coming to the new episodes with constantly evolving perspectives when it comes to Russia, spying, and working against the American government.

During a recent interview, Weisberg and Fields spoke to Vulture on that subject as well as what’s ahead in season five, the penultimate one for the series. The following Q&A is part one of that conversation, and focuses on those topics, the role the CIA plays in reviewing Americans scripts, and how Paige and Henry, the children of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, will factor into the narrative this season.

Part two of the interview, which will focus more specifically on what happens in the season premiere, will be published following the broadcast of that episode on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. (Read part two here.) The complete interview also can be heard in its entirety via a supplemental edition of the Vulture TV Podcast, available now.

In the few month since The Americans last went off the air, you may have noticed that some things in the political culture have changed a bit.

Joel Fields: What are you talking about?

Not everybody picks up on it, but things have changed a little. Certainly the conversation about Russia and the possibility of the Trump administration being in collusion with Russia has been a major talking point and continues to be one. I’ve noticed on social media, for example, people pulling Philip and Elizabeth Jennings into that story as a focal point for jokes and memes. After Trump met with the Japanese prime minister and was allegedly discussing matters of national security at Mar-a-Lago, somebody posted a picture of them with a caption that said, “Hi, we’d like to apply for the waiter positions at Mar-a-Lago.”

[Laughter.]

JF: There have been some very, very funny ones. I don’t know if anyone’s giving an award for best Philip and Elizabeth meme, but someone should do that.

Joe Weisberg: Is it just us, or do those jokes have a very high percentage success rate? We laugh at, like, almost all of them.

It’s interesting that people are making that connection so quickly; it speaks to the fact that this show has resonated to such a degree that that’s what a lot of people think of right away.

JF: I’d say we laugh at the jokes because the jokes are good and funny. And we’re pretty bummed out at the trajectory of the world, because who wants more enmity in the world? We think it would be all better if we could all be getting along more. It’s ironic to be working on a show that’s examining the idea of what it is to have an enemy, what it is to be an enemy, and why it is we as humans seem to need desperately to create enemies at the same time that the old enemy we thought was forgotten seems to have risen again in our consciousness.

JW: The other thing is we follow a very strict policy of keeping current events and world events out of the show, right? The show is a period piece. There’s no way that anything happening in 1984 should be touched in any way by current events, and we don’t want the audience feeling that the authors of the show have suddenly put clever little things in because of current events. But it’s sort of funny, because the audience is bound by no such strict rules, so that’s part of the reason we get a kick out of all those jokes. We wouldn’t make those jokes ourselves, but it’s funny to see others do it.

Obviously, as you said, this is a period piece. It’s set in the 1980s. It’s a completely different set of circumstances. But are you thinking about how viewers might interpret the show as it starts up again, in light of what’s going on? The hallmark of the show is that we realize Philip and Elizabeth are doing things that we, as Americans, might not agree with, or even just as people we would not agree with. But there’s a great deal of empathy for them, and you root for them. Do you wonder whether viewers will have a harder time doing that?

JW: We thought about that a lot. The show went on the air in a very different context, in a very different time. We are curious about whether or not for some people in the audience, everything that’s happening alters the context with which they’re viewing it. And with Russia, and having somewhat more of a hostile posture towards Russia now, people are less likely to be empathetic. Or if Philip and Elizabeth sort of got grandfathered in — people started feeling this empathy for them and fell in love with these characters and now it’s sort of too late to go back no matter what happens. I think we sort of hope for that.

JF: To the extent that it’s a higher degree of difficulty, it may also, in this moment, be more important to be able to view that particular enemy as human.

A New York Times profile of you a few years ago, Joe, mentioned that every Americans script has to be submitted to the Publications Review Board at the CIA, where you used to work. Is that still the case?

JW: They all go in, yeah.

To what extent does that slow down the process for you guys?

JW: Well, you know, we’re very ahead on scripts. If that weren’t the case, I think we might have a problem. But as it is, we have our scripts, often — I don’t even know, sometimes a couple of months before we’re shooting. So that allows plenty of time to send them in and get them back from them. We haven’t really had any issue at all.

Maybe the one or two times we’ve been a little bit up against it, I’ve asked them for what is in their jargon called an expedited review. In those cases, they’ve gotten them back really fast. There’s never been an issue.

Has there ever been a story line you wanted to pursue that you ended up having to alter in a significant way because of the feedback you got from the board?

JW: No. The only changes they’ve ever requested are exceedingly small. Once on a different project, I had them say that an entire project I wanted to do was out of bounds, but even in that case it was sort of interesting. Because I made a few changes in it and sent it back and they said now it’s okay.

JF: It’s funny. I, of course, am under no obligation to the CIA. I never made an agreement to share everything I write them. But now I’m writing with Joe, so all the drafts go in that we’ve co-written now. For me, the experience is, I’m just a neurotic writer and I want to know if they liked it. But of course, they don’t write back and say, “We liked it.” They write back and say whether or not they approved it. One day, I want to meet somebody who works there and see whether they like the show.

You’re wanting feedback: “I think this could be more nuanced here. I don’t like your character development.”

JF: No, no, I don’t want feedback. I want love.

You guys have been writing and steering the show together for more than four years. What, if anything, has changed about your process since you first started? Because you guys didn’t know each other when you started doing this, which is interesting because it mirrors Philip and Elizabeth not knowing each other when they got into what they were doing either.

JW: I have trouble remembering a time when I didn’t know Joel. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

JF: Just to paint the picture for you: We’re in our office. There are actually two offices here for us, but we’ve never occupied them both separately. We put our desks in one of them and we’re together when we’re in this office, working and producing, and we have all our writing stuff in the other one and we’re in there when we’re writing or meeting with directors. So we’re together all the time.

I’ll say that we have a very similar attitude towards forging relationships. When we were working together on the first season, we spent a lot of time talking about our relationship, talking through potential issues, figuring out how we were going to trust each other, how we were going to work together. We were also lucky in that we had a very strong creative simpatico. So our instincts are the same, and that’s good when you’re writing with somebody. We realized this year that if Philip and Elizabeth had been this responsible when they started their relationship, and had spent this much time working on it, there would have been no show.

Over time, you both have gotten to know your actors better, too. In particular, I’m thinking about the younger actors, Holly Taylor who plays Paige and Keidrich Sellati who plays Henry. Paige especially has become crucial to the series in the past couple of seasons. Did you always intend for her to be as front and center as she has become, or did that evolve as you saw what Holly was doing with the part?

JW: It’s complicated. It’s sort of a two-part answer. We always knew that that character would be as important. We had a basic idea of the story line. We knew she would find out who her parents were and that would have these incredible reverberations in the family. So her importance to the story was always clear. I don’t think we knew that it would end up taking up, in a sense, so much screen time. That evolved as we saw how good Holly was, and how well those scenes worked, how much we could write to that.

In terms of Henry, is he going to be more front and center? Is anyone ever going to tell this kid what is going on with his parents?

JF: We can say that this season, there will be more Henry story unfolding.

When he enters the scene in the first episode, I was kind of floored. I was like, oh my God, he’s suddenly 19. He’s a man!

JW: He’s really tall.

JF: He does keep growing, yes.

JW: We’ve tried to stunt his growth but we have not been successful.

In every season, there’s a growing sense that Philip and Elizabeth’s identities may get revealed, or that they may have to leave Falls Church because of that possibility. But they always manage to avoid it. Is it fair to assume that in season five, that that possibility will again loom?

JF: It’s always a possibility. They work in a very high-risk job.

But you don’t want to say anything further.

JF: I think that was saying a lot.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Americans Showrunners on Philip & Elizabeth Memes, Season 5