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The Americans’ showrunners on their Emmy breakthrough and our summer of Russia

Plus: How far along are they in planning the show’s ultimate end?

The Americans
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings forever!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It’s been an eventful year for FX’s spy drama The Americans.

The show’s fourth season — which aired from March through June — proved to be its most acclaimed yet, winning plaudit after plaudit, as well as a second consecutive Best Drama trophy from the Television Critics Association. In late May, the series was renewed for two final seasons, of 13 and 10 episodes, respectively, that will air in 2017 and 2018.

But the best moment came in July, with the announcement of the 2016 Emmy nominations. In its first three seasons, the series had mostly scored nominations for guest actor Margo Martindale and a couple of smaller categories, not for its main cast or the show itself. But finally, in year four, it broke through with nominations for the series and its main actors, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.

Also nominated for the first time ever — for writing the script for the season four finale — were the series’ co-showrunners, Joe Weisberg (who also created the show) and Joel Fields. This seemed like as good a time as any, then, to ask the two how becoming Emmy darlings has changed them, whether Russia’s recent prominence in the news has added any new significance to their show about Soviet spies, and how they plan to deal with one of their young actors' growth spurts.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

2016 Summer TCA Tour - Day 14
Joe Weisberg (left) and Joel Fields speak at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff: 2016 is a bit different for you in terms of awards recognition. Has adjusting to no longer being the perpetually snubbed show been a psychological hurdle to overcome?

Joel Fields: You know when you get into college and you're expecting to get the letter saying that your acceptance was a mistake? There's a little bit of that. It's surreal, but mostly, it's great.

Joe Weisberg: I found it to be a seamless adjustment. A pleasurable and seamless adjustment.

JF: I'll speak for myself here. I was 100 percent sincere in the prior three seasons of saying that you can't feel anything but good with this incredible cast, and the great people we work with, and the love from the critics, and this passionate audience. I'm on a show that I love with people I love. So you can't be bitter about not getting the nomination.

But it also turns out that getting it is awesome. It's really good.

JW: One of the things that's really been so nice is how happy other people have been.

Whether it's been [critics] who are clearly delighted for us or people we work with at the network and the studio, we get all these stories about how happy they were and how excited they were when they found out. A lot of stories have a lot of color to them of people dancing around or running down the halls or screaming swear words or whatever.

You get the feeling there's a lot of genuine joy from people we work with, and that's a special feeling, it really is. People have an investment and particular feeling about this show that all of us have either worked on or cared about or believed in for a long time. It's very, very moving.

JF: I'll also say the recognition for Matthew and Keri means a great deal. Their performances are so extraordinary and so deep, and the idea that they're asked to play these singular characters with these multiple faces and that they do it with such humanity and relatability — it's astonishing. It's great to see their peers and the Academy recognize that.

JW: We talked to them right after, and they were like us. They were so happy before, without it. It's not like they were sitting there in any way upset, or bitter, or thinking, Why don't we get this? Then to get it is just such a great thing.

JF: Obviously, [the Best Drama nomination] is the big one, but the thing that really jumps out to me is that it's a nomination for the entire team, for the entire show. Joe and I, we're not alone in this. That nomination recognizes the collective work of this incredible cast, the production design team, the wardrobe design team, the cinematography, all the directors, all of the writers, and everybody.

When you come on our set, I think you get a sense that there's this incredible collaborative feeling of everybody working together and rowing hard in the same direction. There's something really special about the nomination that speaks to everybody's work.

TV: Margo must be a little upset, though, not being the only nominee anymore...

JW: She's pretty salty. She might steal that joke from you if you give it to her.

The Americans
Frank Langella and Margo Martindale play two Soviet spies in The Americans.

TV: When you first started doing press for The Americans, you got a lot of questions along the lines of, "Can people really be worried about the Russians anymore?" But we’re now in an election cycle where the idea of Russia trying to interfere in US affairs has loomed large. How have you responded to that, coming from the perspective of working on this show?

JW: I myself have found it very disheartening.

The show is obviously a show about family and marriage and espionage. But it's also, in its own way, a very political show. It's not a political show about looking at the politics of the day, but it's about the way that politics and people's personal lives can't really be separated.

It started out with a premise about, let's look at the enemy and see if it's not possible to actually humanize the enemy, see if we can't see ourselves in them, see if they're not just like us in so many ways.

It's not that it's supposed to change anybody's view of politics. But to see things turning back to where people are suddenly starting to reignite Cold War ways of looking at things with, from my personal point of view, so little justification, so little reason — I just find it sad.

JF: I see all of that, and at the same time, as much as I experienced that personally, the show itself lives in a period bubble. When we're writing and working on the show, what's happening here in 2016 isn't impacting it, and the fact that it's about the USSR — it really could be about any enemy at any time in history.

