‘The Americans’ Postmortem: Showrunners Talk That Surprise Opening, Oleg’s Danger, and Paige’s Spy Future Coming to a Head

Kimberly Potts
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings (Credit: Patrick Harbron/FX)
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings (Credit: Patrick Harbron/FX)

Warning: This interview for the “Amber Waves” episode of The Americans contains spoilers.

Like those secret-carrying characters they create, The Americans showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg can’t always say a lot — or even a little — about a lot of things. But the duo delved into the Emmy-nominated FX drama’s Season 5 premiere with Yahoo TV, discussing the Jennings family’s many secrets and conflicts, Stan’s new outlook on life, and Oleg’s potentially dangerous new position in life.

They also hinted that while Jennings son Henry is going to have a fresh storyline this season, his big sister Paige will see all the threads of her very complicated life come to a head, as Philip and Elizabeth continue to wrestle with the future of their careers, family, and residency.

Related: ‘The Americans’ Postmortem: Matthew Rhys Defends ‘The A-Team,’ Talks the Jennings’ Ongoing Parental and Job Conflicts

The opening scene with that great Devo song “That’s Good,” in the high school cafeteria: for half of the audience it’s probably going to bring back great memories, but for the other half, probably some traumatizing cafeteria memories.
Joel Fields: [Laughs] That’s high school, yeah.

But that song is the latest example of how you guys have picked the perfect soundtrack throughout this series. There should be an official soundtrack for The Americans, and it should come on vinyl.
Joe Weisberg: That’s a great idea — 100% with you. I will say, you know, this year the Television Academy has finally added “Music Supervisor” as [an Emmy category]. Those guys are real artists, and P.J. Bloom, who’s our music supervisor, has just been steering this show from the beginning, and is just brilliant. It’s great that that art is finally recognized by the Academy, and we hope he’ll be on the list.

He absolutely should be. I’m guessing a lot of viewers have a lot of playlist entries from the show. I still listen to Yaz’s “Only You” at least once a day after you used it in Season 3’s “Dimebag.”
Fields: That one had completely passed out of my mind between when it was popular and when we put it on the show. But yeah, it gets back in rotation.

Weisberg: And by the way, in fairness, it’s P.J. Bloom and Amanda Krieg Thomas who worked together to do that.

I assume there will be more moments of that in Season 5, more emotional music resonance for us?
Fields: We promise. And you know we don’t make a lot of promises.

In the opening, we focus in on Philip and Elizabeth in that kitchen, and I think we’re all panicking for a minute, because we’re thinking, what is this house? Are they on the lam, are they in a different state, who is this new kid, what happened to Henry and Paige? Was that kind of the intention there, that we, especially after where we left them at the end of last season, might for a minute think they’re in a whole new life now?
Weisberg: We did want to throw things off. We weren’t really sure what degree of disorientation people would feel. I don’t think it occurred to us that people might think Henry and Paige are gone. That didn’t really occur to us. But the idea that it would be disorienting to the point that it would almost feel like a different show was something that was appealing to us. That you start in that school and… none of our characters are in the opening sequence, and it’s moving with this kind of music and this pace that is very different, and then you have this kind of reveal of them, which is unusual for us. It’s almost got a bouncy, fun element. It almost seems like a fun episode of some different spy show. So it’s disorienting even in its tone, which was something we liked, but then at the end of it says, “Well, wherever they are, they didn’t go home. They’re still here, and they appear to have a new family. Tune in, or stay tuned in, to find out what this all means.”

Ivan Mok as Tuan and Rhys (Credit: Patrick Harbron/FX)
Ivan Mok as Tuan and Rhys (Credit: Patrick Harbron/FX)

Speaking of the new family, Tuan… first of all, how dare he make fun of The A-Team, one of the greatest ‘80s TV shows.
Fields: [Laughs] And he’s not just making fun of it, he really doesn’t like it. If you want to get incensed, you can go further.

Weisberg: And I want to tell you, although if you really want the details on this you can reach out to Matthew Rhys, but there’s a whole meta element to that, which is, Matthew loved that show, he says, and really he says he learned his American accent by watching The A-Team as a kid in Wales.

Fields: So… what kind of a Commie monster do you have to be to not like The A-Team?

Exactly! So we’re suspicious of this kid right away.
Fields: That’s exactly the point. I mean, how much more on the head could we hit it?

Weisberg: Too on the nose for us, it might have been. It might have been hitting it too hard on the nose in the first episode.

We do find out quickly though that Tuan is posing as this teen son to Philip and Elizabeth’s airline pilot and stewardess couple, and we learn pretty quickly that he is not a fan of most American things. But that’s not all we need to know… there is going to be kind of a slow unveiling of Tuan’s backstory?
Weisberg: Yeah, definitely, that story spools out very slowly. You really get into the family dynamics and how Tuan feels, and his relationship with everybody and what they’re doing, long before you have any idea what the plot is or what they’re after. And it’s all going to come out over the course of many episodes, along with more backstory for Tuan. But you’re not going to get it here. You’re going to have to wait for it.

