“I’m just going to lay down here because I’m so fucking tired,” said Keri Russell, flopping down on a bed covered in paper and plastic. It was a 20-something-degree polar-vortex-ed February afternoon in Brooklyn; she still had several hours to go filming an episode of her FX Cold War Russian-spy drama The Americans on set; and she’d already been up for hours at the beck and call of her other bosses, her 6-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter. “It started at 6 a.m. with two children,” she said. “With a baby going, ‘Mo-om. Mo-om!’ She can’t even talk, but she can bark ‘mom’ at me.” Now, as if the car service that takes her to work were also a time machine, this season focuses on her character Elizabeth’s exhausting relationship with a newly rebelling teenage daughter. She finds their scenes even more tiring than the life-or-death, sex-and-bullet-filled missions that are de rigueur for Elizabeth, who, unbeknownst to her kid, is an undercover KGB operative. Russell nestled further into the uncomfy set bed. “I just like to lay amongst the bubble wrap,” she said, her voice trailing off.
The mother-daughter tension is a major through line of The Americans’ second season (which kicks off tonight at 10 p.m.). Last season, teenage Paige seemed an innocent, her biggest worry (well, other than pervy guys picking her and her brother up on the side of the road) was that her parents might be splitting up for good. But while the first season ended with Elizabeth and arranged husband/spy partner Phillip Jennings reconciling and nurturing true feelings for each other, Paige’s adolescence is made more complicated by her suspicions about her parents’ secret laundry room meetings and her newfound interest in organized religion, which, to a pair of devoted Communists, is a truly objectionable wholesome passion. Executive producer Joe Weisberg, who studied Soviet history at Yale, explained later that this was the equivalent of a drug addiction. “It would be like joining a cult,” he said. “It would make them insane.”
Seated next to Russell in the Jennings’ bedroom set, Matthew Rhys painted a colorful picture of what Weisberg means. “The whole season, she’s like, ‘Fuck no! She can’t do that! She can’t go to church!’” Still lying down, Russell laughed. “We’ll be on the way to do some crazy spy thing and they’re having these drag-out fights about what the teenager wants to do with her free time,” she said. “I love that. That’s where the show lives for me.” About an hour ago, she and Holly Taylor, the 16-year-old actress who plays Paige, went head-to-head at the dinner table as I watched Russell expertly calibrate Elizabeth’s conflicted state of mind — her compassionate mom side suppressing the furious Communist within. Taylor later whispered to me that she thought Elizabeth has been a little overdramatic. “I’m getting in trouble over going to church,” she said. “Who does that happen to?”
The scene underscores the hidden truth behind those guns-blazing, spy-action teasers advertising the new season of the show: At its core, The Americans is a family drama, a character study dressed up in ‘80s-era espionage shenanigans — Mad Men by way of Alias. It’s a couple fighting their way out of a loveless marriage and, in season two, trying to figure out how to have a true family rather than one that just follows a manual. All that while donning disguises, sleeping with diplomats to obtain information, and killing lots of people in order to bring America to its knees in the name of Mother Russia.
It’s a premise that smolders rather than explodes, which may explain why the show has been less popular (the first season averaged 1.8 million viewers) than FX’s bigger hits Sons of Anarchy (4.6 million viewers) and American Horror Story (4 million). Fortunately, FX has a history of giving shows a chance to grow, critics are eager for more (read Matt Zoller Seitz’s rave here), and the show remains the cable channel’s strongest shot at an Emmy in this year’s series races.
Even though Elizabeth and Phillip’s real job is of the “Death to America” variety, their family struggles make them very relatable. It also makes it hard to think of them as villains. In the writers’ room across the street from the show’s set, Weisberg and his fellow executive producer Joel Fields make it clear that they don’t consider the spy couple antiheroes. “They’re fighting for something they believe in,” Fields said. “For us, it’s been an opportunity to explore characters we may not agree with, but we can see how one could root for their humanity.” Noah Emmerich, who plays the Jennings’ neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman, said that in his mind, the show has no bad guys. “One of the great gifts of the show is we drop the myopic prejudice of the enemy and everyone becomes a human being,” he said. “You don’t want Phillip and Elizabeth to take down America. You want their marriage to succeed.”
A hurdle for younger viewers to get invested may be the show’s period setting, the producers suspect. (The writers have a massive ‘80s inspiration wall of historical references in the writers’ room, but use it more as a conversation-starter than a list of references to pull for the show.) Said Weisberg, “It’s hard for audience members who weren’t alive in this period to really appreciate how large the Cold War loomed over your daily life. You could just look up and see the incoming missiles and the mushroom cloud and it would be terrible but not surprising. We sometimes wonder about how you convey that and keep that alive.”
They’ve upped the threat level this season, which questions whether the Jennings’ brood will survive at all. What happens if, say, their daughter discovers that her parents aren’t travel agents? “Paige was the No. 1 ball in the air we had our eye on at the end of last season,” said Weisberg, who added that it isn’t out of the question for her to discover the truth. But even if Paige remains ignorant, her and her brother’s physical safety is at stake. In the first episode back, Philip and Elizabeth get a deadly reality check reminding them of the dangerous position in which they’ve put their children. “It’s one thing to sacrifice your life — not just your life, but every moment of your actual life,” said Fields. “But what happens when having done so leads you to realize now, in a way, you’re sacrificing the lives of your children?”
Less of an immediate problem for the Soviet agents is Stan. While Paige may be inching closer to the truth, he’s busy with a messy double life of his own making, still estranged from his wife and growing ever closer to his Russian informant turned lover (and now double-double agent) Nina. “He keeps getting hammered!” Emmerich said. “He’s out in the middle of the ocean with a little bit of air left in his life vest, trying to find some shore.”
As the first season progressed and Phillip and Elizabeth’s play-couple became a real one, the question became whether or not their love could survive the strain of their jobs, which entail not only murder and torture, but also Elizabeth having sex to obtain information and Phillip taking (and keeping happy) a second wife under the guise of his dweebish alter ego, Clark. (That seemingly far-fetched plot, by the way, is based in history according to Weisberg, who worked at the CIA’s Directorate of Operations in the early ‘90s. It was not unheard of for KGB agents to marry the secretaries of key government and political figures they wanted intelligence on. He and Fields were especially amused to watch the real-time tweeting predicting Martha’s demise. “We always thought the Martha story had the potential to run for a while. Then we saw early on people expected her to take a bullet to the head,” he said. “Well, they’re not going to be able to guess this one!”) Happily, the Jennings rededicated themselves to each other after Elizabeth was shot, but the swapping-sex-for-information part of their job description has become more awkward. “Now that the emotions between them are real, the sex with other people isn’t so easy,” Rhys said. “Basically, we’re not as good at our jobs as we used to be.”
And Philip and Elizabeth still have slightly out of sync worldviews. The militant Elizabeth lives and dies for the cause (she tells another illegal in the field, “Your revolution is beautiful”), but Philip has grown to like the creature comforts of America and would probably defect as soon as Elizabeth gave him the word. “I’ve played out this whole thing in my head, and that’s really all he wants,” Rhys said. “As horrific as things get this season, and as threatening as it is to his family, I think a small part of him is relieved they’re happening because it will aid him as he makes his points to Elizabeth. They can’t stay in this life.” Of course, even if they separate themselves from the Kremlin, there’s still another enemy they can’t dodge: Gasp! Church sing-alongs!