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be of a national identity? What does it mean to have an enemy? Those themes, unfortunately, are going to remain with us for a long time, whether it's the Russians or the Chinese or fill in the blank.

TV: Certainly '80s-set dramas are having a moment, with The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire and Stranger Things. But are there any things you can’t do in a story set in the '80s that you could do today that you miss?

JF: It's good for us that we don't have cellphones and texting. When you're telling a spy story, it's very helpful to be forced to slow down communications.

JW: Anytime I talk about the '80s, there is a full half of me that is a little bit wary, and a little bit that doesn't fully mean what I'm saying, because I don't relate to it as a decade or as a period of time that is so distinct. We always talk about the fact that that was when we grew up, that was when we were in high school.

History doesn't divide itself up by decades. It's really just a continuum. I certainly think of it as the Reagan era, and that's very present in the show. The show revolves in some ways around it being the Reagan era. That's what we needed, and that's what we got.

JF: The things you wish were different are more on a practical level. In a strange way, I think sometimes it's harder to film [more recent] history than it is long-ago history, because people's memories of it are very fine, so if you get it wrong it really screeches. It's deceptively hard to achieve.

If you're shooting a street scene from the 1700s, you just go and dress it, but [for a scene set in the '80s], you think you can just go outside and dress a street, and then you forget that the parking meters are wrong, or there's not a phone booth where there would be, or the cars don't start because you’ve got the right period cars but they haven't been well cared for. It's just practically challenging.

JW: Some phone booths were dial and some were touchtone. Which do you pick?

JF: We had the right phone, and we caught Holly Taylor [who plays Paige] on set dialing with her thumbs, so we had to give her a lesson in how to dial an old-style touchtone phone.

JW: We passed down that bit of ancient wisdom to the later generation.

JF: Cradle in your left hand, use your index finger.

JW: When they have a nuclear war and we have to start again, just find a phone. She will know how to do it.

The Americans
Living that 1980s mini-golfing life.

TV: You’ve talked a little bit about how The Americans deals with the intersection of the personal and political in its own fictional confines. But have you found that the way you approach what’s happening on the show affects how you think about the intersection of the personal and political, especially as it pertains to easy, "good versus evil"–type conflicts?

JW: What we've both found is that if there was a little bit of intention in the show to be able to see things from the enemy's point of view, for us on a personal level, just the two of us, it's been successful. We've been able to get into the hearts and minds of these characters and relate to them very deeply, and I think that's been a rich experience for us as people and as writers.

And so much of their story and their development and their conflict as a married couple, then, has involved political issues. Elizabeth's ideology being so unshakable, and Philip, in certain ways, he's still a patriot, but in certain ways, subtly he's moved away from it. It's become less important to him compared to other things.

As we have figured out what we think is going to be sort of the endgame for them, it comes from that place for both of us. It feels less like plotting the end of a story. It feels more like figuring out the end of their lives. I don't mean in the sense that they're going to die, necessarily, but the end of the part that we get to tell.

TV: As you’ve started to think about bringing this story to a close, what have you realized about the show's first four seasons?

JF: We talk a lot about how we were struggling to find the show in that first season and how the storytelling in that first season was very contained, episodically. That was something we started to release in the second season and fully let go of in seasons three and four. That's been a lot easier for us, to think about seasonal stories and now the full story of the show.

We started, in a lot of ways, trying to tell spy stories with strong character underpinnings, and we ultimately realized we were telling a character journey that happened to be set in the spy world. That was very liberating, too. Certainly, exciting things happened to them, and they're in life-and-death crises, but they're all part of that character journey.

TV: When FX renewed The Americans for two final seasons, it also said that you would be following up the show with something new. Have you spoken at all about that new project?

JW: We're trying to keep our focus on [The Americans] to make sure we nail it. As a break, we talk for a minute here or there [about something new], but mostly that's background.

TV: Keidrich Sellati, who plays Henry, is now, like, 50 feet tall. How are you going to handle that in the near future?

JW: Shrink him. We actually have a way to shrink him.

JF: We have two possibilities. One is we use a split diopter lens, so he's going to look like a little Thumbelina kind of thing. Or we're going to have a nuclear waste exposure story, where he's radiated, and that explains it.

Or he's going to be seated for the first four episodes.

JW: Four? How about the next 23?

TV: Let me see if I can trick you into revealing something about The Americans last two seasons. Have you decided which Fleetwood Mac song you’re going to end with?

JW: What are the big ones that are left?

JF: There's a lot left in that Rumours album. Thanks to the show, I started to listen to that whole album a lot. The kids are a little burned out on Fleetwood Mac.

JW: Maybe we should end with "Tusk." Do we get a 10 percent discount if we use it a second time?

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