One of the moments that struck me most in the premiere is Philip and Elizabeth’s reaction to Pascha’s father and how he complained about how bad things are in Russia, as opposed to America. They have different feelings, different levels of conflict about returning to Russia and Paige potentially joining the family business, but they were united in their dislike of that criticism of their homeland.
Weisberg: With Philip, one of the interesting things that was going on last season and continues to go on this season is that Elizabeth is conflicted about it in certain ways, and Philip is conflicted about it in different ways, and the two parents have to manage that, as often happens in marriage. What do you do when you have such a fundamental difference about what your kid should do? In other words, the thing you care most about in the world, and you’re not on the same page. How do you manage that in a marriage? Nothing could interest us more to explore in the show than that. And Philip and Elizabeth, I don’t want to give this away, but you’ll see this season how they manage that and where it goes and what happens.

Fields: It’s funny, you know, it sounds like we’re being coy when we don’t share these things. I’d say only part of it is because we don’t want to share plot spoilers. To me, I think the larger part is that what makes the show work for us is that there aren’t simple, binary answers to any of these character questions. We spend hours and hours and days and weeks talking about multiple interpretations of every scene, and sometimes individual lines, because our characters are not psychologically aware that many things can be motivating them simultaneously, sometimes even contradictory things. And as you add more characters into multiple relationships, the complexity isn’t additive, it’s geometric. And that’s really interesting, but it makes it impossible to answer any questions about the characters in simple ways. Because what makes it fun and interesting is that they’re more complicated than that, just as we all are. You should have heard the debate on Stan’s feelings for Nina. And Nina’s feelings for Stan. Amongst the writing staff, the directors, the actors themselves, let alone the rest of the crew.

There are some fun lighter moments in this episode. I particularly love that Elizabeth, in the midst of so many big, big things for her to worry about, is extremely concerned with Stan’s failure to push veggies on the kids.
Weisberg: Yeah, this season actually has a few lighter moments. Maybe even to our surprise. We certainly didn’t set out to find them, but they did find us. Maybe we needed them.

Russell, Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Rhys (Credit: FX)
Russell, Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Rhys (Credit: FX)

On to Paige… she and Matthew are still seeing each other, much to her parents’ chagrin. How much of her stubbornness in continuing to date Matthew is genuine interest in him, and how much is her kind of rebelling against this situation of secrecy that her parents have put her in and being so stressed about that?
Weisberg: You’re asking all the questions that nobody knows the answers to, but that are the questions that make the show interesting. You have to remember that she liked Matthew way back in Season 1. She had a real crush on him before she knew that her parents were KGB spies, before she had a reason to rebel in that way. So now he’s come around, and he likes her, too, so it’s safe to say that some substantial part of this is just genuine attraction. How the second part of wanting to rebel… and even “rebel,” though I think it’s right, it also sort of understates the [position] she’s in, because every kid needs to rebel against their parents. But in certain ways, she may be in almost a fight for her life, if she can kind of break free or push back against some of the things her parents want or need from her. So, how much that, certainly unconsciously, factors in for her, I don’t think you can even put a number on it. I think it’s all so tangled up for her, and that’s why this is both not going to be an easy relationship, but going to be an interesting story to tell.

Stan, with his pizza and noodles, his carb-y, veggie-less dinners, and crushes on women at the gym… Stan is almost like a giddy teen right now, and he’s also thrilled about Paige and Matthew. I feel like Stan is at a place right now where maybe we have never felt this way about him. We almost feel sorry for him, I think, because of just how clueless he is about the Jennings family right now, and what that could mean if he comes to find out the truth about them.
Fields and Weisberg: We’re nodding.

How would you describe Stan’s position right now? Is he happier than we’ve ever seen him?
Weisberg: Yeah, he’s in a pretty good spot. I mean, as always, his professional stuff is very fraught. But the idea that for once maybe his personal life could give him some respite from that, instead of adding to the weight, I think is very appealing to him. And you can see when he’s with the woman from the gym or even with his friend Philip, it’s like a relief.

The videos we see of bread lines and empty grocery stores in Russia, is that historical footage, or is it something you created for the episode?
Fields and Weisberg: That is real footage.

It’s powerful. And I love that we’re going to find out more about that through Oleg’s new job. He’s living at home, back in his home country, with his parents, but there’s an overwhelming sense of Oleg being in danger this season.
Fields: Well, he did commit treason. And that’s a pretty scary secret to have… Without giving too much away, what we can say is that for four seasons, this show explored the Russian story pretty much inside the KGB rezidentura in Washington, D.C., and a little bit for Nina when she was back, but that was pretty much in a specific place with her as a prisoner. And we’re excited this season, through Oleg’s eyes, to start to see more of what life was really like back there at that time.

What little hints can you give about what to expect from the rest of the season?
Weisberg: Well, everything going on with Paige has been building and building and building and really for the whole series, and a lot of that is going to come to a head this season.

Pastor Tim. Will we see him again?
Fields: Yeah. Absolutely. He’s still very much in Paige’s life. And don’t forget she’s also still got the job of managing him.

And Henry, who is really growing up quickly now, definitely hit a growth spurt. What is going to happen to the other Jennings kid? If Stan ever finds out what’s really happening, is he going to kidnap Henry and the two of them will just go start over somewhere far away, because they’re the only two who didn’t really know what was going on?
Fields: Well, we can say over the course of this season, there’s some more Henry story that’s going to unfold that we’re very excited about.

The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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